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Northern Ireland (Local Elections)

Volume 78: debated on Monday 29 April 1985

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3.31 pm

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the validity of medical cards as evidence of a voter's identity at the forthcoming local elections.

Because of widespread concern in Northern Ireland about the growth of personation in elections, Parliament has passed the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985, and the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 which applies the main provisions of the Act to local elections. The new legislative provisions include a requirement that a voter must produce a specified document to obtain a ballot paper. These documents are a current full driving licence issued in Great Britain or Northern Ireland; a current British or Irish passport; a current benefits, allowance or pension book issued by the Department of Health and Social Services for Northern Ireland; a medical card issued by the Northern Ireland Central Services Agency for the Health and Social Services; and a certified copy, or extract, of an entry of marriage issued by a registrar general, where the voter concerned is a woman married within the preceding two years.

It has come to our attention that there are some electors holding a medical card issued before 30 September 1973 by the Northern Ireland General Health Services Board, the predecessor of the present Central Services Agency. Some of these electors may believe that these are specified documents entitling them to vote. This is not the case. It is not possible to estimate with any accuracy how many electors hold these older cards and who do not have any of the other specified documents. However, the Chief Electoral Officer issued a statement on Friday 26 April pointing out that anyone who has no other specified document and did not have the appropriate kind of medical card should take steps now, if he or she had not already done so, to obtain a new medical card. Special arrangements have been made to ensure that anyone needing a new medical card can obtain one quickly, and these arrangements will be kept under review.

The Northern Ireland information services have published advertisements in the Belfast and local Northern Ireland press, on the radio and television, and distributed leaflets to households throughout Northern Ireland setting out which documents will be needed. If people remain in doubt on this point, I suggest that they look at these leaflets or at the back of the polling cards which are now being issued and which have a list of the specified documents on the back.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware of the understandable concern of Northern Ireland Members and other Members about this matter and is in Northern Ireland this afternoon reviewing the issues involved.

As it is the medical card on which, in particular, elderly people and the less well off are bound to rely, and as within the available time it is a physical impossibility to replace the large number of pre-1973 cards which are validly held in good faith, will the Minister ask his colleagues to take the commonsense decision to issue a statement to the effect that valid medical cards, whatever their date of issue, will be treated as effective for the purposes of the 1985 Act?

Older people will be covered by their pension book. We were careful, when the Act was put through the House, to ensure that the people on allowances—those who are most deprived in our society—and the old would be covered. Their pension books will cover them for voting. Since 1973, 1·4 million cards have been issued, in a population of 1·5 million. We are not aware of how many people are left with the old medical cards and do not have a new one. I have heard what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and I shall pass his comments on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.