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Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I speak to amendments Nos. 19 and 18. The amendments are linked so as to produce the result I want. Amendment No. 19 provides that people would be "obliged" to obtain a photo-identity card. Amendment No. 18 would ensure that the card was universal for the electorate of Northern Ireland, so that it was the only form of photo- identification used at the polling station. Under the amendments, the card would be compulsory and universal.
The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) argued that new clause 1 would prevent confusion, because it would restrict the forms of identity to four. That is a good argument. My amendment would prevent further confusion because there would be only one method availableonly one method would be publicised.
In the United Kingdom, voter registrationapart from overseas votersis not voluntary; people are obliged to register and can be fined £1,000 if they fail to do so.
In Northern Ireland, however, because of the special circumstances there, identification is required, correctly, at the polling station in order to exercise the franchise. To exercise the franchise in Northern Ireland, one needs to be on a register and one needs a form of photo- identification. I am arguing that one form of photo-identity card should be issued to everyone.
Universality is a fundamental aspect of the operation of a democracy. Registration is voluntary in some countries, but that system is by no means as good as the system that we have in the United Kingdom. It is possible for overseas voters who qualify to register voluntarily, but that is mainly because we cannot impose compulsory registration on overseas residents. I do not believe that overseas residents should have voting rights in this country, but that may be a matter for another debate. However, I believe that it is particularly important that the photo-identity card should be provided universally, and that people should be obliged to apply for one.
Amendment No. 18 applies particularly to the universal requirement. In 199798, the second report of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland was on electoral fraud. Many aspects of the report have been adopted in the Bill, which is generally to be welcomed as being in line with its provisions. Paragraph 64 of the report records:
I agree that the proposals represent a form of identity card for electoral purposes in Northern Ireland, and I support the notion of having identity cards in the United Kingdom. In fact, I believe that those identity cards should be linked with electoral registration, and a change
A special problem exists in Northern Ireland, so separate identification arrangements already exist there, and they will be developed and extended, or clarified, under the Bill. I simply want to clarify the arrangements on a better and more substantial basis than will be done under the Bill. The Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs knew what it was doing when it produced the reportit realised that those principles were important and should be responded to.
I appreciate that amendments Nos. 18 and 19 may not reach the statute book and that I am pressing the Minister on them, but I should like to know whether the Government are thinking along these lines. That might have an affect on cards in Northern Ireland and then have some knock-on consequences for United Kingdom electoral arrangements.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I rise primarily to speak to amendments Nos. 10 and 17, both of which were tabled by myself, the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).
As the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) correctly said, amendment No. 10 relates to the creation of a deadline by which time all this needs to be done. We suggest that that deadline should be 31 April 2003, or 15 months after the provisions are implemented, whichever comes later. Although the hon. Gentleman touched on part of this issue, let me explain why I feel that that is a more satisfactory arrangement than that proposed in new clause 1.
The first powerful argument is that that arrangement would take account of the concerns that the Minister expressed in Committee, and we are seeking to help him and to provide flexibility, by ensuring that the target is achievable. In simple terms, the Government said in Committee that they envisage removing the non- photographic identity cards by the time that the next Assembly elections take place at the beginning of May 2003. That is why we have chosen the end of April, instead of the beginning of April, as is suggested in new clause 1.
The 15-month leeway represents an insurance policy or backstop to ensure that, if something unforeseen occurs, the Government will not be held to have failed in their commitment to achieve something that we all wish to achieve. Unless the Government have very clear targets in the Bill, as was said in Committee, they will rob themselves of an opportunity to ensure that the changes that we have described come into force.
Let us be realisticsome individuals will not be happy with the legislation, exactly because it prevents them from conducting electoral fraud, which, as we know, has taken place so often in Northern Ireland until now. Those people will do everything in their power to give the Government strong reasons why it would not be fair to introduce the legislation by any particular date. If we include such
Amendment No. 17 would ensure that the Bill is brought into force as speedily as possible and that it is not cherry-picked in the process. There is no reason why the Government cannot implement the whole Bill at the same time. There is provision for the Bill to be introduced at different stages and at different times, but the amendment would remove the words
If the Bill is explicit and it is clear that it is a package that will be implemented as a whole, it is much less likely that individuals will be able to prevent the Northern Ireland Office and the executors of the Bill's provisions from carrying out their work. Executors will be able to say that it is not in their power to delay some parts of the Bill while implementing others. We hope that the Minister will consider our amendments sympathetically, because they are designed to strengthen the Government's ability to implement the Bill.
I have concerns about amendment No. 18 because, as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) rightly pointed out, it would result in the compulsory use of an electoral identity card. It is a judgment call, but it appears to me that such a provision would be a little too prescriptive.
In effect, the amendment would introduce an identity card that is likely, over time, to become a smart card that carries a great deal of information about individuals. I have an innate concern about identity cards, and such a proposal would be a bridge too far. I am determined that we should replace non-photographic identity with photographic identity for elections in Northern Ireland, but we should not go as far as the hon. Gentleman has suggested.
I look forward to the Minister's remarks, and I hope that he will think seriously about amendments Nos. 10 and 17. Their sole intent is to strengthen the Government's ability to ensure that the Bill has teeth.