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Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Does the hon. Gentleman recall points made outside the House about the vulnerability of the Government to pressure caused by intimidation of the republican population, which may be threatened and attacked for using photographic ID cards? The Minister gave an opaque response in Committee, but those are the people who will be vulnerable. If republicans are intimidated by their so-called representatives into refusing to use photographic ID cards, it will be impossible for the Minister to meet his deadline, unless it is included in the Bill.
Mr. Robinson: That is a judgment that the Minister and, indeed, the political parties in Northern Ireland will have to make. If there is a campaign by a particular political party, that may very well be to the detriment of it and its political future. Every party should be consulted by the Minister periodically so that we are satisfied that progress is being made. There are other mechanisms in the House to call the Minister and Government to account if we believe that they are dragging their feet. The Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, which championed the need for legislation, will undoubtedly want to observe its progress and receive periodic reports from the Minister to ensure that he is on course for the deadline which, I believe, everyone in the House, wants to be met.
None the less, it would be irresponsible of the Minister to include in legislation a requirement for the removal of key identifiers for what is probably the majority of voters in Northern Ireland without being satisfied that they had taken the opportunity to get new ID cards, whether concessionary passes from Translink and the Department for Regional Development or cards produced by the chief electoral officer. In this case, it is right to support the Government because they are acting both sensibly and responsibly.
Patrick Mercer (Newark): I want to underline the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and pay tribute to many of the remarks of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). Furthermore, I admired the eloquence of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), especially his comments on the timetable for the legislation.
Many of my constituents in Newark and Retford are currently serving in Northern Ireland with the Sherwood Foresters; they have been there for almost two years. Last weekend, I spoke to one of their company commanders, a personal friend with whom I served in precisely the same campOmagh12 years ago, performing the same duties in that part of world. The battalion's life has changed very little in the interim. When I asked my friend what he was doing, he said, "Guess what? I am on election training again."
To most people, the idea of forces serving in Northern Ireland probably sounds exciting, but alongside the dreadful upsurge of troubles in places such as north Belfast, there is a routine part of operations for the men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and all ranks in the Army, Navy and Air Force who serve over there.
I recall first having to protect a polling station back in 1975 in Dungiven. I was told that that would be the responsibility wholly of the electoral officers and the RUC, but it did not turn out that way. The RUC was stretched, as it is now, and the Army ended up taking a hand. Again, in 1977 I was faced with the same duties. In my nine tours in Northern Ireland, I do not think that I once avoided getting involved in an election protection scheme of one sort or another. Slowly, over the years, the duties have become more and more formalised, so poor old Tommy Atkins is faced with all sorts of complications in trying to avoid election fraud, support the RUC and support the electoral officers.
There was a funny side. I remember a tractor coming backwards to a checkpoint that I was holding. It was polling day, and we were protecting a polling station; I cannot remember whereFermanagh, probably, in the middle of nowhere. A tractor backed all the way into the checkpoint. It turned out that the occupants were going to vote, but all the forward gears on the tractor had given out. So intent were those people on voting that they used just the reverse gear.
In west Belfast in 1982, we were warned that any number of attempts at personation would be made and that disguises would be used. We found a young man who looked curious, his cheeks puffed out with cotton wool. It turned out that he had a boil on his gum. Such were the difficulties of trying to understand what was going on and the various modes and means of personation. Now, training for polling protection has become formalised as a lengthy package for every unit serving in Northern Ireland and for the police, who do their best over there.
As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said, there are people and parties who want the legislation to be delayed. It is in their interests that photographic means of identification should not be adopted speedily and that the target date of 1 April 2003 should not be met. In view of the considerable amount of time that is wasted by the security forces, particularly the Army, whose duties should be far less complex and technical, I urge the
Mr. Browne: I am pleased that the debate in the Chamber today has continued on from the constructive and helpful way in which the Committee conducted its affairs. I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions.
I shall resist the new clause and all the amendments. I shall deal first with new clause 1 and amendments Nos. 10 and 17, which all seek to impose a timetable on the removal of non-photographic identification from the list of specified documents. The other amendments, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) explained, are intended to make the electoral identification card compulsory for all voters in Northern Ireland.
As I said repeatedly on Second Reading and in Committee, the next scheduled Assembly elections in Northern Ireland are in May 2003. That has always been and will remain our target for the removal of all forms of non-photographic identification from the list of specified documents. However, for reasons with which I will deal in detail and which have already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), I must retain a degree of flexibility.
The people of Northern Ireland must be informed aboutbut, more importantly, they must acceptthe electoral identity card. I have no intention of creating circumstances that inadvertently disfranchise people who do not have confidence in the system. The electoral identity card will be a voluntary card, but it will be in the interest of all the political parties in Northern Ireland to ensure that their voters obtain a card if they require one. We all have a duty as parliamentarians to explain that to the people of Northern Ireland and to help instil confidence in the process, as there is cross-party support for the measure.
A major publicity campaign will be necessary to ensure that everyone in Northern Ireland is aware of the changes and aware of the photographic identification that they will need to exercise their franchise. It is not an unreasonable position for the Government to take to leave open the timetable for removing the existing prescribed documents which are not photographic, until we are satisfied that there has been sufficient uptake of the new electoral identity card.
There is no advantage to us in passing legislation that will make electoral fraud more difficult if, at the same time, we disfranchise legitimate and valid voters. Obviously, we will have to make a judgment as to whether people are volunteering for the identity cards, and a decision must be made as to what effect that will have on the poll. I repeat again that May 2003 is our target date for removing all forms of non-photographic identity from the list of specified documents, but I will not take the decision lightly.
Lembit Öpik: Does the Minister understand that at the core of the argument for setting the deadline is the recognition that the Government are not passive in the matter? They do not merely react to the circumstances. The deadline would oblige people to get photographic identification. My concern is that the Minister is taking too passive a role for the Government in the matter.
Mr. Browne: My understanding is that I had been criticised for taking too active a role and for retaining the decision to myself. I intend to consult all the political parties in Northern Irelandnot all of which are represented in the Houseabout our progress in implementing the plan that I have set out. I have no intention of deviating from the objective of May 2003, but at various stages I will have to make a judgment on whether the people of Northern Ireland are being taken along in that process.
That responsibility is not mine alone; it is the responsibility of other politicians in Northern Ireland who support the change. We will all have to work together towards that objective. If any party decides to spoil the process, that will be a consideration, but it will not deflect me from the decision that I intend to make, if it is appropriate. The decision will be made in the circumstances, and it will not help the process if we impose an unrealistic timetable at this stage[Interruption.]
The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) says that the timetable is mineyes indeed, but to impose it by statute would make it unrealistic, as that would deny the reality that a considerable number of people who are not represented in this debatethe votersmust be taken along with us.