Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lembit Öpik: I am pleased to conclude on that happy note because, not for the first time, the entire Government of the United Kingdom and I violently agree. What he said is exactly what I wanted to hear.

In view of the assurances that the Minister has given, aside from withdrawing the amendment, I also assure him that this is still a lesser of evils. Notwithstanding what he said about national insurance numbers, we may return to them at a later stage, although we are withdrawing the specific targets that we proposed in the amendment. I thank the Minister for his clear explanations and beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I wish to join other hon. Members who welcomed you to the Chair, Mr. Amess. For selfish reasons, we hope that we will have a short sitting this morning, and I hope to assist in that aim.

Amendment No. 18 is in my name. It says, in ``page 4, line 37, after `documents)', insert

    `sub-paragraphs (b) and (c) are deleted and'.

The purpose of the amendment is to withdraw acceptance of non-photographic documentation for use as identification at a polling station. When responding to an earlier speech, the Minister indicated the Government's intention. I said in the previous sitting that I would read carefully what he had said, and have found no fewer than three references.

    ``ID cards and other photographic identification that will replace the existing group of specified documents, the system explained in the Bill will be in place for the election of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2003.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 16 October 2001; c. 29.]

The Minister has just reiterated that this morning.

I will not quote the several other references that I found, except for the one that covers the other area about which I am concerned: the interregnum between now and achieving universal photographic identification. The Minister said in the afternoon sitting:

    ``It is not the Government's intention to have an interregnum when non-photographic identification will be accepted. The legislation is intended to create the architecture wherein the non-photographic identification can be removed and replaced by a requirement for photographic identification''.—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 16 October 2001; c. 60.]

Those and other statements cover the point that I was trying to make about phasing out non-photographic identification as quickly as possible. For that reason, and with the permission of the Committee, I will not move this amendment or a later one that is based on the same arguments.

The Chairman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that explanation.

Lembit Öpik: I beg to move amendment No. 37, in page 4, line 38, at end insert—

    `(4) In Schedule 1 (parliamentary election rules), in rule 37(1E) (specified documents), leave out sub-paragraphs (c) to (g).

    Subsection 4 shall come into force 18 months after the coming into force of the rest of this section.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the following:

New clause 1—Voters to produce specified documents—

    `(1) The Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985 (c. 2) is amended as follows.

    (2) In section 1 (voters to produce specified documents) subsection (2), at the end of inserted sub-paragraph (1E)(a), there is inserted ``and the requirement under this rule shall be satisfied by the production of the plastic photographic card which either is, or forms the counterpart of, a licence to drive a motor vehicle.''

    (3) In section 1 (voters to produce specified documents) subsection (2), at the end of inserted sub-paragraph (1E)(d), there is inserted—

    ``(da) a senior citizen's concessionary fare pass issued by the Northern Ireland Department for Regional Development.''.'.

New clause 6—Voters: specified documents—

    `(1) From 1st April 2003, paragraph (1E) of rule 37 of the parliamentary election rules applicable to elections in Northern Ireland, imported into schedule 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 by section 1(2) of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985 (c.2), is amended in accordance with sub-section (2).

    (2) Sub-paragraphs (a) to (g) are omitted and the following are inserted:

    ``(a) the plastic photographic card which is, or forms the counterpart of, a current licence to drive a motor vehicle;

    (b) a current passport issued by the Government of the United Kingdom or by the Government of the Republic of Ireland;

    (c) a senior citizen's concessionary fare pass issued by the Northern Ireland Department for Regional Development;

    (d) a current electoral identity card issued under section 13C of this Act.''.'.

Lembit Öpik: My previous exchange with the Minister covered much of the debate. The crucial elements are, first, the removal of documents from the list of acceptable identification documents, specifically the medical document, which is the easiest to forge, and secondly the introduction of a time period of 18 months for the amendment to come into force. The Minister and I agree on the intention. The amendment provides a time scale that we have to achieve. It needs no further explanation.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I join others in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Amess. You have been given the high honour of presiding over a Northern Ireland debate as your first chairmanship of a Standing Committee. You are welcome and we have confidence in your handling of our proceedings.

I shall speak particularly to new clause 1, which is in my name and that of my hon. Friends. It deals with two issues: first, what is called the photographic counterpart of a driving licence—on some occasions the document is used as a driving licence, on others as a counterpart of the driving licence, hence the awkward wording—and secondly the concessionary pass that will be available to senior citizens over 65. I supported the Bill on Second Reading but I would oppose it at any future stage if we could not expand the identification to incorporate the concessionary pass. I shall explain why it is essential. During our first two sittings, it became clear that there was a balance to be struck between ensuring that people could continue to register and vote with reasonable ease and trying to stop those who attempt to steal others' votes and defraud the system. We will cross that line and disfranchise many people if we do not provide a reasonable mechanism for people to identify themselves at the polling station.

The Bill would remove the two most popular identifications—benefit books and the medical card—in exchange for an ID card that has yet to be produced and which has to be applied for, processed and delivered to voters. There are major difficulties with that occurring in a short period of time and unless we have what the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) referred to as an interregnum, we have to ensure that we use an identification card that senior citizens, unemployed people and single mothers are likely to have. Those people are the least likely to have passports and driving licences. A significant section of our population would attend the polling station with only their medical cards or benefit books, to discover that those documents were no longer satisfactory forms of proof of identity. Senior citizens will be the group most affected by the proposals—the people who are least mobile and least able to go through the necessary procedures to get the ID card. I therefore raised the matter on Second Reading.

The Minister has had meetings with my colleague the Minister for Regional Development and his officials, as well as officials at the Department. I do not want to pre-empt the Minister's response, but I believe that his main concern is about the security of the system.

The Minister is attempting to remove one of the identifications presently required by Translink-DRD—the medical card requisite for a concessionary pass. In this instance, however, if a person attends a polling station with a medical card, the presiding officer has to take an on-the-spot decision about whether it is the right person and whether the card is forged. There is no time to make inquiries and judge the validity of the card.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Can the hon. Gentleman remind us of the extent of fraudulent medical cards? I recall discussions in the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs several years ago about the systematic reproduction of medical cards. Will the hon. Gentleman refresh the Committee's memory?

Mr. Robinson: It is all on record: the Royal Ulster Constabulary raided Sinn Fein production lines and the cards that they found were burnt. However, this security problem can be overcome because, as the Minister knows, inquiries and checks can be made. It is in the interest of Translink and DRD to ensure the security of their system and it is in the Minister's interest to ensure the security of the system for which he is responsible.

I shall move on to photographic identification and driving licences. All the issues covered in the Minister's ID card—photograph, name, signature, date of birth and so forth—are already on the driving licence photographic counterpart. All the factors required by the Minister are available on the driving licence. The two should be included and the number of ID cards should be increased.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): May I welcome you, Mr. Amess, to the Chair? My new clause 6 is effectively the same as amendment No. 37 and new clause 1. Either those two could be debated together or we could debate new clause 6 if those two are not moved. My hon. Friends have made eloquent arguments and I have nothing further to add to them.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): Hon. Members will know that I am relatively new to this subject, which interests me greatly. I have done my best to read the background papers in detail. One aspect of the Northern Ireland experience—the sight of people queueing to vote—would be welcome in English, Scottish and Welsh constituencies, but I realise that that may be a simplistic analysis of the position. We are dealing with serious issues. We are seeking a balance between enabling voting and counteracting fraud. On the basis of hearing the Minister on Tuesday, I believe that that is precisely what is happening. We are moving towards a system that will make it much more difficult to turn up to vote fraudulently at polling stations while trying to ensure that people have enough time to acquire the identity card that they need to vote.

I may have misunderstood the clause, but I thought that we were saying that there needs to be sufficient time to ensure that people who are properly able to vote can acquire the new electoral card rather than saying that it must be at a particular time. If I am mistaken, I would be happy to take an intervention that could put me right. However, I see no one rising to do so. I have been paying attention this morning. [Interruption.]

10 am

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