§ 3.6 p.m.
§ The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
In recent years there has been growing concern at the perceived level of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland. It is apparent that some individuals and groups have been abusing their right to vote and defrauding the poll.
Since the Belfast agreement, people have seen more than ever that peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland must lie with the political process. Therefore, we cannot allow the Northern Ireland electorate to become disillusioned with the political process because they may feel that elections are not fair. If there is a high level of electoral abuse—or even if it is only that 446 people fear that there is such a high level—the democratic process in Northern Ireland will be under threat.
However, we have tried to bear in mind that any measures intended to prevent electoral fraud must be set against the effect they will have on legitimate voters. It would not be right in our judgment to impose unreasonable burdens on the majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland, who simply want—rightly—to exercise their franchise as their entitlement.
The Bill gives effect to the proposals in the White Paper, Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland, which was published in March last year. It provides the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland with additional powers to address the problem of electoral fraud.
The Bill builds on the work carried out in recent years by the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, the Northern Ireland Forum committee on electoral malpractice and the Northern Ireland Office review of electoral administration. I want to pay tribute to the work of the former chairman of the Select Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, both on that committee and for his significant continuing contributions to the search for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
We have tried to think through the Bill carefully and to produce proportionate remedies. If there are any suggested improvements to the Bill which are consistent with its purpose and policy, I shall personally be more than happy to give them careful scrutiny.
First, the Bill enables the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to collect additional identifying information from voters at the point registration. Those applying for registration will be required in future to state their date of birth and to sign the form for the annual canvass, as well as giving their name and address as at present.
This information will not appear on the published version of the electoral register but will be used at the electoral office for the purpose of making checks against the name of an elector when he or she applies for a postal vote or to vote by proxy, and at polling stations when electors attend to obtain a ballot paper.
We continue to reflect on the suggestions made that national insurance numbers be used in the registration process. We are exploring too possible ways in which data held by other organisations might further be used to combat electoral fraud. The chief electoral officer may use his discretion to dispense with the requirement for a voter to supply a signature in certain circumstances, such as physical incapacity, illiteracy, and so forth.
The Bill also empowers a presiding officer to ask a third question, namely: "What is your date of birth?" He may do this if he has reasonable doubt that the person's date of birth provided at registration does not correspond with that on the prescribed document, or with his or her apparent age. If the voter does not answer to the satisfaction of the presiding officer, he can refuse the voter a ballot paper.
447 Clause 3 of the Bill amends provisions which have effect only in Northern Ireland and which relate to absent voting—that is, voting by post or by proxy. Such applications to vote must be signed and state the date of birth of the applicant. The signature and the date of birth on the application must correspond with the signature provided to the chief electoral officer on registration. He may refuse to grant an absent vote application if he is not satisfied that the signature or date of birth on the application corresponds with the signature and date of birth held on his records.
It is important that the chief electoral officer "may" refuse an application rather than "shall" refuse one to ensure that legitimate voters, such as the elderly who may have difficulty signing consistently, are not denied their vote. It is proper that the CEO can carry out checks, such as speaking to the individual, so that he takes a decision on the basis of the full facts. Similarly, a postal ballot paper shall not be deemed to be duly returned unless the declaration of identity accompanying it has been signed by, and states the date of birth of, an elector and the signature and date of birth correspond with those supplied by the elector on registration—unless there are exceptional circumstances that justify the registration officer in dispensing with the requirement of a signature.
Clause 4 is an important feature of the Bill. It provides for a photographic electoral identity card to be issued free of charge to those persons entitled to vote but who might not otherwise have satisfactory proof of identity. It is proposed, in due time, to replace all the non-photographic identification on the list of specified documents acceptable at the polling station in Northern Ireland. Our target date for this is May 2003, the date of the next Assembly elections—
§ Lord Campbell-Savours
My Lords, I am sorry to intervene, but is this not a very good example of where the introduction of proper national identity cards would be extremely useful and avoid much unnecessary administration? Indeed, is this not precisely the argument that one would use for their introduction?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
That may be so, my Lords. However, it is outside the ambit of the Bill. As some noble Lords will already have noted in Clause 4, it is most important to remember that this is not a mandatory identification requirement providing the only possibility to vote in Northern Ireland. It is not therefore the same as an identity card.
As I was saying, by 2003 it is proposed to have the scheme in place. Clause 4 enables a person to apply to be issued with an electoral identity card, in accordance with any requirements prescribed by regulations. The electoral identity card must show the elector's full name and date of birth, his or her photograph, and the card's expiry date. The card will be valid for 10 years and will he added to the list of specified documents that voters may use—the point I made in answer to my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours—for the purposes of identification at polling stations in Northern Ireland.
448 Clause 5 introduces a requirement for voters with disabilities to produce a specified document, in the same way as other voters. That has been an inadvertent omission from recent legislation.
I am very pleased to say that, to date, support for this Bill has come from parties across the political spectrum, and from within Northern Ireland. I am grateful for that support. I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)
§ 3.14 p.m.
§ Lord Glentoran
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for setting out to your Lordships' House the background to, and the main provisions of, this short Bill. At the outset, I should say that the Bill has the broad support of the Opposition.
Ever since the franchise was extended in the 19th and early 20th centuries, electoral fraud in the form of the "vote early, vote often" tradition and the problems of personation have been an endemic part of political life in Northern Ireland. Indeed, only too often in my childhood, I heard the call, "Vote early and vote often!"
Your Lordships will not be surprised to hear me say that I believe that parties representing the republican tradition have been more adept at exploiting the system for their own electoral advantage than others—certainly in recent years—though it is true that in the past Unionists were not immune from the practice.
In the not too distant past, polling stations without personation agents were known as an "open box" and every attempt was made, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, who I am delighted to see in his place today, to "riddle the box" by putting in as many personators as possible. According to McKittrick,houses and halls were set aside as 'dressing stations' where personators would sometimes go for a change of clothes".It was only when Sinn Fein began contesting elections again in the 1980s that the old convention of "doing your own side" was cast aside and vote stealing from the other side began to take place.
As a result of all this, elections in Northern Ireland and, in particular, the identification of voters at polling stations, are already more tightly controlled than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Most recently, the previous Conservative government passed the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985, which made it compulsory for electors to present specified identity documents before being given the ballot paper. However, the Act has failed to stamp out personation and electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. In particular, stories abound about the ease with which some of the documents specified in the Act can be forged, especially by those not carrying a photograph such as a medical card or a book for the payment of allowances, benefits or pensions, or even a driving licence, which, in Northern Ireland, does have a photograph on it.
449 The current extent of electoral fraud is of course difficult to quantify with precise accuracy, and by and large, elections pass off without incident. I have no doubt that in the vast majority of cases the results reflect the wishes of the electorate. However, I should like at this stage to express my appreciation of the work carried out by the chief electoral officer, his staff, and of all those involved in the running of elections in Northern Ireland who do their jobs meticulously, often in very difficult circumstances.
That said, there is enough anecdotal and statistical evidence around to make it clear that more needs to be done. In 1998, the Northern Ireland Select Committee, to which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal referred earlier, reported that,there is sufficient evidence of organised voting theft to indicate that the problem of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland is serious".Indeed, rather than declining, the evidence appears to suggest that the problem in recent years is on the increase. Indeed, the result of last year's election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone that Sinn Fein won by just 59 votes was challenged in the Election Court in Belfast over allegations that a polling station was allowed to stay open for some time after the 10 p.m. close. I was told—true or not—that the electoral officer was forced by masked men to re-open the station after he had locked the boxes. Fermanagh and South Tyrone is not of course without form in the history of electoral malpractice. Anyone conversant with the results in 1955, or, indeed, in 1981, would be able to testify to that.
Nor is the problem confined to Westminster elections. At local government and Assembly levels the existence of multi-member constituencies and especially the single transferable vote increase the potential for fraud. As the then electoral officer, Mr Bradley, put it in his report for 1998–99:The local elections are more susceptible to electoral abuse. A small number of votes can have a significant impact on the election of individual councillors and hence, in the case of marginal councils, in determining the overall control of the council".Electoral fraud has been the subject of a number of studies and debates in recent years, both in Westminster and in the Northern Ireland Forum, as well as more recently in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In its 1998 report on electoral fraud, the Northern Ireland Select Committee, under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Brooke, whom I am delighted to see in his place today, specifically drew attention to problems relating to registration, absent voting, political presence at polling stations and voter identification. Some of the examples mentioned in the report are staggering. The committee noted evidence provided by the SDLP of 18,000 names appearing more than once on the electoral register for West Belfast, compared with 6,000 on a London register for an area with a large Irish community. No wonder the Select Committee concluded that,the evidence exists that there may be a serious level of multiple registration, at least in some parts of Northern Ireland".450 The Government's review, Administering Elections in Northern Ireland, concluded:there is a level of false registration which is carried out with the express intention of abusing the system".Because of the electoral system and the sensitivities in the Province, we must use every available means to ensure that elections in Northern Ireland are free and fair.
On the abuse of absent voting, we learn that the chief electoral officer received 10,000 applications just hours before the deadline for the 1997 general election. As the Select Committee noted:A large proportion of these were from one political party".There are no prizes for guessing which party that might have been. It has recently been allocated office space in the Palace of Westminster and administration costs of £500,000 courtesy of Mr Blair.
Again, as the Select Committee noted, the chief electoral officer was,satisfied beyond any shadow of a doubt that the problem is extensive".The Select Committee concluded:Absent voting provides a serious threat to the integrity of the electoral system of Northern Ireland".The Government's review stated that the chief electoral officer believed that up to half of all absent vote applications for the 1997 local government elections were fraudulent.
The Select Committee also drew attention to the weaknesses of the current system of voter identification at polling stations, concluding that,the present system of relying on party agents to challenge in cases of personation is unrealistic and provides inadequate protection".There is clearly a need for action. We are justified in criticising Her Majesty's Government for the delay in introducing legislation. Why did it take three years between the publication of the Select Committee report and the White Paper setting out the Government's proposals to combat electoral fraud? As the Select Committee said in its first special report of 2000–01, a year ago:When we reported in March 1998, less than a year after the general election, we had a reasonable expectation that rather more progress might have been made before the next general election in tackling the serious problem of electoral malpractice than appears likely to be the case".That is rather more diplomatic language than I would use to describe the Government's dither and delay in coming up with meaningful proposals. The argument that they lack parliamentary time is unsustainable. They only got round to publishing their White Paper in March and they regularly make time in this House for measures that are much less serious than the one before us today. I shall not accuse the Government, but I suggest that they had a vested interest in not upsetting the republican vote before the last election. As a result of the Government's delay, legislation was not in place for the recent general election.
451 I do not intend to follow the noble and learned Lord in describing the Bill's proposals in detail. As far as the Opposition are concerned, they make practical common sense as far as they go, but we do not believe that they go far enough. We have further proposals that we hope will have the desired effect in combating what is clearly a serious problem. While we support the Government's proposal to add the voter's date of birth and signature to the register, we shall also table amendments to include national insurance numbers on the register held by the returning officer. The noble and learned Lord said that the Government are still thinking about that. We also support the idea of allowing the presiding officer at the polling station to ask the date of birth of an elector applying for a ballot paper. Furthermore, we want electoral identity cards introduced for those who, in the normal course of events, would not have any other photographic identity.
The management of proxy votes must be improved. We have heard the statistics. The possibility of unknown multiple registrations must be removed from all Northern Ireland elections.
We particularly welcome the move towards phasing out non-photographic forms of identification at polling stations and the introduction of a new photographic electoral card. We urge the Government to proceed with that as quickly as possible, given that it is estimated that it could take as much as 18 months to implement after the legislation is passed.
I give the noble and learned Lord notice now that in Committee and on Report we shall move amendments to tie the Government to their own deadline on the issue. During the Commons debate that deadline was said to be April 2003, but I hear today from the Minister that it has been put back to May. We shall attempt to persuade your Lordships that such an amendment should be passed.
Looking to the longer term, the White Paper Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland identified the potential for new technology to combat electoral fraud and to ensure that Northern Ireland has a comprehensive and secure electoral identity system. The White Paper suggests that the ultimate aim should be for every voter to be issued with an electoral smartcard bearing a unique identifier. That would prevent anyone registering twice without the knowledge of the chief electoral officer and would make it virtually impossible for anyone to vote twice. The inclusion of a national insurance number on the register is almost as good, although it is not a real substitute. That surely has to be the way forward for electoral processes in Northern Ireland.
§ 3.27 p.m.
§ Lord Shutt of Greetland
My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for introducing the Second Reading of the Bill and for his readiness to accept opportunities for improvement.
452 This is a sad Bill. It is sad that we have to make special provision for Northern Ireland. It is also sad that, while the aim of the Bill is to combat multiple voting, in the rest of the United Kingdom we are worrying about how to attract people to vote.
It is very important to safeguard the purity of elections. There are many elements to an election. This House recently managed—eventually—to agree the huge tome that became the Political Parties. Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
There are three elements to the mechanics of an election: registration; the art and act of voting; and counting. I shall deal with them in reverse order. The count appears to be the most transparent. The boxes are opened, the ballot papers trickle out, they are balanced with the register and they are counted—watched by candidates, agents and supporters, with the possibility of making challenges to doubtful papers. There is nothing in the Bill about the count, so we must assume that, even in Northern Ireland, people are reasonably happy about the counting of the ballot papers.
We then come to the act of voting. That is the main focus of the Bill. Clauses 2, 3, 4 and 5 deal with the prevention of personation. Clause 2 paw ides the presiding officer at each polling place with the opportunity to seek proof of a voter's date of birth. However, what advice will be given to presiding officers, and what authority will they have? I think that they will have to be very robust people indeed. I also wonder whether there will be cost implications in addressing those issues.
Clause 3 requires that signatures on applications for postal or proxy votes be matched, and that seems a very reasonable requirement. The provision is particularly important now as particular encouragement is being given to efforts to increase postal voting.
Clause 4 deals with the electoral identity card. In such circumstances, the provision will be very useful for those who do not have a passport or a driving licence. Clause 5 is consequential on the earlier clauses.
I return to the first of the elements: registration. I believe that the purity of the register should be our paramount consideration, and that all other aspects of the voting process flow from an accurate register. Clause 1 requires that a signature and date of birth be provided on the electoral registration form. Although the change should discourage duplicate registrations, I am far from clear as to how the practice can be prevented in many polling districts. Members of your Lordships' House, for example, may seek to register both at a home address and at a London address. Similarly, people in Northern Ireland may have a house in Portrush, for example, and a flat in Belfast. As I understand it, they are entitled to register in both places. However, given the size of Northern Ireland and the initiative to increase postal voting, is there not a case for allowing only one registration? I rather like the clarity of one person, one vote.
I should also like the Northern Ireland registration process to rest not with local authorities, as the Bill proposes, but with the chief electoral officer. I should 453 have thought that, in the computer age, the office of the Northern Ireland chief electoral officer could eradicate multiple applications.
What will be the cost of implementing the provisions? The Explanatory Notes suggest that costs will arise only from implementing the identity card, but I wonder about that. In my 40 years on an electoral register, the local authority's canvasser has never come round to check that I have properly completed the form; perhaps I have never had a visit because I filled in the form properly. However, canvassing will be a much tougher job if the signature and date of birth of each person in a house must be provided. I do not wish to be mean about costs; far from it. I simply want to be certain that the chief electoral officer has the resources to perform the enhanced job that will be necessary for operation of the new registration and voting procedures.
On behalf of these Benches, I welcome the Bill
§ 3.34 p.m.
§ Lord Laird
My Lords, I pay tribute to the Leader of the House for his explanation of the Bill. I am also pleased to see the Second Reading of a Bill dealing with electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. Those of us interested in the Province have waited long enough for this move. I must say, however, that the legislation is rather weak and leaves loopholes for electoral fraudsters to commit their misdemeanours.
The new Northern Ireland to which we all aspire—everyone living at ease with each other—cannot be achieved if one section believes that elections, the fundamental basis of democracy, are being misappropriated by a determined and ruthless group. Such behaviour not only devalues the results of an election but brings into question the Good Friday agreement, which underlines that Northern Ireland's position will be determined only by the will of the electors. If there is widespread abuse of the electoral process, many will consider that undertaking to be of no value.
For the new Northern Ireland to succeed, we must eradicate all forms of unfairness and attempts by one section to seek advantage over the other. In the past three years, there has been a skewed and one-sided agenda in Northern Ireland, almost daily causing considerable damage to the concept of human rights. I refer to the activities of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which a republican cabal seems to consider its plaything. I shall return to that issue on another day.
The Bill is deficient in several respects. It makes no significant provision, for example, to limit multiple voter registration, mentioned by the noble Lord. Lord Glentoran. The issue has caused considerable difficulty in constituencies controlled by Sinn Fein. As the noble Lord said, there were up to 18,000 multiple votes in West Belfast alone. I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, in the Chamber. He and I have both represented that territory. The way that constituency has gone over the years is, I believe, a 454 considerable regret to both of us. In this high-tech era, surely it must be possible to introduce, if only in Northern Ireland, a smart-card system as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. Such a system would ensure that each elector was identified and able to vote only once.
Although the overall concept of providing new identifiers is welcome in principle, it would prove weak in practice. As it would not be compulsory, the proposed electoral identification card could be easily circumnavigated. Moreover, a requirement to provide signatures as part of the identification process is almost useless as it is not compulsory but at the discretion of electoral officials.
The biggest intimidation-related problem in current Northern Ireland elections is the massive number of postal votes requested in seats with a particularly strong Sinn Fein electoral presence. Despite the rules and regulations being tougher in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom, in some Northern Ireland seats the number of absent voters is five and six times that of an average seat in the rest of the United Kingdom. Two seats won by Sinn Fein in June 2001 had staggering numbers of absent votes. West Tyrone had 5,443, and Fermanagh and South Tyrone 5,784. I believe that the average for a mainland constituency is about 1,000.
Intimidation itself—that crude and debilitating device used by the thug to impose his will on the weak—is not addressed in the Bill. In last June's elections, a policeman and several electors were injured in a shooting incident at St. Mary's primary school, Draperstown, County Londonderry. That creates an atmosphere where it is very hard for electoral officials and others to ensure fair election. Until we remove the concept of widespread intimidation and provide resources where necessary to help electoral officials in their scrutinising and security duties, we are not achieving our goal of a fair and equal society.
Article 3 of the first protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights gives governments a clear duty not only to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, but to do so,under conditions which will enable the free expression of opinion of the people in the choice of their legislature".Clearly, that does not happen in Northern Ireland. Incidentally, it appears to be one of the many topics of little interest to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
Many of us in your Lordships' House look to the further stages of this Bill when we may be successful in persuading the Government to strengthen and make more effective this long-awaited and much-needed series of measures.
§ 3.41 p.m.
§ Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville
My Lords, I must declare an interest in having served as Chairman of the Northern Ireland Select Committee in the last Parliament in another place, to whose report reference 455 has already been made. I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal and my noble friend Lord Glentoran for their references to that report.
It is an argument for Select Committees in either House that they have the commendable effect of pressing the organisation being investigated to set up a simultaneous internal review of the activities which are being looked at. That happened in this instance as well.
I declare a mild professional interest as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. In that spirit I celebrated my departure from another place by presenting to my constituency agent of 20 years standing a 1743 petition by Westminster electors with their coats of arms against a Westminster election result in that year. Such petitions are not unknown in Northern Ireland.
The Bill reaches your Lordships' House with a pedigree of a well-informed series of debates in another place, not only because of Northern Ireland Members, hut the honourable Member for North East Derbyshire, Mr Harry Barnes, is a powerful advocate of electoral reform and happily has an interest in Northern Ireland as well. The debates were also informed by a Conservative Back-Bencher who had had security forces experience in the Province. He advised the Standing Committee on the Bill that it was unfair to put too much pressure on the official on the spot, such advice being based on his long experience of road blocks in the Province and his having to understand what was being submitted to him in terms of papers at the shortest of notice.
The Bill was well whipped in committee. There was only a single absence of one Member at one committee sitting. That too is a tribute to the nature of the Bill and its importance.
My noble friend Lord Glentoran referred to the familiar cry, "Vote early, vote often". I ask the forgiveness of the House if I interpolate a personal parenthesis from 29th March last year when we debated electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland. At that time I alluded to a debate in another place where we were to be engaged on the business throughout the evening and asked a former private secretary of mine who was in the official box when the Divisions were likely to occur. He replied that there were to be no Divisions in the early stages but a great many later on in the evening, to which I responded that it was a rare case of, "Vote late, vote often".
In that debate the Select Committee held the Government's feet to the fire over the delay to which my noble friend Lord Glentoran referred, between March 1988 and March 2001. I shall not rehearse that argument; it is a matter of the past. I recall asking the late Alan Lennox-Boyd, when he was in charge of affairs in Cyprus, with the naivety of an undergraduate in the 1950s, why a specific decision had been taken by the government in the current year and had not been taken two years earlier. He gave me a perfectly sensible reply: that two years is a hiccup in history. But the fact remains that we pay a price, not only in this instance of an election result in a constituency which can affect 456 larger issues on the wider stage, but also potentially of robbing individual voters of their right to vote. Once the vote has been cast it cannot be cast again.
The principle that we are debating this evening is purely one of Second Reading. Malpractice is clearly a sin and I am at one with President Coolidge's preacher of being against sin. Both in the other place and here there is universal support for the principle of the Bill and I do not propose to go into its detail this evening. I make no complaint that the Government have not accepted all the recommendations made by the Select Committee in its 1998 report. A Select Committee should not expect that treatment. The rare case in the 18th century when, after Edmund Burke had made a powerful speech, the next Member up said, "Ditto to Mr Burke", is not something that Select Committee's should expect from governments after they have made recommendations.
I have never read a thesis on the relationship between the Christian doctrine of the individual soul and the democratic responsibility of the individual elector. But I am concerned about the potential two-tier system which the Bill envisages—I imagine we will return to that in Committee. If I may continue for a moment with the interpolation of Christendom into the debate, I was always moved that, while Winston Fields—Ian Smith's predecessor as the leader of the right wing party in southern Rhodesia—was quite clear about the inequality of man, he was equally clear about the equality of man at the communion rail. It is extremely important that the doctrine of individuals being equal in a process like this should be maintained, not least through our legislative process.
Others made reference to the disproportionate absence of voters in Fermanagh and Tyrone in relation to the three seats. Of course one can plead the notable exception of the abstention in person by the inn-keeper Member for Fermanagh in the famous vote on 28th March 1979, which was lost by the government by a single vote. The result would have been changed if he had voted with the Government, having crossed the Irish Sea in order to abstain in person. But that may he said simply to be the exception which proves the rule.
The whole map of Europe has been changed, as Churchill said in 1922,but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again".And I have to say to your Lordships' House that this will not be the last time that we legislate on this subject; we will find ourselves returning to it.
I declare an interest in terms of the "dreary steeples". The church at Colebrooke in County Fermanagh stands on a knoll above the prevailing low ground, which is the church where my noble kinsman, Lord Brookebrough, worships. I can endorse that it was accurately judged by a visitor prior to myself who said that most churches are dedicated to the glory of God, but Colebrooke is dedicated to the Brookes.
The Bill was supported in principle by the Commons at large, but less universally in the level of detail. Not too much should be made of the arithmetic. The Government were as generous on the balance of the 457 Standing Committee on the Bill as they were on the Select Committee in the last Parliament, to allow proper Northern Ireland representation. But there were a series of divisions in the Standing Committee which were decided nine to eight in committee, and five parties to one—including the SDLP among the five—in favour of amendments which were being moved against the Bill. I hope that your Lordships' scrutiny of the Bill will be as well informed and as rigorous. That is still ahead of us, but the Government have had recent experience of this House's response to delicate legislation in an area where terrorists exist. I hope that this Bill will receive the same attention. In the meantime we must be grateful that the Government have brought forward a Bill.
One of my favourite graffiti in the Province at the moment depicts a large sign saying. "Ulster says no", under which someone else has written, "But the man from Del Monte says yes". Underneath that someone else has written, "Aye, and he was an Orangeman". I do not know what Del Monte thinks of curates' eggs, but I consider—as I say, I have not dwelt on detail in my remarks—that the Bill is at this juncture a free range, organic, non-stipendiary curate's egg. Although controversy is still prevalent in the Province rather than contentedness, we must be content that we have the opportunity in Committee to improve the curate's egg that we have been offered.
§ 3.51 p.m.
§ Lord Maginnis of Drumglass
My Lords, I wish to address two specific aspects of the Bill: registration and identification at ballots. However, before I do so, I acknowledge the sterling work of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, who has just spoken. I find it particularly sad that after the committee under his chairmanship reached conclusions which had support right across the political divide, from both constitutional nationalists and constitutional unionists, the Government turned their back on certain of the recommendations contained in the report.
However, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, I do not believe that the Bill is of such usefulness that it will in its present state resolve the difficulties that are experienced at elections in Northern Ireland. I am invariably disappointed by the level of real resolve that successive governments have displayed in terms of tackling those matters in Northern Ireland that impinge upon and infringe the democratic process, whether they be organised violence, organised crime or electoral abuse. Sometimes I find it difficult not to believe that there is a covert desire to accommodate undemocratic elements—a practice that I feel I have witnessed as an elector, soldier and unionist politician over the past 30 years.
I do not want to give the impression that I am some kind of reactionary. Those who know me know that I support the current process in Northern Ireland which facilitates a transition from violence to democracy. But I do not believe that we can enhance democracy if we accommodate those matters which undermine the 458 confidence of the ordinary decent citizen. My experience in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, having held that seat as the Member of Parliament for 18 years, and having left it with a majority of 14,000, was that the process failed my intended successor. The law imposed certain constraints that perhaps made it difficult for Mr Cooper to prove his case but in the 21 days that he had to bring his case to an electoral court he was able only to deal with an infringement in one polling station where there was organised disruption by a political party involved in the election which ultimately benefited from the result which produced, I believe, a majority of 53. In later days we discovered that similar events had taken place in other polling stations. Therefore, the organised desire of Sinn Fein—let us be specific—to abuse the electoral system for its own ends is evident.
That did not occur only in the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone; it also occurred visibly in the constituency of West Belfast where Joe Hendron was ultimately unseated by the present sitting Member, Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein. One must understand that where this perversion of the electoral process is allowed to occur, a false democracy is created which enables people who do not have a majority at the ballot box to get hold of seats and then to avail themselves of all the benefits that come with being a Member of Parliament for a specific constituency.
I do not want to stray from the business before your Lordships' House but I must say that most people whom I know within both traditions in Northern Ireland are puzzled as to why the Government should facilitate in the Palace of Westminster those Members of Parliament who have no allegiance to the parliamentary process here at Westminster and who have declared that even if the oath of allegiance to Her Majesty were removed it would make no difference to their intention to take their seat and play their part here. That is the kind of abuse of democracy that is being and will be facilitated if we bring into law a process which allows signatures to be used as though somehow they are foolproof against electoral abuse. The deputy electoral officer who gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee indicated that signatures were unsatisfactory in so far as a perverse individual could disguise his signature at the polls so that he would be denied the right to vote and could then sue the presiding officer. Obviously, that puts unnecessary pressure on someone who is doing a difficult job, under threat and intimidation from the Sinn Fein political party, as was pointed out earlier.
Perhaps national insurance numbers could be acceptable. I disagree with the Minister in the other place who said that most people do not know and cannot get access to their national insurance number. I just do not believe that that is true. Every payslip that one receives throughout one's life has one's national insurance number, as does every P45 and every pension book or pension slip. That number is held on computer and could therefore be used, without 459 infringing anyone's rights, to authenticate applications to be on the register. That process could be further developed in relation to casting votes.
The Government are reluctant to be hard nosed and practical in relation to the rights of ordinary, decent individuals—it is their rights that will be infringed if and when people vote improperly and cast multiple votes. Your Lordships' House should do a better job than has been done heretofore of making the Bill a little more meaningful.
§ 4.1 p.m.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, in view of the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and the important contribution that was made by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs when he was its chairman, I listened with interest to his speech. I take issue with one relatively small point. He cited the quotation about,the dreary steeples of Fermanagh".That is a pejorative quotation, although the noble Lord did not use it in that way. In defence of that county, I point out that Fermanagh is absolutely beautiful. It has wonderful scenery and it is a pleasure to be there. I hope that he did not mean to suggest anything to the contrary. I know that he was not making a point about the scenery.
I welcome the Bill. It will go a significant way towards remedying the defects that were described by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis. The next Assembly elections will be in 2003. They will be crucial elections because they will determine the future of the peace process and the nature of government in Northern Ireland for a long time to come. It is therefore important that those who are elected and, from among them, those who become Ministers on the Executive achieve their position with the consent of the people, arid that the people of Northern Ireland accept that those elections are fair and proper. There should be no dispute about the electoral legitimacy of those who are elected and those who then become Ministers. That is why it is important that the Government have the extra safeguards in place in good time before those elections. They are, in the main, contained in the Bill.
We cannot, of course, be certain about the extent of electoral fraud but there is no doubt about the fact of it. There is too much anecdotal evidence from many sources, not least that given to the Select Committee. When I served as a Minister responsible for Northern Ireland, there were clear concerns about that at the time and they have continued to the present day.
The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, discussed national insurance numbers. I do not want to get into a detailed argument at this stage—that is for Committee—but I wonder whether the way in which national insurance numbers are currently issued involves the necessary safeguards to prevent people from getting them improperly and using them improperly when they vote. If the national insurance number system were totally watertight, I should go further down the path of supporting it. Perhaps the Government are still reflecting on the matter.
460 It is clear that absent voting rather than personation at the polling stations is the key issue; that is not in dispute. There are some interesting figures—some of them have already been quoted—about the extent of absent voting in different constituencies. They varied in the previous general election from 1.6 per cent in East Antrim to 9 per cent in West Tyrone and 8.7 per cent in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I do not believe that those differences were achieved through normal and legitimate applications for postal votes. Something is amiss in that regard. The figures show that the problem is not restricted to the previous general election—it also appeared in the 1998 Assembly elections, in which the highest percentage for absent voting was 9.3 per cent in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and the lowest were 2.2 per cent in Belfast North and 2.3 per cent in Belfast West and in East Antrim.
The idea of having electoral ID cards is probably a good one, although I am rather sceptical about identity cards—the case for them needs to be made more firmly. However, it is right that electoral ID cards are part of the armoury for dealing with malpractice. I am particularly pleased that my noble and learned friend said that the intention was to have provisions in place before the 2003 elections.
There will always be a balance to be struck between civil liberties and electoral fraud, and achieving it is not an easy task. There is also a need to achieve a balance between preventing fraud and giving people the right to vote. We could prevent all fraud if we took sufficiently stringent measures, but many people who were legitimately entitled to vote might not be able to get the vote. We do not want to go down that path. Surely we all welcome the fact that in Northern Ireland we have moved mainly—not entirely—from terrorism to democratic politics. I say "mainly" because violence that is utterly unacceptable and reprehensible still goes on. The Government have got the balance right and I welcome the Bill.
I have one last, brief point. Robin Cook commented on voting over the Internet. In the context of England—and, I think, Scotland and Wales that is probably an interesting innovation. However, I fear that in Northern Ireland we are a long way from making that acceptable, unless we want to run the risk of having more malpractice than has taken place so far. I welcome the Bill and I look forward to taking part in our debates in Committee.
§ 4.7 p.m.
§ Lord Cooke of Islandreagh
My Lords, when I read the Bill I had to read it again to make sure that I was reading correctly. I had expected the Bill to make serious attempt to prevent electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. It is well known that all parties in the past have played games at election times; what they did was fraudulent but things have suddenly changed. Games are no longer involved. Over the past few years, one party has declared the intention of becoming the largest party in Northern Ireland and is working night and day to control the constituencies that it intends to win. Money is not a problem and it employs numerous 461 party agents and canvassers. Sinn Fein will use whatever means are necessary, and it has agents who are not far from the IRA who will apply whatever pressure is needed to ensure that votes are cast for Sinn Fein. It is urgent to stop such fraud and the use of pressure to make people vote as required. Otherwise, we may say goodbye to democracy in Northern Ireland.
Unfortunately, the action proposed in the Bill only nibbles at the edge of the problem. Signatures and dates of birth will make fraud only a little more difficult, and paramilitaries would soon overcome that. The Bill provides for identity cards with photographs to be supplied on request but it does not say when that has to be done. That would not make much difference, because a medical card without a photograph will still be sufficient to confirm identity. Sinn Fein is known to forge medical cards. Why have they not been removed as an accepted means of identity in the Bill?
In its present form we have only a pretence of a Bill for reducing fraud. In my view, as it is, it is a waste of parliamentary time. I looked at the record of the passage of the Bill in another place. It took much time, and many excellent amendments were submitted and debated. Unfortunately, all relevant amendments were voted down at the request of the Minister.
Suddenly the penny dropped. I had forgotten for a moment that the Government never seem to lose a chance to please Sinn Fein/IRA, despite the fact that they get next to nothing in return. Was this Bill intended as a chance for the Northern Ireland Office to say, "We're still on side and we're your friends"? Your Lordships may believe that that is going a little too far. But to the majority in Northern Ireland, who wish to remain in the United Kingdom, that is how things seem and we are reminded of it almost daily.
The only way in which to minimise electoral fraud in Northern Ireland is to issue a smart card, with a photograph, to every elector. When such a card is pushed into the machine at the polling station, a person's vote will be recorded and the card will not be accepted if used again at that or any other polling station. In my view, the issue of such cards must be completed by autumn 2003, when the Assembly elections arc due. It will be costly but will amount to only a fraction of the money being spent on the Bloody Sunday inquiry or on convicted paramilitaries who have been granted amnesty. The rules for the issue of absent votes require study. There were excessive numbers of absent votes in each of the Sinn Fein gains at the last election compared with those in other constituencies.
I was pleased that the Minister indicated that he would look carefully at amendments. I hope that he will look at them favourably because important ones will certainly be proposed in due course.
§ 4.12 p.m.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, we must all welcome a Bill intended to limit electoral fraud and 462 malpractice in Northern Ireland. I was glad to hear the opening words of the noble and learned Lord the Minister. None the less, it is disturbing that, although the major report of the Northern Ireland committee on electoral malpractice was agreed in March 1998, the legislation has taken three years to appear, and since it depends on the creation of special computer programs and software it cannot be put into effect until 2003 at the earliest. Will that be in time for the next election? Will it, indeed, be up and running then?
The Minister, at col. 734 of Commons Hansard for 10th July, said that the electoral office had been provided with more funding and with new IT systems to facilitate the change. But in October he told Standing Committee D that the Government were,currently concluding the contract in a process rolling out from next year"—that is, 2002—towards a target date of 2003 to provide the IT equipment that will make the Act work".I hate to point out that computerisation and IT programs have unpromising records both of speed and efficiency in, for example, the Home Office. Will the system be working by the next election? Will it have been funded in time?
This is a Bill of deep importance for the future of Northern Ireland. It may seem little more than a very proper effort to end some serious malpractices in the conduct of the election process. As we all know, those include multiple registration, personation, fraudulent application for postal and proxy votes, based very often on extensive forgery of documents, and, not least, that familiar element of life in Northern Ireland—intimidation by the paramilitary groups.
Although such practices are not those of one party only, by far the greatest culprit and the greatest beneficiary is, by common consent, Sinn Fein/IRA. In this way it has been enabled to do serious damage to the legitimate voice of the Catholic and even some of the moderate republican voters by taking, through the operation of fraud, seats from the SDLP. Many noble Lords will no doubt be able to give examples of how the frauds operate.
However, the evidence is irrefutable that one party, Sinn Fein, has brought it to a fine art, not only because of its ready-made paramilitary intimidation machine but because of its wealth and criminal expertise. Police found extensive evidence, for example, of the forgery of medical certificates, both for identification and to justify a proxy vote. As noble Lords have said, in West Tyrone in the last election there were 5,443 absentee votes; in Fermanagh and South Tyrone there were 5,784. Both seats were won by Sinn Fein/IRA. Elsewhere in Northern Ireland, in one place there were 10,000 applications for proxy votes, submitted hours before the deadline, the bulk of them by one political party—Sinn Fein/IRA.
463 In the other place the Government were pressed by all parties to use the national insurance number as a means of additional identification. Every political party but one in Northern Ireland has advocated it. Sinn Fein, however, evidently opposing all forms of identification, has said,Sinn Fein believes that there is a compelling and logical argument to ensure that the electorate has the maximum freedom to exercise their vote as freely as possible. We would therefore argue for an end to the current identification regulations because we believe they restrict the electorate's freedom and impose an unnecessary burden on them".Surprise, surprise: the Government are now convinced that using the national insurance number is a bad idea.
Equally, when in February last year we debated in this House the order on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Government pushed through the decision that political parties in Northern Ireland, alone in the UK, could receive global foreign funding but be under no obligation to keep records of donations received or disclose the value or source of donations on the grounds of a possible threat to the donors if their identities were revealed. What party in Northern Ireland has regularly received major funding from abroad, and what risk has Mr Galvin, the chief IRA fund-raiser in the United States, ever run?
Thanks to such protection, Sinn Fein/IRA alone has been able to raise unquantified sums for undeclared purposes and from undeclared sources. Its funding allows it not only to buy arms whenever it wishes but to pay its paramilitary thugs and to fund its criminal activities in the initial stages, including the sophisticated forgery of medical and other documents to use in election fraud. It has plenty of force at its disposal to intimidate voters at, and on the way to, polling stations and to collect donations and absentee voting papers from voters. Not least, it has the money to fund a campaign in any referendum which may be held. I wonder whether Mr Adams's friends in Africa include Mr Robert Mugabe.
The Government must act quickly as well as effectively to end electoral fraud. Sinn Fein has not forgotten, even if they have, the commitment made in the Belfast agreement that the Secretary of State may direct the holding of a poll,if it appears likely to him that the majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland".Earlier in the agreement, the text says that the participants,will recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland".Do the Government really not understand why Sinn Fein/IRA is ethnically cleansing—the phrase justly used by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, in our debate in 1999—every area over which it holds sway? If it cannot do that, it is using electoral fraud to secure seat after seat. The unfortunate majority—that includes many Catholics as well as Protestants—see their democratic rights being ruthlessly eroded and stolen from them by a brilliant and systematic 464 manipulation and fraud. And they can do nothing about it. As one Member of the other place rightly told the Standing Committee, fraudulent voting is being conducted under,a systematic paramilitary dictatorship".He referred to an,organised and militarised fraud of the electoral system, which produces results against the wishes of the electorate".And he added these ominous and sadly prescient words:Those results have been significant enough to change perhaps the political direction of Northern Ireland".The Government have a grave responsibility. Thanks to their unforgivable combination during the negotiation of the agreement and since of haste, arrogance, gullibility and credulity, they have so far handed Sinn Fein/IRA virtually all they need for victory through the ballot box while retaining the gun on the streets of Belfast, where the violence has never ceased.
It may have been acceptable for demographic change to have moved Northern Ireland over a period of 20 or 30 years to a position where a majority would genuinely have seen no difficulty in contemplating and accepting a united Ireland as a new generation came forward with no raw memories of hatred and conflict. What has happened, however, is that Sinn Fein/IRA has won everything it wanted—prisoners out, political—power in the Assembly, status accorded to it as freedom fighters and not terrorists, the Disqualification Act, the disgraceful capitulation over richly funded access to Westminster (where it murdered Airey Neave) without taking the oath, and, above all, the destruction of the RUC, to say nothing of £40 million spent so far on the Bloody Sunday inquiry—money which could have gone to helping the victims of the IRA. In destroying the RUC, it has also moved closer to its stated objective of a people's police force, through the appointment, which it hopes to achieve, of paramilitaries to "represent" its unfortunate communities in the DPP.
As long ago as 24th February 1999, in a debate in this House initiated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, I said that I was heartened to know that Members in the other place had recognised the monstrous arrogance that allowed the paramilitaries to send whole families into exile. What was done? Three years later the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, under the chairmanship, I am glad to say, of my noble friend Lord Brooke, examined the issue of relocation following paramilitary intimidation—government-speak for ethnic cleansing. Four months later the evidence was published. The committee made one simple recommendation: that a single unit be set up—as Spain has done for the victims of ETA—to co-ordinate the response of all government departments on the mainland for the needs of a family thus exiled; and there have been many. The Government's response, published on 12th December, was what an excellent institution the Citizens Advice Bureaux is and how well placed to advise.
465 I hope, though sadly I do not expect, that the Government intend to do more than that about a disgraceful situation. I have cited that instance of government policy, or rather absence of policy, because I am outraged by their failure to fulfil the Prime Minister's promise that there would be no more violence and no more beatings. Bill after Bill has gone through providing yet more sops for the Sinn Fein/IRA Cerberus while doing nothing to protect the ordinary little people of Northern Ireland, whether from daily intimidation or from an insidious takeover of political power. It makes a nonsense of the central promise of the agreement; that the constitutional position will not change except by the will of the people expressed through the ballot box.
For three years the Government have done nothing to prevent those electoral rights from being eroded and destroyed. One election has already put more Sinn Fein/IRA nominees into power through electoral fraud, and unless the Government get on with the software fast there will be a further shift in Sinn Fein's favour brought about by fraud and intimidation which could have been prevented. We have gone far to destroy the peace process and the belief in democracy through criminal negligence.
§ 4.23 p.m.
§ Lord Fitt
My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with everything said by the noble Baroness, Lady Park. I had not intended to speak in the debate, but because of what has been said perhaps I may take two or three minutes of your Lordships' time.
First, I draw the attention of the House to the Explanatory Notes. Paragraph 3 states:The Bill proposes changes to the law in Northern Ireland only".That sentence proves conclusively that the sentiment expressed by a previous Prime Minister that Northern Ireland as part of the UK is "as loyal as Finchley" is wrong. In no other part of the United Kingdom—England, Scotland or Wales—has it been necessary to introduce legislation of this kind. It proves that Northern Ireland is not as loyal as Finchley.
Since the moment of the creation of the Northern Ireland state a culture has built up. The minority voted against the existence of the state. It voted for Catholic candidates opposed to the existence of the Northern Ireland state. The Loyalists voted for its retention.
The debate may not seem all that important. But it is because under the Good Friday agreement Northern Ireland will remain part and parcel of the United Kingdom unless freely authorised by a vote of the majority. What is happening now—we can see it very clearly—is that outside the actual voting pattern on election day intimidation is taking place in certain constituencies in Northern Ireland. I refer particularly to North Belfast which I know intimately. I used to live there. Attempts are being made to intimidate the pro-union vote away from that constituency, so that in the next election it will be represented by a "Sinn Feiner". That Sinn Feiner will then vote, whether it be in the 466 Northern Ireland Assembly or in this House—probably in this House—to a breaking of the bond of Northern Ireland with the United Kingdom.
Elections in Northern Ireland are serious because they call into account the legitimacy and the constitutional position of the state of Northern Ireland. That does not happen in Scotland, in Wales or in England. So it is important to try to bring about a system of electoral reform which guarantees to exhibit the actual means and decisions of the people of Northern Ireland casting their votes. There is no doubt in my mind—the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, referred to this point—that it was because of gross personation that that seat was won at the last election by a Sinn Fein candidate. It has brought about a change in political attitudes in the United Kingdom because it has meant an extra voice for a united Ireland against Northern Ireland continuing to be an integral part of the United Kingdom.
The Bill highlights the fact that Northern Ireland is not like Finchley. We hope that it will be possible to bring about a series of reforms in Northern Ireland that will give a true indication of the wishes of its people.
§ 4.27 p.m.
§ Lord Smith of Clifton
My Lords, I shall not cover specifically the contributions of noble Lords in this relatively short Second Reading debate. There have been three themes. First, there is the problem of absent voting. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, drew attention to that point. Secondly, there is intimidation in the polling booths. One must remember that Northern Ireland has many large rural constituencies which are more difficult to police, particularly on a single day when one is holding a Province-wide election. Thirdly, there is a need for further safeguards, a point expressed by many noble Lords. There is certainly a good deal of momentum in your Lordships' House behind the idea that there should be further safeguards. We shall look at the amendments which the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, intends to propose. We are disposed to supporting a provision for the introduction of national insurance numbers.
Many noble Lords have made reference to improvements in technology with regard to electoral identity cards. I was much taken by the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Park, that, given the history of implementing IT, it may well not be in time. Indeed, there will be a real problem. Unless we have tackled the questions of intimidation and personation, it bodes ill for the next Assembly elections in 2003.
I particularly want to stress that while there are, of course, no foolproof safeguards that we can provide to prevent electoral fraud—people will always seek to get round whatever rules we have—we can nevertheless—tighten the regime so that opportunities for fraud are reduced.
In welcoming the Bill, I must say that it is important to ensure that the recent restoration of regional democracy in Northern Ireland is not besmirched by electoral malpractice. That is why we on these Benches 467 commend the Bill and hope that the Government will, as the Leader of the House said, be listening to amendments in Committee and on Report with a view to ensuring that fraud is more nearly eliminated than we so far envisage.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I am most grateful for all of your Lordships' contributions to this important debate. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, set the tone with which I think we all agree—I certainly do—when he said that electoral malpractice has for years been a serious mischief in Northern Ireland. The temptation when one does not live in Northern Ireland to think that "vote early and vote often" is funny must be resisted.
It is a monstrous thing to steal the democratic right of a fellow citizen. We need only remember how recently it was—in 1994, I think—that the whole of the population of South Africa became entitled to vote. I speak with some interest because my parents-in-law had never been allowed to vote because their skin is not white. It is only when we realise the importance that people in South Africa attached to the free casting of a legitimate franchise—with queues of people standing in the sun for hour after hour—that we remember that we are dealing with serious territory. I entirely agree with all of your Lordships about that.
Three aspects were raised by several of your Lordships. Perhaps I can deal with them. The noble Lord, Lord Laird, raised the question of multiple registration. To be as helpful as I can, the intention is to give the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland the power by regulation to ask people on their application to go onto the electoral register whether they are registered to vote at another address. That can he done by regulation rather than by amendment to the Bill, and that is our intention. I hope that the noble Lord will regard that as a useful response to his specific question. I appreciate that he was not the only noble Lord to ask it.
The question of national insurance numbers was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and taken up by several of your Lordships. I am not betraying any confidences when I say that I discussed that with the Minister in the Commons, Mr. Browne. On 18th December, he had a meeting with the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth France. She has concerns that must be taken on board about the use of national insurance numbers for purposes unconnected with the administration of tax and benefits. Not all such questions are easily answered. We must consider that with care. I have been in touch with colleagues and hope to be able to return to the matter more definitively in Committee. I underline that I shall carefully consider any proposals. We may be able to achieve our purposes by regulation rather than by amendment to the Bill. If so, I hope to be able to point the way forward.
The other question raised, again by several of your Lordships but in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Cooke of Islandreagh, was that of non-photographic 468 identity documents. The noble Lord referred to the production of illegitimate medical cards—which, of course, do not have a photographic component. I can assure your Lordships that May 2003, the next Northern Ireland Assembly election date, is our target by which to have removed all forms of non-photographic ID from the list of specified documents. Of course, that would include the removal of medical cards. We would then be left with the specific ID card provided for in Clause 4; a passport; or, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, helpfully reminded us, the photographic driving licence currently available in Northern Ireland.
Those will be considerable steps forward. I cannot pretend that a Bill on electoral fraud will deal with the sort of everyday intimidation to which my noble friend Lord Fitt and the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, referred. Such intimidation is a criminal offence. They could—and I dare say will robustly respond that the law is not enforced. That may well be so in some instances. I shall not stand here and pretend differently. The Bill is not the vehicle to deal with those vices.
I am grateful for the general response to the Bill. I shall do my best to deal as positively as I can with all amendments, even if that is simply by pointing to alternative means of achieving our common purpose rather than by amending the Bill.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.