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Mr. John Taylor: I am grateful to the Minister, not least for his great candour, for which he is to be commended. However, even going along with the analysis part of the way, I would bet far more money than I would care to lose that the position in England is that one may
Mr. Browne: Given my track record on the subject, I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman when I have checked whether his contribution is accurate. Several hon. Members commented on my interest in Northern Ireland and on my contribution to Northern Ireland matters when I was a Back Bencher in the previous Parliament. It is true that I have some knowledge of Northern Ireland affairs, but today's debate has taught me what I have already told all my officials: a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I tell them that they should remember that although I know some things, they should tell me regularly when I do not know.
Rev. Martin Smyth: When the Minister investigates local government voting will he check whether in Northern Ireland one is even entitled to register at two distinct places? My understanding is that as it is not always possible to guarantee that people do not register twice, the offence occurs when people vote twice. In Northern Ireland, it is my understanding that one can register only in one place at one time.
Mr. Browne: I am not in the mood to bow to anybody's wisdom at the moment, so I shall undertake to check all those matters. The hon. Members who raised them will be written to with a clear exposition of the legal situation. That will inform the debate in Committee.
The hon. Member for Solihull and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) referred to the pressure put on electoral officers by the last-minute presentation of large numbers of absent vote applications. Measures have already been taken to improve the system for absent vote applications. They are now processed at local electoral offices instead of by the chief electoral officer as was the case when the Select Committee examined the issue.
Absent vote applications are already checked for authenticity and the electoral office devotes much of its resources into clearing the large number of such applications that arrive at the last minute. To be able to compare the signature on the application with the one on the database should assist in the quick identification of suspect applications, despite the reservations expressed by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. However, the eventual introduction of automated absent vote processing will also help in making efficient use of resources.
The hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for Solihull, among others, asked why we do not move over to smart-card technology right now. As we said in the White Paper, the ultimate aim is for every voter to be issued with an electoral smart card bearing a unique identifier. I have already told the House that that is an aspiration for the future. I have been accused of setting my ambitions too low in that respect, but the fact is that the technology currently available is still young.
Lembit Öpik: I have been holding back congratulating the Minister on his new post until I found out how he performed. Having seen how he has performed, I have unbridled admiration for his honest and humble presentation so far. Does he accept that we have two options: a smart card, which could help us to police the voting process; or a dumb card, which could easily be replicated? Does he accept that in the specific case of Northern Ireland, although the cost per head may be high, the absolute cost will be low because we are not dealing with very many people? Does he also accept that the overwhelming view on both sides of the House and among all parties is that we should trust what the financial industry has already tested for us: the smart-card technology, which must surely be effective if the financial industry trusts it?
Mr. Browne: As usual, I am grateful for all compliments or observations to my credit, but hon. Members will no doubt move well away from making them after this maiden appearance at the Dispatch Box. Perhaps I should make this speech last as long as possible and enjoy it while I can.
I repeat that the contribution of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has been helpful, as have all the contributions; they will inform the Bill's progress. Cost is not the reason why we do not propose to adopt the smart-card technology now. In the meantime, we do not propose to introduce a dumb card; we shall use the best card available to us. We are not introducing the smart card now because we are not satisfied that the biometric technology that underpins it is as yet mature enough to be used at elections.
Mr. Barnes: The House should accept the Minister's arguments for not introducing the smart card, which everyone wants in the end, but if the electoral identity card is the best available, why cannot it be universal, as it would then feed into the smart-card provisions later? If everyone had an electoral identity card, we would move down the road towards the smart card.
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for taking us forward; I had intended to address what has been described as the introduction of a two-tier system, involving photographic identity cards for elections and driving licences and passports otherwise. I repeat that a smart card for everyone remains an ultimate goal, but the technological difficulties have to be resolved first.
I believe that no stigma is attached to receiving an electoral ID card. Indeed, for many people, it would be far better than having to show their benefit books as a method of identification. The ID card will be freely and widely available to those who require it. It represents the quickest way to create a situation in which we can remove the medical card and the other non-photographic ID cards
The hon. Member for Belfast, East suggested using the travelcards that, I understand, will shortly be issued to all people in Northern Ireland over the age of 65. [Hon. Members: "Over 60."] I may be wrong; it may be 60. In any event, we will not accept a travel pass because such a document is not designed to high enough a security specification for it to be a reliable identifier for electoral purposes. However, he made the sensible suggestion that we should take advantage of the fact that the cards are being issued to piggy-back on them to encourage people to apply for electoral identity cards. Although following that sensible suggestion will require discussion with the devolved authorities, I will explore it further and examine whether it can be pursued.
Several hon. Members sensibly raised the issue of the two parts of the driving licence. In my evolving response to interventions on my opening speech, I suggested that we would consider the possibility of treating that part of the driving licence with a photograph as sufficient for identification purposes. There may be downsides to consider and work through. For example, driving licences can be stolen. However, it is reasonable to suggest that the part with the photograph will not be used by anyone who does not look like the person on the photograph. Therefore, that problem may not be as big as was first thought. I undertake to consider the issue.
On the senior citizens bus pass, the Minister cannot argue that the design does not suit. The only design that he can be aware of is the design of the present concessionary pass, and that is to be changed for a free fares bus pass. The design work has not been done yet, so the pass could incorporate whatever mechanisms he requires for it to be used for electoral identification purposes.
Mr. Browne: I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. However, it is not a question of the design or content of the card, but one of its security specifications and whether it can be produced fraudulently. That is one of the main concerns with the current documents used for identification purposes.