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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 20 February 2001 (continued)

Mr P Robinson:

That is very disrespectful of the Minister. He really should behave in a way more becoming to his Office. He raises an issue of some importance, yet the legislation does not contain the words that he has uttered in the House. Therefore, the Assembly has the right to probe him so that in any case that may follow, the Comptroller and Auditor General, if not everybody else, knows what the Minister's mind is on the issue. If, in any financial year, a body that does not get funding from a Government source on a regular basis gets a "substantial" amount of money - as defined by the Minister today - even if it is a one-off grant for an item of capital expenditure and not for revenue funding, is the Comptroller and Auditor General allowed to investigate its accounts?

Mr Durkan:

I will cover that point as I continue my reply. In dealing with the amendment, I have already made some points. Moreover, if the Comptroller and Auditor General has what might be deemed to be unfettered access to all bodies receiving public funding of whatever amount, some people may feel that they could face disproportionate scrutiny and that honest mistakes could lead to unwelcome publicity. In relation to the private sector, commercially sensitive information could be open to examination. That could undermine the confidence of existing and potential inward investors to the region.

It could also be perceived by some as amounting to an unwarranted right of interference into the private sector. I make the point - if people will allow me to do so - that we need to take care while trying to achieve sound principles of accountability and in ensuring proper use of public money that Members have identified that we do not undermine our work to achieve value for money by making provisions before we think carefully about them. That might perhaps have the effect of inhibiting some firms from tendering for Government business, precisely because they might find themselves open to inspections that they do not want. Therefore, we need to remember that there are purposes that we want to achieve in the business arrangements that we make.

Mr Close:

In light of the Minister's comments, how can we hope to see the full implementation of the Sharman Report, which seek even greater powers than those currently in front of this House?

Mr Durkan:

I am coming to that. Many points have been made both here and in the Committees, although some have been represented differently today, and on previous occasions, than earlier in the Committees. Therefore, I think that I have the right to address the points. I do think -

Mr Speaker:

Order. Many points have been raised. If the Minister were to conclude his remarks, Members might be able to judge whether he has addressed the questions they have rightly raised. This is the Committee Stage, and therefore a degree of toing and froing is possible and appropriate. If the Minister were to have the opportunity to speak, Members may be able to determine whether the questions they asked have been answered.

Mr P Robinson:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am not sure whether I am reading too much into your remarks. Are you saying that after the Minister has spoken, we will have the opportunity to ask him further questions? I ask, because the Minister introduced new issues. When I attempted to elicit further details from him, he tossed his head in the air, impatience showing in his face, and he did not seem to want to have interventions.

Mr Speaker:

I took from what the Minister said, both subsequent to that occasion and again when he had an intervention today, that he had some of the answers to these questions written down and was eager to deliver them to the Assembly. It will only be possible to judge that when we have come to the end of the Minister's responses. I do have to say - with some degree of understanding - that the Minister has been making responses to the Assembly for almost two full days on several issues. I think it is fair to mention that. He should be allowed to continue. There is a form of intervention, with which I am familiar in another place, whereby at stages of this kind, Members can get to their feet as the Minister sits down, and before sitting down the Minister may respond. As long as such a procedure is not abused, it may be a useful device in this House also. The proposer of the amendment is, I see, also itching to get to his feet to respond. I mean the mover of No 15.

Mr Durkan:

Mr Speaker, before you are asked to rule on a point of order, if a toss of the head is an unparliamentary reflex, I apologise to the House.

I want to take up the point that has just been raised regarding what we can look forward to, and I want to make this very clear. In the points that I have just made, about how others could view the provisions sought by the amendment in the current circumstances, I am not saying that the Comptroller and Auditor General should not be given inspection rights over such bodies. I have made it clear that I am very open to looking further at that area. However, if the Comptroller and Auditor General is to be given those rights, it should be after rather more thought, care and consultation than has been possible in relation to this particular Bill.

Budget statements have been brought forward at draft stage and again at revised stage. In addition, there have been debates on the Programme for Government, and the details of both the Programme for Government and the Budget have gone to Committees. Despite all that, Members have said that there is still not enough consultation for this House and that the relevant Committees have not been able to consider things properly.

In talking about financial arrangements, as we are in this Bill, there are issues not just for the three Committees that have been particularly looking at this - namely, the Finance and Personnel Committee, the Audit Committee and the Public Accounts Committee - but also for other Committees that have an interest in the affairs of business. They might want to consider the implications of this amendment, and might have views to give on it. Committees that are dealing with Departments that have many transactions, or that use the community and voluntary sectors for the delivery of certain programmes, might have a view about the implications of such provisions or what sort of balances or provisions need to be put in to qualify them.

We need to make sure that we have a degree of consideration in this House and with the relevant Committees, rather than adopting a legislative measure now in a simple reflex response to the very valuable Sharman Report. That report was published last week. Among other things, it envisages the development of de minimus thresholds for access, and of protocols governing the conduct of inspections.

When this amendment was pressed at Committee Stage, one of the points that I made was that we should not adopt it, but wait for the Sharman Report and consider that issue and any other issues that the report raised. People said that they did not want to wait for the Sharman Report; that I would only tie people to it, and that it was a Whitehall document that would not go far. I am glad that people already see the benefit of the Sharman Report, but they are referring to one aspect of it. There are many other issues that we need to take on board and properly consider, not just in relation to that particular point but to other points as well.

Therefore, the amendment is to be opposed. It is not timely, in that sense. I am glad that there does not appear to be a disagreement between us on the relative worth of the Sharman Report. I am not aware that any Committee has yet been able to consider the implications of the Sharman Report in relation to this, or any other, point. We should take the time to do so. It could be in the Assembly's interest, and certainly in the interests of many people looking to this Assembly, or to Departments, as far as the conduct of their affairs is concerned.

We need to recognise that there is a proper role for both the voluntary sector and the private sector in a mixed economy. We need to respect their proper roles, alongside appropriate mechanisms of accountability and regulation, and recognise that people appreciate the value, importance and, at all times, the integrity of public moneys and the uses to which they are put.

Adopting this amendment in the context of the Bill, without wider consideration and consultation, would mean that we would be unable to move forward in a balanced way.

3.15 pm

The amendment also ignores the fact that I gave the necessary assurances to the Public Accounts Committee, the Audit Committee and the Finance and Personnel Committee about matters raised by those Committees and in the context of the forthcoming audit reorganisation Bill. I believe that those assurances have been accepted by the Committees. After discussions with the Committees, I introduced, through the amendments made at Consideration Stage, improved inspection rights for the Comptroller and Auditor General in respect of public sector bodies.

Under the provisions of the Bill, the Comptroller and Auditor General will have unlimited inspection and access rights to the accounts documents and records of all public sector bodies. He will also have the right to inspect any records that he requires to carry out financial audits and value-for-money studies on all public money expended. For bodies that are not in the public sector, Departments will have to prepare the documentation required by the Comptroller and Auditor General to carry out his inspections, whether the public money involved is applied as grant-in-aid or as grant. There is no restriction on the Comptroller and Auditor General's right to inspect the accounts and documentation that he needs to fulfil his function.

The gaps in public sector accountability have been closed by the amendment that I proposed at Consideration Stage. It would be inappropriate to extend those inspection rights to cover voluntary and private sector bodies in this Bill, especially as we have had no consultation with the relevant interests.

The Bill will give the Department of Finance and Personnel wide-ranging powers to give the Comptroller and Auditor General access to documents. I also introduced the amendment that was made to clause 19(10), which now requires the Department of Finance and Personnel to have regard to the views of the Public Accounts Committee in any matters of concern. Therefore, if there is a cause for concern about the use of public funds by a body in any sector, action will be taken.

I assured the Committee that we would consult widely on the issue of additional rights and powers for the Comptroller and Auditor General and that I would submit proposals in the context of the Sharman Report. That report has just been published, and its recommendations are complex. During the passage of the Bill, I have given assurances that the review of audit and accountability arrangements in Northern Ireland would be dealt with in the forthcoming audit reorganisation Bill. I have also emphasised the importance of consultation with bodies that may be affected by any new powers given to the Comptroller and Auditor General. Members will also have to be canvassed for their opinion. To proceed on any other basis would be to put us in a situation in which different Departments and Committees would start to identify problems and concerns for private and voluntary bodies about the implications of the Bill. We should deal with the issues in the round in a Bill that is well placed and well timed to address them; that Bill is the audit reorganisation Bill.

The Sharman Report has been published, and proposals on how the consultation process will be handled will be brought forward. Some Members have emphasised to me the value of consultation on everything else, but they have not done so with that report. It would be premature to speak about the application of the recommendations of the report before the consideration of the report and before consultation has taken place.

I am not saying in principle that we should never have provisions of the type suggested in that amendment. I am saying that we should make the right provisions, reflecting full consideration of all the implications and interests concerned - not least the key public interest that the Assembly has to protect. We have to do that through the right legislation.

Time has been constrained for this legislation because we have had to introduce it in time for the next financial year. The audit reorganisation Bill is not subject to those same urgencies. In dealing with all three Committees on the legislation, I have stressed, as Members indicated, that examination of many of the outstanding issues could be taken up in the audit reorganisation Bill. The three Committees, as well as other departmental Committees, can also do that through fuller consideration of the implications of the Sharman Report and its significant recommendations

Mr P Robinson:

Has the Minister inadvertently forgotten that he was going to come to several questions during his speech? One was from the Member for North Down, who queried where the Minister had tucked away the definition of "substantially" in his legislation. I asked whether in one year a capital project grant would be judged "substantial" if it was 50% of the amount given to a firm, company or community organisation in that year.

Mr Speaker:

Do you wish to reply, Minister?

Mr Durkan:

I thought I had dealt with the point about 50%. Let me make the position clear: the Comptroller and Auditor General, whether under the current provisions or any other amendment, will take his own view on whatever concerns he may have or that are brought to him. If anybody else was prepared to say that an impediment was being created by saying "No, it cannot be 50% in a given year; it has to be over a longer time or over the life of the project", or vice versa, I do not think that there would be an issue. No equivalent provision exists in the Westminster legislation. The Department of Finance and Personnel and the amendments provide for our taking account of the Public Accounts Committee's views on any issues of doubt or concern.

Mr Dodds:

I will be brief because we have covered the issues. However, there is a danger that in a debate like this we get so tied up with technicalities that we lose sight of the principle behind the amendment. To clarify and reiterate, wherever public money is spent, allocated and appropriated, the Comptroller and Auditor General should have the right to inspect how that money is spent. That is the clear and certain principle.

The Minister, after cutting away the verbiage and the reasons for not doing it now, kept referring to timely and well-timed. We have an opportunity today to do that vital piece of work to close that loophole - something advocated in Sharman. We should look at what Sharman said now that he has reported. However, we were advocating the closure of the loophole in the amendment even before Sharman. I am delighted that Sharman comes down on the side of those of us on the Committee who were arguing for that. I am not surprised, as it is common sense. Why would we not have that sort of accountability and those powers of inspection? But why wait?

Some of the comments made by the Minister today about public and private companies give rise to concerns on my part about what the audit reorganisation Bill may eventually contain if we say that we will not do this today but wait until that Bill is introduced. Private organisations may get cold feet. They may want to tender for Government work, but they will not want people nosing around to see how they spent their money.

We have an opportunity now and we should grasp it, because, after all, this clause deals with inspections. Let us ensure that the power of inspection covers the whole ambit of public money.

The Minister tells us that "substantially" means when a body receives 50% or more of public funds. However, he and his officials know, as does everybody in the House, that if that is not defined in the Bill, then it will not be enshrined in law.

The Minister has still not explained why it is not in the Bill. Therefore, his criticism that "significant" is not defined has no relevance since he has not defined "substantially". It is no good him giving his view if it is not contained in the legislation. It must be in the Bill.

Mr P Robinson:

What might be substantial to one body might not be substantial to another. Given that parties in the Assembly receive funding from Government sources, the Comptroller and Auditor General might decide that it would be appropriate to find out whether they are spending the money appropriately.

If he sets this term "substantially" beside the political parties, a poor and humble party like ours may find that the money that we receive constitutes the substantial part of the money that we operate on. However, if another party of similar size receives a great deal of money from American donations, bank robberies, drug dealing or whatever, Government funding may not form a substantial part of its money. Therefore, the Comptroller and Auditor General could not look at its accounts.

Mr Dodds:

I thank my hon Friend for his intervention. No doubt the Comptroller and Auditor General will address that example with due care and attention when he comes to examine the parties and their accounts.

I note the Minister's comment about a reflex reaction as if somehow ours was a hasty decision to move this amendment. As he knows, and as we said at the outset of the Consideration Stage, this has been the subject of in-depth discussion and debate, consideration and scrutiny in the Committee and indeed on the Floor of the House.

Proper care and attention has been given to the issue and it has been debated properly. The matter is before the House, and now is a timely moment to deal with it. Why delay, simply on the ground that the Sharman Report will be looked at in detail, when on this particular point Lord Sharman comes down fairly clearly on the side of those who support the amendment?

Mr Durkan:

Will the Member give way?

Mr Dodds:

It is unusual for a Minister to ask a Member to give way when he has already summed up, but I am more than delighted to do so.

Mr Speaker:

The Minister is not summing up on his amendment. He is responding to Mr Leslie's amendment, which was moved what seems rather a long time ago.

Mr Dodds:

This could go on all day.

Mr Speaker:

It is entirely open to the Minister to respond in this way and subsequently to Mr Weir to make his point.

Mr Durkan:

I take the Member's point that that was considered in the Committee. I remind him that the Committee decided not to pursue an amendment to this effect precisely because it wanted to await the Sharman Report and have fuller consideration. The Committee also served notice that it will bring these points forward in the audit reorganisation Bill.

Notwithstanding the Finance and Personnel Committee's consideration, the Member should note that these issues have not been considered by other Committees that deal with bodies that might be affected by these provisions. There has been no consultation with any bodies that may be affected.

Mr Weir:

The Minister displayed irritation when the definition of "substantially" was raised again. However, on both occasions he failed to answer my question. My question was not about his definition or understanding of "substantially", but about where it is defined in the legislation. I want to be kind to the Minister. It may well be that when Mr Dodds and I examined the legislation, we missed the point where "substantially" is defined. I want to give the Minister the opportunity to answer this question: where in the legislation is the word "substantially" defined?

3.30 pm

Mr Durkan:

At no point did I say that "substantially" is defined in the legislation. I said that when we used the word "substantial", that is what we take it to mean. It is not a legislative definition. It is a clear reference to instances in which the figure 50% occurs. Obviously - going back to Mr Robinson's point - the Comptroller and Auditor General does not examine something every year. It is in relation to substantial expenditure.

However, if there is any doubt or concern over an issue, we have made it clear that the Department of Finance and Personnel will be influenced by the feelings of the Public Accounts Committee. Therefore, let us be clear about these matters. There is no ambiguity as far as we are concerned. I am not trying to pretend that something is specified in the legislation when it is not. However, at least I can give a clear reference to the figure of 50%, which can be cited as a formal reference from now on. That is not the same with regard to significant funds.

Mr Leslie:

I want to return briefly to amendment 15, which I put to the House some time ago. I thank those Members who supported it, and I thank the Minister for his endorsement of it. I suppose that I could cut and run at this point. However, it would be cowardly if I did not make some remarks about the debate on amendment 17, for I did pose the first question to the Minister on this matter.

The House should be aware that this has been a very thoughtful consideration of important issues of the proper use of public money. Although the debate generated a degree of heat, it has been a worthy exchange. Both this week and last week, the House has debated an extremely significant Bill that will alter our accounting practices and will have considerable implications for the way in which that scrutiny is carried out. While I dare say that it will not receive the attention that it deserves outside these walls, a huge amount of time and effort has gone into the work in the Committees. A great deal of that work has been reflected in the speeches today.

Like Mr Robinson, I think that the Public Accounts Committee and the Finance and Personnel Committee should be flattered that Lord Sharman and his colleagues were clearly listening in on our deliberations, because several of them appear to have been reflected in their recommendations.

I have taken a quick look at the Sharman Report, as have other Members present, but I must emphasise that it was only a quick look - there has not been enough time to do more. However, during the course of the debate, which has lasted a bit longer than I expected it to, I was able to have a closer look at a section of the report that is highly pertinent to the matter under discussion.

The report recommends that the Comptroller and Auditor General should, for example, be given statutory access to certain organisations, some of which fall under the ambit of our discussion. Lord Sharman states that that access should be given using the Order-making provision in the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000, which was passed at Westminster. I point out to this House that that Order-making provision is contained in clause 19 of our Bill. However, clause 20, which was inserted last week at the behest of the Public Accounts Committee and the Finance and Personnel Committee, goes further than the recommendation that appears to have been made by Lord Sharman. It gives the Comptroller and Auditor General the right to make an inspection, albeit in defined circumstances. We are arguing about the breadth of those definitions. I submit that they are fairly wide, though they may not be wide enough for Mr Dodds. Nonetheless, I believe that those definitions are fairly wide.

It seems to me that, given the sheer weight of this report and the complexity of some of the matters in it, we have moved the Government Resources and Accounts Bill quite a long way in a short time. We have been required to deal with this Bill quickly because it must receive Royal Assent before the end of the financial year. I consider that we have probably moved this Bill far enough.

Meanwhile, the work is stacking up for the Finance and Personnel Committee in relation to looking at the Sharman Report and, in due course, considering the audit reorganisation Bill when it comes before us in the autumn. I hope that we can get through a few weeks without financial matters or matters of civil law reform coming up, so that the Committee might have an opportunity to attend to those other matters.

Amendment No 15 agreed to.

Clause 18, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 20 (Inspections by Comptroller and Auditor General)

Amendment No 16 made: In page 11, line 2, leave out "at any reasonable time". - [Mr Molloy.]

Amendment No 17 proposed: In page 11, line 25, after "nature" insert ", has received significant public funds,". - [Mr Dodds.]

Question put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 32; Noes 52.


Eileen Bell, Paul Berry, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Seamus Close, Wilson Clyde, Nigel Dodds, Boyd Douglas, David Ervine, David Ford, Oliver Gibson, William Hay, David Hilditch, Billy Hutchinson, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Kieran McCarthy, William McCrea, Monica McWilliams, Maurice Morrow, Sean Neeson, Ian Paisley Jnr, Ian R K Paisley, Edwin Poots, Iris Robinson, Mark Robinson, Peter Robinson, Jim Shannon, Denis Watson, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Sammy Wilson.


Ian Adamson, Billy Armstrong, Alex Attwood, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Esmond Birnie, P J Bradley, Joan Carson, Fred Cobain, Annie Courtney, John Dallat, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Arthur Doherty, Mark Durkan, Sean Farren, John Fee, Sam Foster, Michelle Gildernew, John Gorman, Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, John Kelly, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Seamus Mallon, Alex Maskey, David McClarty, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Alan McFarland, Gerry McHugh, Mitchel McLaughlin, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Mick Murphy, Mary Nelis, Dermot Nesbitt, Danny O'Connor, Dara O'Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Sue Ramsey, Ken Robinson, George Savage, John Tierney, David Trimble, Jim Wilson.

Question accordingly negatived.

3.45 pm

Clause 20, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 21 to 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1 (Minor and consequential amendments)

Amendment No 18 made: In page 15, line 2, leave out "an Appropriation" and insert "a Budget". - [Mr Durkan.]

Schedule 1, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker:

The Bill now stands referred to the Speaker.


Electoral Fraud


Mr Hussey:

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to report on his plans to counter electoral fraud.

I begin by apologising to you, Mr Speaker, the Business Committee and the Assembly for the withdrawal of this motion from last week's Order Paper. I was involved in other Assembly business, and I appreciate the Business Committee's early listing of my resubmitted motion.

Mr Speaker, you and every other Member will be aware of concerns expressed by a wide spectrum of political, public and business opinion throughout Northern Ireland regarding the possibility of irregularities that occurred in various elections in the past. Despite this, and three very important reports, the Government have been all too slow in initiating appropriate action on voting procedures in Northern Ireland to address this issue.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)

I recommend that every Member read the excellent report prepared by the Committee of the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue on the subject of electoral reform, which was presented on 31 October 1997 - [Interruption].

Mr Paisley Jnr:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I know that Sinn Féin often likes to complain, but there is a cabal in that corner, making it impossible to hear about electoral fraud. I know that they do not want to hear about these matters, because they orchestrate them, but perhaps they will have the decency to let the Member speak.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

This is a good occasion to ask everyone to be peaceful while we discuss this important issue.

Mr Hussey:

I was referring to the report of the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue, and I suppose that it is appropriate that I did so as you, Mr Deputy Speaker, are in the Chair again today.

One of the most disappointing aspects that emerged from that investigation was the refusal of the then Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to give evidence to the Forum Committee set up to look at the issue. The same Chief Electoral Officer did, however, give evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs investigation into malpractice on 5 November 1997. I trust that on this occasion, our new Chief Electoral Officer will find it circumspect to respond to this debate. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report into electoral practice in Northern Ireland was published in March 1998, and the then Secretary of State caused the Northern Ireland Office 'Report of the Elections Review' to be published in October 1998.

I want to stress that, despite three excellent reports, there has been little worthwhile action from the Government. Members will be well aware of those parts of the electoral process involving registration of voters, publication of registers of voters, application for absent votes and the voting process itself.

In dealing with possible electoral fraud in future elections - be they parliamentary, local government or other - Members will realise that we are stuck with inadequate legislation and time factors preventing change. The motion has been worded with that in mind and, of necessity, calls on the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to report to the Assembly his plans to counter electoral fraud in legislation.

Democracy is founded on an adherence to the will of the people expressed solely through the ballot box, with no recourse to other means. Each vote is a building block, with the procedures employed for ascertaining the outcome of the votes cast being the cementing agent of one's chosen form of democracy. It is our duty, and the duty of those placed in positions overseeing our system, to ensure that as little corruption as possible exists if our democratic credentials are to be valid.

I intend to address my concerns about each stage of the electoral process that I have identified, and I am confident that other contributors to the debate will ably and graphically exemplify those concerns as well as raising others.

Many Members are concerned about a system that allows for the multiple registration of voters at unrealistic addresses. Dr Hendron, among others, can testify to examples of this: individual registrations at multiple addresses - quite legal, of course, provided you use your vote only once. There is also the registration of voters who are known to have been living and working in other areas - other jurisdictions even - for many years. There is also the continued registration of those who are deceased.

What liaison is there with the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths to ensure that prompt notification of deaths is recorded so that electoral registers can be updated? What liaison is there with the Planning Service and with local authorities to ensure appropriate occupation levels in small flats, or to identify derelict properties being used as accommodation addresses? Given today's technology, are these questions unreasonable?

This is not to deny that voting in more than one place is wrong, even for those with a legitimate reason for being registered in more than one place. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report says

"an accurate register is vital".

I am certain that many Members have been contacted by constituents about people whose names do not appear on the electoral register. Indeed, they may have identified such people themselves. Such non-registration of those entitled to vote must be proactively addressed by the Chief Electoral Officer. It should be his duty to ensure that all who are entitled to vote be included on the electoral register.

Postal and proxy voting can lend itself to abuse. Although we all recognise that there are people who have a genuine need to avail of absent voting arrangements, proper safeguards must be in place to prevent abuse. Earlier closing dates for absent voter applications would assist officials to make the necessary checks as well as providing them with time for the performance of spot check visits to applicants to assist in the validation of applications. Indeed, I welcome moves that have been brought to the fore on this aspect. In a letter dated 10 January 2000, the Northern Ireland Office Elections Unit states

"as a consequence of work undertaken by the review, legislation was introduced to help tackle the issue of absent vote abuse. The legislation now provides for an increase in the time available to the Chief Electoral Officer to scrutinise absent vote applications".

If the Chief Electoral Officer decides to report to the Assembly, perhaps we should ask him whether he has been given sufficient time.

4.00 pm

The application form should be adapted to include additional information, such as an applicant's date of birth or National Insurance number, which would aid the checking procedure. Properly located, fully accessible polling stations would encourage many to vote in person, rather than seek an absent vote. Checking procedures should be locally based, thus allowing local knowledge to be utilised. The availability of access to the marked register after elections enables those who would seek to abuse the electoral system to identify persistent non-voters, whom they can then target for absent vote applications.

The means of identification to be shown by voters must be seriously reconsidered. The medical card, in particular, has been highlighted as unsatisfactory. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report states

"The medical card is not a sufficiently protected document to provide safe identification and it should no longer be included in the list of accepted identifiers for polling purposes."

Accounts of the organised mass forgery of medical cards will no doubt emerge as the debate develops.

Mr Attwood is not here. If he were, I suspect that he would have a tale or two to relate to the Assembly. His evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, on behalf of the SDLP in 1998, was very informative. Non-photographic means of identification are inappropriate, and the issue of voting identity cards should be revisited. Some years ago, a commitment to this issue was given by Her Majesty's Government when George Howarth assured Mr William Thompson, MP for West Tyrone, that the matter of identification would be addressed.

In addition, I received a letter from the Northern Ireland Office Elections Unit in January. It states:

"The Government takes the issue of electoral abuse very seriously and is committed to ensuring that the people of Northern Ireland have an electoral system in which they have confidence. It was following allegations of electoral abuse in 1997 that the then Secretary of State established a wide-ranging review of electoral practice in Northern Ireland to formulate proposals to improve the integrity of the electoral process."

That dates back to 1997. Why are we still waiting for procedures to be corrected? There is a commitment that a card will be introduced, which will necessitate, among other things, the introduction of registration on an individual basis rather than household registration. Not only will these changes require primary legislation, but it is important that the development of specialised computer technology be carefully evaluated before final decisions are reached. I ask again: how long do we have to wait?

Procedures for challenge in cases of personation need to be enhanced. Is there not cause for concern, and indeed outrage, when one considers the remarks made by a presiding officer when giving evidence to the Forum Committee?

"In my position I could personally identify voters impersonating using allowance books et cetera, but needless to say, it is not my duty as presiding officer to refuse."

After the most recent local government elections, I received a telephone call from a policeman. He had to watch individuals enter polling stations four or five times, obviously using different medical cards, without challenge. He also encountered individuals who had discovered that their votes had already been claimed. People were stealing votes. The issue of electoral fraud must be faced up to. The consequences can, and do, corrupt election results.

Dr McCrea will relate to this issue, given his experiences in Mid Ulster. The recent by-elections at council level have meant that the RUC can confirm that it is investigating allegations of electoral fraud following the election in Antrim north-west.

The Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the SDLP, Alliance and others have all cried foul at some stage after elections. Sinn Féin has accused those concerned about electoral fraud of whingeing. That surely shows that it would claim to have nothing to fear from proper scrutiny of the electoral process.

I realise that the Chief Electoral Officer will need appropriate resources, finance, staff, equipment et cetera to deal with the concerns that arise today, and I hope that any report produced will include an assessment of such need. Whatever the cost, each elector must have confidence that his or her vote is equal to, and as valid as, any other vote cast.

I am aware that others wish to speak. In closing, I repeat words that I used when addressing a similar motion in the Northern Ireland Forum in June 1997:

"the purpose of this motion is not to disenfranchise anyone but to ensure that those entitled to vote - and I stress the word 'entitled' - can do so."

- and do so with integrity.

I regret that the issue has yet to be fully resolved, and I trust that it will be.

(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)


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