Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Barnes: Will not equal confusion exist at polling stations under the new Bill? Publicity will tell people that they need photographic identification to vote and, although the list of appropriate types of identification will be propounded, the simple notion in people's minds will be that they need photographic identification. All sorts of documents with photographs will be produced and not dealt with, unless the amendment of the hon. Member for Belfast, East intends that almost any photograph on a card would allow people to vote. That would have dangers, so the simplest way would be for everyone to have an electoral photographic identity card.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, which raised interesting questions. If the new system is not properly explained and the voters of Northern Ireland are not brought along with it, there may be a real danger of confusion. Recent research and documents may already have generated some confusion. Simplifying the identification required to photographic identification will make it evident that a clear and simple message lies behind the changes.

Not any old form of photographic identification is acceptable, however. The Government's job is to insist that only forms of identification with a certain level of security are acceptable. The purpose of having to produce documents is to improve and to secure the poll and to defeat all attempts at fraud. It is therefore a double message: not just photographic, but secure photographic identification will be necessary. That is why it will be restricted to passports and driving licences, which are secure. I shall deal in a moment with Translink cards, which the hon. Member for Belfast, East has strongly advocated since Second Reading. The Government will ensure that the electoral ID card is secure.

I shall now deal with amendment No. 37. The next elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly are scheduled for May 2003. That has always been and will remain the target date for the removal of all forms of non-photographic identification except specified documents. The amendment would mean that clause 4 could not be brought into force until 18 months after Royal Assent were granted. The effect would be to prevent the electoral ID card from being used at the Assembly elections in 2003. The 18 months is needed to ensure that we meet the targets. If I have misunderstood the amendment, perhaps the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire will explain it to me.

I have repeatedly confirmed—on Second Reading, in previous sittings and today—that the May 2003 elections are our target, but everyone must accept the need for flexibility. I have also repeatedly stressed that we must take the people of Northern Ireland with us: they must accept the requirement of an electoral identity card for those, particularly the elderly, who do not possess other forms of photographic identification. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire pointed out, there is an important public information task. We must retain some flexibility, but we will not take our eye off that target and we are confident that we will meet it. All forms of non-photographic ID will be removed at the appropriate time, subject to public acceptance of the changes that we propose.

Since Second Reading I have carefully considered whether to add the new Translink smart card—

Mr. Blunt: The Minister has partly dealt with the 18-month fixed period in amendment No. 37, but not with new clause 6, which specifies the firm date of 1 April 2003, which is obviously a variant on the amendment proposed by the Liberal Democrats and the Ulster Unionists. Can he address new clause 6, which I hope wraps the issues neatly together, before dealing with the Translink card?

Mr. Browne: I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for again drawing my attention to that matter, but I have dealt with it on more than one occasion and, in our debate, by my references to flexibility. The target of the May 2003 elections has been at the forefront of my mind since I took responsibility for the issue. I assure Committee members that I am doing everything in my power, as are my officials, to meet that target, which is why we are anxious to get the Bill through, with the support that it has; we want the legislative framework to be in place. I wish to retain flexibility and not have fixed dates because although we want the people of Northern Ireland to embrace the voluntary electoral ID card, they may reject it. I have no intention of creating circumstances that inadvertently disfranchise people who do not have confidence in the system. We will have to take those people with us. I am confident that we will be able to do so but I wish to retain flexibility.

Lembit Öpik: I am a bit confused. The Minister is using diametrically opposed arguments. He said that the period of 18 months in the amendment was too long and then that the period proposed by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) of 1 April was too restrictive. Which does he believe?

Mr. Browne: I shall try to explain my position to the hon. Gentleman as simply as I can. I do not want to be tied down to fixed times between now and May 2003. I do not want to find that I cannot do anything for 18 months, which would be the effect of the amendment, and equally I do not want to be fixed to a date prior to May 2003, the target date that we have set.

The Translink card is an example of the flexibility that can be applied in such circumstances.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way because we want to run the argument down immediately. He says that he wants to retain flexibility and in reply to the question, ``Why?'', which I mouthed across the Room to him—for which I crave your forgiveness, Mr. Amess—he said that he was concerned that the people of Northern Ireland might reject the electoral identity card. I am confused about the circumstances that may create such a rejection—a public opinion poll or a newspaper campaign against identity cards?

The purpose of the Bill is to bring clarity and certainty to the electoral system: from a set date, people will be required to produce photographic identification in the polling station. By trying to retain flexibility, the Minister will allow an element of doubt to creep in, which, following the arguments that he has just advanced, may mean that the proposals are not put in place. The argument for certainty is much stronger than that for flexibility.

Mr. Browne: There is no element of doubt. On Second Reading, and on more than one occasion in our proceedings, I have explained that we have to take the voters of Northern Ireland with us, particularly those who do not have the photographic ID that would be accepted in place of the voluntary ID card. Until now, I have not heard any discontent about that in the Committee. Indeed, when I say it, I see many people opposite me nodding and saying, ``That's right. We need to take those people with us.'' In explaining the deadline to the Committee, I have never been other than entirely honest and straightforward about the fact that, once the Bill is enacted, we must take the people of Northern Ireland with us in the process.

10.30 am

I have not said anything in my explanations and responses in the debate about these amendments that I have not previously spoken and been questioned about. Indeed, there has been assent from the members of the Committee. In my view, my approach to the amendments is entirely consistent with the position that I have adopted all along, not only in the House but in conversations with hon. Members and others.

To address the issue raised by the hon. Member for Reigate as to how we will gauge progress, obviously, we will have to make a judgment based on the response to the campaign and the process. However, the people of Northern Ireland, who are entirely the theme of the campaign, may make the judgment for us. They may not come forward for the identity cards. I am not suggesting for a moment that they will not, or that the campaign will not be designed to achieve that objective. However, the cards are voluntary. We hope to persuade the people, many of whom are the voters Opposition Members. We need to take them along with us on a voluntary basis. I have heard no arguments against that, apart from a somewhat oblique argument that denied compulsory ID cards or any form of compulsion for such cards.

We all must understand and accept that at some stage a judgment must be made as to whether people are volunteering for the ID cards, and a decision must be made as to what effect that will have on the poll. As the Minister responsible, it seems eminently sensible to maintain flexibility while at the same time repeating a clear undertaking that I am seeking to achieve the change before the Assembly elections in May 2003. I hope that that will reassure the hon. Member for Reigate but, if it does not, I am sure that he will get on to his feet again.

Since Second Reading, I have given careful consideration as to whether to add the new Translink smart card to the list of specified documents. I understand that that card will be issued to all those in Northern Ireland over the age of 65 who volunteer for it. It will allow them free travel on public transport in Northern Ireland. On principle, I am willing to add the Translink card as soon as possible. However, the new Translink card, which will have the holder's name, signature, photograph and date of birth on it, will not be issued until April 2002. If we were to change the list of specified documents in the way proposed by the measure, we would be accepting the current senior citizen's pass, which does not meet our security requirement.

I understand that some documents on the list at the moment do not meet our security requirement—that is why we are moving to photographic identification—but it seems entirely inconsistent with what we are trying to achieve in the Bill to allow the current pass to be added to that list. The next scheduled Assembly elections in Northern Ireland are not until May 2003 but, if there were for any reason elections between now and May 2003, the measure would add the card to the list and allow it to be used.

The Translink smart card provides the information that we need but, before I add it to the list, I want to ensure that it is secure. There is a clear assumption that since the Department for Regional Development has an interest in its security, it is likely to make it secure. However, I must be satisfied that the card will meet the level of security that the other acceptable documents will meet.

As the hon. Member for Belfast, East stated, the medical card will be accepted as proof of age by Translink. I am as relaxed about that as he is, for all the reasons that he so ably articulated and which I will not repeat. There is a difference between someone producing a medical card as proof of age when a photograph has been taken and someone turning up on the day of the poll when a photograph has not been taken.

I met the Northern Ireland Minister for Regional Development to discuss the issues and asked my officials to continue to work with those at DRD to resolve the two outstanding problems about the security of the Translink card. I am confident that those issues will be resolved to our satisfaction. It would be foolish to accept the change to the list of specified documents until I can be certain that the Translink card is a secure proof of identity. To reassure the hon. Member for Belfast, East before he intervenes, I am pretty sure that I will be satisfied with its security, but I just have a few t's to cross and i's to dot.

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