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Mr. Browne: I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will use words similar to his later in my speech. If the system proposed in the Bill is not successful, we may have to look at proceeding more quickly to some form of compulsory card with the benefits that I have described.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann asked about Home Office plans for biometric identification cards—to be known as the application registration card—for asylum seekers. This is an extension of the current asylum application system. The Home Office already collects the fingerprints of all asylum seekers when they make their asylum application, so there is already a database of the fingerprints of all asylum seekers in this country. Immigration officers use mobile quick-check units to check asylum seekers' fingerprints against the database.

At the moment, asylum seekers are issued with a standard acknowledgement letter. The application registration card is designed to replace that letter. There has been concern at the ease with which those letters are being forged. A smart card containing a biometric element would make forgery virtually impossible.

That new system is very different from one in which we would require every adult who wanted to vote in Northern Ireland to provide us with their fingerprint or an iris scan.

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Not only would that involve mandatory registration, it would raise important questions of civil liberties—whether it was appropriate to require a person to provide biometric data about themselves before they were able to vote. Much discussion and consultation has to take place before we could proceed to a position where we could require people to provide that level of data about themselves before they were able to vote.

The electoral identity card proposed by this Bill will be freely and widely available to all those who require it. It represents the quickest way to create a situation in which we can remove from use the medical card and the other non-photographic identification. Our objective is to stop personation. We believe that requiring voters to show secure photographic identification at the polling station will meet this objective and, so far, no one has argued that that will not be the case.

Although I have cautioned that we must move steadily on the introduction of the electoral identification card and that we must take the electorate with us, I acknowledge that we have to take action as quickly as possible and reasonable. Introducing the electoral identity card as a stepping stone towards an electoral smart card allows us to act more quickly to remove all forms of non-photographic identification from the list of specified documents. That is why we are proposing the legislation in the first place, and why we intend to take advantage of the fact that other people can use alternative forms of photographic identification, such as driving licences and passports, that cannot easily be forged.

This brings me to the Translink smart card, which is mentioned in new clause 1. I have said that I am willing to add the new Translink smart card, to be issued to all those aged 65 and over in Northern Ireland from April next year, to the list of specified documents. However, it would be entirely inconsistent with what we are trying to achieve in the Bill to allow the smart card to be added to the list of specified documents before both the chief electoral officer and I are certain that the card will be secure proof of identity.

As I said in Committee, my officials are working with those at the Northern Ireland Department for Regional Development to resolve the outstanding problems about the security of the Translink smart card. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast, East on his recent appointment as the Minister for Regional Development. I am sure that the outstanding issues will be resolved all the more quickly with him in command. Once these problems are resolved—I am sure that they will be—I will happily add the Translink smart card to the list of specified documents. That can be done by secondary legislation at the appropriate time.

Our target has been and will remain 2003 for the removal of all forms of non-photographic identification from the list of specified documents. I would not have continued to state repeatedly that May 2003 was our target if I did not believe that it was possible for all those in Northern Ireland who require an electoral identification card to have one by that date. However, we must maintain a level of flexibility, for all the reasons I have outlined.

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Mr. Blunt: This debate has mirrored the one that we had in Committee, in that the longer the Minister went on defending his proposal, the less convincing he became. As the Minister went on, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and I became more and more incredulous at the case the Minister was attempting to put. I noted that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) shared my reaction.

Having listened to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), one can only admire the intellectual consistency and clarity that his solution would bring. However, because of the points that have been touched on earlier, I would continue to resist his amendments. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and I share his concerns about the practicality of introducing the cards and about whether the Minister can, in practice, meet his own deadline.

The hon. Member for South Down asked about the resources for the chief electoral officer, and that remains an issue. It is clear that the officer is overstretched in a number of respects. That was shown by his inability to check the absentee votes at the last general election. Those have not been tested fully because the officer is now engaged in putting together the new register. That is merely an example to show that there is at least a question mark as to whether he has sufficient resources.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann that what we are putting forward is entirely in the Minister's own interests. Without the discipline of having a date in statute, the Minister is likely to fail to get the Bill on the statute book. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire challenged the Minister to agree that if the deadline could not be 2003, it could be 2005 or 2006. There should be a date in statute to ensure that the legislation will definitely come in.

If we had the certainty of a date—even if it is not April 2003, as the Liberal Democrats have suggested—the actions of the Minister's officials and the public information campaign in Northern Ireland to achieve take-up of the card would be reinforced by the fact that the scheme was to come into effect, so that there was no point in any organisation seeking to obstruct it.

Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Minister's claim that he cannot put a deadline in the statute because he does not know the rate of take-up could be applied to all kinds of legislation—for example, the introduction of mandatory use of rear seat belts? On every other matter, we seem to have deadlines, but on this one very important matter he is resistant.

6.30 pm

Mr. Blunt: It is odd. I know that the hon. Gentleman shares my perplexity.

I listened with care to the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). He supports the Government on this issue, and we must agree to disagree. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) made a telling contribution about the historic importance of personation in electoral fraud in Northern Ireland and stressed the importance of a timetable, not least to give members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the armed forces, as well as the electoral officers, some certainty about when the transfer is to take place.

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The Minister may come to regret resisting the assistance that we are offering him. He should have a chance to think again on the issue. We will want to examine his arguments in another place to determine whether it is appropriate to return to the matter. We are about to discuss more important causes of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland, so I will not insist on the new clause at this stage, but it may be appropriate to press the matter in another place. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the fact that his arguments have not convinced the House, and that he and the Government will think again.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 2

Registration: notification of multiple registrations

'(1) In section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (maintenance of registers: annual canvass) there is inserted—
"(5A) The information to be obtained by the use of such a form for the purposes of a canvass in Northern Ireland shall include an indication of any other address at which the person is registered."
(2) In section 10A (maintenance of the registers: registration of electors) and in section 13A (alteration of registers) of the 1983 Act there is inserted—
"( ). An application for registration in respect of an address in Northern Ireland shall include an indication of any other address at which the person is registered."
(3) Any person knowingly giving false information in response to any requirement of this section is guilty of an offence with liability on summary conviction to—
(a) imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months; or
(b) a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale,
or to both.'.—[Mr. Blunt.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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