Standing Committee D
Thursday 18 October 2001
[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I beg to move amendment No. 36, in clause 4, page 4, line 35, at end insert
`(8) The Chief Electoral Officer of Northern Ireland shall use his best endeavours to ensure that
(a) within 5 years from the commencement of this section two thirds of those appearing on the electoral register hold electoral identity cards; and
(b) within 10 years from the commencement of this section that all those appearing on the electoral register hold electoral identity cards.'.
May I welcome you, Mr. Amess, to your esteemed position as Chair of this fine Committee, however jealous it may make others that I am the first to do so.
Those who were present at the previous sitting will have observed the luddite tendencies of the Minister, who is anxious about introducing some information technology to Northern Ireland too soon. We sympathise with that view, but we have a job to do to convince people that smart-card technology can be used to eliminate electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. That being so, the probing amendment is designed to clarify the Government's expectations regarding the application of an electoral identity card to Northern Ireland elections.
The amendment suggests targets for providing the electorate with identity cards for the purpose of elections. One of the aims of the Bill is to phase out those means of identification currently listed that do not contain a photograph, which will leave only passports, drivers' licences and the electoral identity card as specified documents to present at a polling station. Realistically, not everyone will have access to a driver's licence or passport, particularly the elderly or infirm. We do not want to disfranchise anyone, so we want as many people as possible to take up the alternative of an electoral identity card. We suggest targets rather than quotas in the amendment and use the phrase ``best endeavours'' as we do not want to stipulate that the electoral identity card be compulsory. However, a concerted effort must be made to encourage the electorate at large to use the card.
It may seem a contradiction for a Liberal Democrat to promote the concept of an identity card, as I am on the record as being fiercely opposed to such a card. I am, however, fiercely opposed to identity cards for citizens. I reassure the Minister, who is evidently distressed by the apparent contradiction, that we are not talking about an identity card for citizens in the sense that the state could require its production on demand. It is better to look at the identify card as a passport to democracy rather than as a licence to pry by the state, as there is all the difference in the world between the two.
What we propose would qualify a person to vote by proving that they are who they say they are; it is the same as a passport. It has a specific purpose only in the context of elections in Northern Ireland. If one looks at the identity card as a licence to vote one realises that it is not the concept of the item that is the problem but the terminology used to describe it. With the benefit of hindsight, it should probably have been called the voting licence card or something similar.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Will the hon. Gentleman explain why a licence to vote is less offensive than a compulsory identity card?
Lembit Öpik: I am happy to do so. A licence to vote in the context of Northern Ireland is simply a document that provides evidence that individuals are who they say they are. In a perfect world, of course, where people do not try to impersonate others, such a document would not be needed. However, the Bill's purpose is to deal with fraud, so we are explicitly acknowledging that fraudulent activities take place in Northern Ireland. Therefore, a licence to vote or electoral passport is an acceptable way forward. Whether or not the hon. Gentleman agrees with me, I hope that he at least understands the concept.
We seek the Government's perspective on how they intend to promote the card to those who would benefit most from it. Have they a timetable in mind for its implementation?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Amess. I understand that although this is not the first occasion on which you have chaired a Committee, it is the first time that you have chaired a Bill Standing Committee. I am sure that you will guide us appropriately and keep us in good order, as Mr. Hood did on the first day of our deliberations.
If the probing aspect of the amendment is designed to make me repeat what I have said on several occasions about the Bill's objectives, I am happy to do so. The Government have always said in the first instance that the new electoral identity card would be voluntary. As I have explained on Second Reading and in Committee, it is important that it remains so.
The amendment's wording is careful, and I think that it is designed to ensure that the identity card remains voluntary but not for longthat it should not be compulsory yet. However, the amendment would make the card compulsory, which is against the spirit of the Government's intention. The electoral identity card is intended to cover only those individuals who do not have a passport or driving licence. Later, we shall explore the possibility of adding another form of permitted secure photographic identification, subject to conditions.
Unfortunately, not all voters in Northern Ireland will have had the benefit of hearing the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) describe the card as a ``passport for democracy'' or ``licence to vote''. They may see the amendment as an attempt to introduce a national identity card by the back door, and I would have some sympathy for them if they did so. They may say, ``If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.''
Whether there should be a national identity card is a debate for another day. If it ever takes place, it will be interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman's contribution. However, requiring the people of Northern Ireland to carry an identity card, even a passport for democracy or licence to vote, is not part of our measures to combat electoral fraud.
We cannot risk the proposed electoral identity card being seen as a national identity card. As a significant number of voters in Northern Ireland will share the hon. Gentleman's view about a national identity card, they may reject this card and the scheme of the Bill will fail. Those who do not have passports, driving licences or any other secure photographic identity documents will be disfranchised. As I have said before, our information shows that those without passports or driving licences are more likely to be elderly. For those elderly and law-abiding citizens, it would be a double demerit if the amendment were accepted and they were prevented from exercising their vote.
That is not to say that the Government have abandoned their long-term aim of an electoral smart-card system. As I explained on Second Reading, such a card would probably incorporate some biometric data for checking identity. There is no question that if technology had been available, was considered to be robust enough and could have been introduced in our time scale, the Government would have presented a Bill that moved significantly towards that. However, we could not be confident that such technology was available. Photographic identification was therefore proposed.
Smart-card electoral voting is some way off and, for many of the same reasons for rejecting the amendment, it could only come about following extensive consultation. We would need a broad consensus in favour of collecting biometric data and recording it on cards for voting or other purposes. I hope that my explanation helps the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. If he is persuaded that we have not abandoned his long-term objective of smart-card technology and accepts that there are significant demerits, perhaps he will be persuaded to withdraw the amendment.
Lembit Öpik: As the Minister says, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck, and if it were an identity card duck in that sense, my Liberal goose would truly be cooked.
To be more serious, I have concerns about introducing identity cards even for elections, not because of how they would appearour proposal has a specific purposebut because of how they may be abused. I say again for the record that neither my party nor I are sympathetic to the idea of a mandatory identity card for citizens. There is a danger of mission creep and, in fairness to the Minister, I was encouraged to hear that he and the Government agree. I hope that that sentiment will be reflected in years to come in other Departments, including the Home Office, and that they will shy away from pressures to introduce identity cards, even if there is a short-term populist benefit in doing so.
I was encouraged by the Minister's reassurances, which were consistent with his comments about the introduction of smart-card technology in the medium term. The Committee will recall that the Minister, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, conceded the principle of introducing technology at the appropriate point in the future, although he said that now was not the right time. As long as we are robust in ensuring that everybody has some piece of photographic evidence that they can use to replace the discredited identification documents that are currently permitted, we might be able to make progress without the immediate introduction of an electoral identity card. However, we must recognise that, although an identity card is something of an evil, it is a lesser evil.
Mr. Browne: There must be something wrong with the way that I speak the language. I have said this now about 12 timesI may be wrong; it can be checked, but it is certainly a significant number of times. It is the Government's intention not to remove non-photographic forms of identification that are presently permitted until everyone has a passport or a driving licence with a photograph, or has had a reasonable opportunity to obtain a photographic identification card for election purposes, which will be provided free of charge. However, it is the Government's intention to remove all non-photographic forms of identification as soon as that time is reached, and before the election for the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2003.