Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee on 18th October 2001.

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[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 9:30 am, 18th October 2001

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.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Will the hon. Gentleman explain why a licence to vote is less offensive than a compulsory identity card?

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

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?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

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 long—that 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.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

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 appear—our proposal has a specific purpose—but 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.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 9:45 am, 18th October 2001

There must be something wrong with the way that I speak the language. I have said this now about 12 times—I 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.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

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.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, 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.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that explanation.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

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.'.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

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.''.'.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

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.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, 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.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, 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?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

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.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

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.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, 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.]

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 10:00 am, 18th October 2001

Order. I wonder whether the Whip could help the hon. Lady. Her arguments seem more suited to clause 4 stand part. Perhaps she could draw her remarks more closely to the amendment before us.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

I am grateful for your advice, Mr. Amess. No doubt someone will explain to me later where I am going wrong on this. Basically I support the Government position, which is that we should move to identity cards—sorry, I do not mean identity cards. I am getting flustered here. I believe that we should move to the position where everyone has some form of photographic ID, but we should allow time for people to arrange that.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

I find one of the provisions in new clause 1 rather vague and perhaps the hon. Members who tabled it will explain. It refers to a card that is a ``counterpart'' of a driving licence. How wide is that counterpart to be? Could the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) use his House of Commons photo pass to get into the polling station? Should not the new clause have a much more specific list?

I recognise the extension to senior citizens' concessionary fare passes as an advance. I do not have a driving licence, although I have a passport, which I could use in Northern Ireland. If I did not have that I could qualify for a concessionary fare pass, as I am over 65. I certainly could get a bus pass in Derbyshire and I often take buses. However, I do not do so as I do not think that my constituents would take too kindly to their MP getting concessionary bus fares. Perhaps I should insist on my rights.

Some people would be covered by this provision who are not covered by the measures that the Government have introduced. I am surprised that the amendment does not go much further. Earlier the hon. Member for Belfast, East had great fun at the expense of a number of Labour Members when he said that the provisions in the report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee went much further than this. He, the Minister and I were all members of that Committee and there are two other members present. The report argued for a photographic voter identity card for everyone who was exercising their franchise.

I should like to take this opportunity to appeal to the Minister to consider that point of view and to think about introducing a measure on Report that would cover it. It would then mean that the list comprising passports, driving licences, counterparts of driving licences, whatever they may be, and senior citizens' concessionary fare passes would be superseded by the provision requiring people to have photographic identity cards.

It was said on Second Reading that up to a third or a half of the electorate in Northern Ireland would have to pick up a card. I grant that if the amendment were carried, the third to a half element would shrink somewhat, but at least 25 per cent. would be second-class citizens and have to pick up the photo identity card to exercise their franchise rights. Why should those who happen to have passports, driving licences, counterparts of driving licences or concessionary fare passes be privileged while the others are expected to come out to roving vans-however the system will operate-to claim their franchise rights? If everyone had to do it, it is much more likely that even that 25 per cent. would pick it up fully and properly.

The amendment is flawed because of the counterpart element. We should go beyond that. I do not support the amendment simply to extend the list. I ask the Minister to try to go beyond the proposal at some stage to subsume the current difficulty.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a further argument that has not perhaps been tested in respect of the clause and others in the Bill? A golden rule for any electoral system is that it should be simple, straightforward and easy to understand. If there are four or five ways of qualifying for the franchise, is there not a danger that we will deter people from exercising their right to vote?

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

It is a very complicated arrangement. Unlike in Great Britain, people in Northern Ireland are used to turning up at polling stations and having to produce a form of identification. People are clear that that needs to be done. But we would be replacing a system that allowed the use of different documents, which we have heard could be forged. People must get used to the idea that they need to pick up something from a different list. It would be much easier to move and transfer things into new areas if one clear and distinct provision could be publicised on television at the time of the election. It would avoid the complexities that the Bill has got us into, which are being added to by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. We should be careful about going down this road.

There is a system that I hope we will move towards introducing. We cannot do anything about it in this Committee, but it would tackle the problem of electoral registration, giving us registers that were as full as possible, and would be an entire check on fraud in general elections. That is the enabling device of identity cards. They could only be introduced throughout the United Kingdom. We could not just have a special identity card for Northern Ireland. I hope that that measure will be taken into account.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Before the hon. Gentleman finishes, am I to understand that despite everything that he has said on the Floor of the House about the importance of making specific progress, he is not in favour of setting an 18-month time limit to introduce some of the changes with which he agrees?

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

Some clear and specific measures in the Bill seem able to be handled early. If some people are expected to pick up voter identity cards, everyone could be expected to. It would be the same exercise but engaged in more broadly. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister as well as the mover of the amendment are listening.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

Perhaps I should declare a personal interest in respect of (3)(da): I am a senior citizen, despite my youthful appearance.

I have two points. First, it is reasonable to accept a senior citizen photographic identity card, which is readily available to that sector of the electorate who are likely to be flustered or upset at having to find other documents. Senior citizens on the electoral register will carry that photographic identity card with them almost every day with great ease, so I support that proposal entirely.

Secondly, in view of some comments that have been made, I should like clarification on the first part of the amendment. I do not know what the situation is here, but a Northern Ireland driving licence has two parts. There is one inset for the documentation and one for the photograph; the licence comprises both parts.

I understood that the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland issued strict instructions to the presiding officers at elections that only the entire driving licence was acceptable as a document of proof. In practice, the situation at polling stations varied. I hope that the hon. Member for Belfast, East will clarify whether he is suggesting that only the photographic element of the driving licence be required at the polling station or whether the entire licence be required.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

Let me start by reassuring my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) about the Bill's objectives. We are seeking not to complicate current provisions but to simplify them. Current provisions on specified documents state that a voter is legally required to produce one of a number of valid specified documents at a polling station before being issued with a ballot paper.

The current list of specified documents is a current Northern Ireland or Great Britain full driving licence or a Northern Ireland provisional licence; a current passport; a current book of payment of allowances, benefits or pensions issued by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety or the Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland; a medical card issued by the Northern Ireland Central Services Agency; a current British seaman's card; a plastic card issued by the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions or the Inland Revenue, with the name and national insurance number embossed on it, interestingly; and for a woman married within two years of polling day, a certified copy of the extract of any entry issued by the registrar.

The Bill's intention is to replace all those non-photographic forms of identification with photographic identification. We are talking about a passport, a full and current driving licence—I will explain which part of the licence is acceptable later—or, for those who have neither, who, as has been pointed out, are estimated to comprise between 20 per cent. and 30 per cent. of the population, a voluntary electoral identity card provided by the Government. If that simplified system satisfies him that we are seeking both to tighten the security of the vote and present a simplified list of items to the public, I am pleased to give that reassurance.

There are some interesting findings about the use of identification documents in the report entitled ``The Electoral Research Project The Combined Election on 7th June 2001'', which was carried out for the Northern Ireland Office and reported in October 2001. Page 19 of the report shows that

``Two per cent. of those who had not voted (five respondents) were refused a ballot paper at the polling station.''

That could be a significant number of people.

``In four of these cases, the reason for refusal was because they did not present the correct identification. The other respondent said nothing other than that he/she had to queue for 15 minutes and was then refused a ballot paper.''

She did not say whether the 15 minutes was after 10 o'clock.

In paragraph 3.5.2 on page 53, findings based on interviews with presiding officers who had worked at the polling stations demonstrate the degree of confusion among electors in Northern Ireland about the required identification. The report says that

``some 50 per cent. of respondents (462) confirmed that potential voters presented workplace passes as a form of identification which was not on the list of specified documents. Other types of inappropriate ID included: travel passes, student cards and gun licences. Other forms of inappropriate documentation included: bank/credit cards; only one part of the driving licence; birth certificates; taxi/HGV licences; old medical cards; and unemployment signing documents.''

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire 10:15 am, 18th October 2001

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.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

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—

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

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?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

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.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

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?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

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.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

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.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 10:30 am, 18th October 2001

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.

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.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

The Minister is concerned about the security of the specified documents. How satisfied is he that driving licences or passports, which can be applied for at home and at a distance, are any more secure than the Translink DRD concessionary pass, even with its present security levels?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am not in a position to compare the two. The hon. Gentleman shares my objective on security. He would want to be satisfied that the Translink card meets the highest possible level of security. He is confident that it will and I am almost assured that it will. When I am, I shall be happy to add it to the list. It will then be comparable to the passport or driving licence. It can be added to the list through secondary legislation at the appropriate time, so it does not need to be included in the Bill.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

Just so that we can be certain about this important point, can the Minister refer us to the relevant provisions in statute to show us where the power to do that resides?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am sure that I can—comparatively shortly.

I should like to deal with driving licences. On Second Reading I undertook to examine the position on driving licences, which seemed to be inconsistent with the objective of stopping people being turned away from the poll or refused a ballot paper even though they had produced specified documents—the driving licence or a photographic counterpart that includes signature, date of birth and so forth. I was unaware that that was a problem, so I wanted to examine it further.

I assure the Committee that, from the next election in Northern Ireland, the photocard—the licence or the counterpart of the current licence—will be acceptable on its own as identification at the polling station. Only an administrative change is required to achieve that objective. No amendment to legislation is necessary.

The hon. Member for Reigate asked what statute was involved. I direct him to rule 37(1F) of the parliamentary election rules, which provides the power to amend the list of documents by regulations or subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I hope that hon. Members will accept my assurances and not press the amendments.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I have listened carefully to the Minister's explanation. Will he retrace his steps to what he has just said about the acceptability of the voluntary electoral identity card? I may have got the wrong end of the stick but am I right that he will not withdraw non-photographic identification until he is satisfied that the voluntary electoral identity card is sufficiently acceptable for everyone to produce it?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I thought for a moment that the hon. Gentleman was going to summarise my position accurately but his last few words demonstrate our area of disagreement. I shall explain my position again.

The aim of the legislation is to make only secure, photographic identification, such as a driving licence, passport, voluntary ID card and probably the Translink card acceptable as proof of identity at the polling station. There will therefore be four acceptable forms of identification. A significant number of people in Northern Ireland will have a passport, driving licence or a Translink card. The advantage of the Translink card is that, because it is held by people over 65, it is likely to be acceptable to the elderly, a group about whom I am concerned. I do not know how many people will be without photographic identification. If we include the Translink card that will eke away at the 20 or 30 per cent. of people whom we estimate do not have ID cards or a driving licence.

When the Government are satisfied that everyone has one of those four probable forms of photographic identification—we will make a decision about the inclusion of the Translink card when appropriate—or has had a reasonable opportunity to obtain a voluntary ID card, the non-photographic forms of identification will be withdrawn. Some judgment has to be made about the acceptability of the voluntary ID card. All hon. Members have accepted that position, in all the debates that have been held on the issue. Some judgment has to be made of whether the measure is gaining sufficient acceptance to justify a change or is being rejected, for good reason, by a significant number of vulnerable people. I see no reason why they should reject it, because the requirement to produce identification documents has been generally accepted by the people of Northern Ireland. We are building on that. I am planning not for failure, but for success. I wish to retain some flexibility, for the reason with which all members of the Committee agree. Equally, I will not commit myself to the position of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) that everyone needs an ID card. Clearly, not everyone will voluntarily turn up to get one.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I thank the Minister for that explanation. My concern lies with the question of good reason. The acceptability of the card to the customer, as it were, is different from the issue of the Minister feeling that it has been rejected for good reason. I am concerned that if it is known that the Minister will be unable to withdraw the non-photographic means of identity if a sufficient number of people reject the voluntary card, people may be intimidated into not accepting the voluntary card.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

In that event, I will be able to make the judgment that people have been intimidated out of getting the card. I will not on that basis be able to make the judgment that the card does not have the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland; I may have to make that judgment for other reasons.

I do not hear any dissonant voices in regard to my position, which is that the measure constitutes a significant step change in the requirements for identification. It is being made for good reason, with cross-party support. We can debate it all we like, but we will have a duty as parliamentarians and democrats to explain it to the people of Northern Ireland and to instil confidence in the process. We must undertake that task collectively, and I have a particular responsibility. We must preserve the position, although we hope that we will never have to use it.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire 10:45 am, 18th October 2001

I need to clarify my position. If I am to support a universal card, there should not be a distinction between a class of people who have passports and those who are obliged to go for cards. I am in favour of compulsory voter identity cards, which ties in with my general comments about identification cards being able to tackle certain problems. Another problem is that we do not accept voluntary electoral registration—we can technically fine people £1,000 if they are not registered—but we are now saying that people can voluntarily not qualify for voting, which seems problematic.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Order. Interventions should be short contributions, not speeches.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I hear my hon. Friend's criticisms of the changes. However, those criticisms can equally be applied to the status quo in Northern Ireland. People may qualify for specified identification documents, but no one makes them pick them up. If it is a valid criticism, it is one also of the status quo. The matter is an inevitable consequence of the measures that must be taken to secure the poll in Northern Ireland.

It may be possible to ascertain who needs voluntary identification cards, and I will examine the idea of including in the canvass for 2002 a question asking people whether they do not have any of the other forms of photographic identification and therefore need a card. That will serve a dual purpose: to enable those who have to prepare for the election and distribution of cards to identify those who might need them, and to give us an idea of how many cards we might need to produce. I will consider the appropriateness of that but, in the meantime, I urge the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I did not press arguments at length in speaking to new clause 6, not least because they are self-evident. We have listened to a long speech from the Minister in reply to concise points put from the Opposition Benches, and the more I hear from the Minister, the weaker his position appears. He was completely speared by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) because a key element of the Bill is removing the ability of people to turn up with non-photographic identification, which is much easier to forge, to steal votes from honest people. The Minister said that he needs flexibility to ensure that he can carry the population with him on electoral identity cards. He must understand that the issue is about a part of the population that supports a political movement that has yet to make a complete transition from terrorism to democracy. In the words of the hon. Member for South Down—although he did not attribute it directly to one party—there is systematic, paramilitarised fraud of the voting system. An organised movement could make the electoral identity card's introduction so difficult that the Minister said, ``I've got this flexibility in the Bill. It's been frightfully difficult to introduce and I'm not carrying the population with me, so we'll continue to have non-photographic documents for an unspecified period.''

Parliament should not accept that argument. It should place a duty on the Minister and the Government to introduce the measure according to the timetable that he has consistently proposed—for the 2003 Assembly elections. If the Bill obliges the Minister to get things in place, he need not be concerned about a possible organised campaign to make the introduction of a card in Northern Ireland impossible. One movement may complain, ``All our people are being disfranchised and that is grossly unfair. We don't accept an identity card issued by the British state and we don't happen to have a passport issued by the Republic of Ireland, which might be accepted.''

One can imagine the arguments that may be advanced to create the climate of opinion that would enable the Minister to escape because hon. Members had given him room for manoeuvre by not accepting the amendments.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Would the deadline that the hon. Gentleman and I propose not strengthen the Minister's hand in achieving the Bill's objective?

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, I pray in aid Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, because of the similar name. When he arrived in Cairo in 1942, he tore up the plans for retreat, and what we are reading in the Bill is plans for the Minister to retreat. Parliament should not give him that opportunity. The plans should be torn up, and he should have no room for retreat. We should be able to introduce the measure on 1 April 2003, as new clause 6 states.

The Minister says that he is discussing the Translink card with the Minister responsible for such matters in Northern Ireland, who is a friend of the hon. Member for Belfast, East. A few concerns remain about that card's security. This Minister is confident that they will be sorted out, and I am sure that if that Department continues to be administered by the party of the hon. Member for Belfast, East, they will be. Of course, those matters may become the direct responsibility of this Minister within days, in which case he would have no excuse for being unable to sort things out properly. He says that he is confident, and I am happy to accept him at his word.

New clause 6 wraps matters neatly together. It would impose a timetable on the Minister. For the reasons that I have given, he should have a timetable. Parliament should stiffen the sinews of the Government, not give them room for retreat.

We have every reason to be suspicious because, without talking between the lines, we know at whom the legislation is directed. We have seen a stream of negotiations and concessions in other fields. There have been behind-the-scenes deals, and the Government have attempted to put pressure on the Speaker to allow Members to use the facilities and money of the House to run offices from here without taking the oath. Happily, the former and current Speaker have firmly resisted that pressure.

It would be wrong of Parliament to allow the Minister wriggle room. He can sort out the travel card and the timetable. Therefore, I intend to press new clause 6 at the appropriate time. I am happy to support the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire in pressing amendment No. 37.

If the Minister listens to the arguments, I hope that he will come to the conclusion before the Bill leaves this House that it would be useful for him to be backed up by a timetable. Perhaps his colleagues in the other place may come to that conclusion. It would help his officials in the Northern Ireland Office because it would give them no alternative but to get the scheme in. It would then be properly supported by the appropriate public information campaign in Northern Ireland to make absolutely clear the new photo identity cards scheme and the time when they would be required. They are not the only players in the public information process. If the political parties in Northern Ireland all know that they are working to a timetable of 1 April 2003 for the Assembly election, they will inform their supporters to ensure that they come with the appropriate identification.

The argument for certainty is overwhelming. If the Minister does not accept the amendment in Committee, I hope that he will give it further thought before the Bill is enacted to give himself the support of Parliament in putting these measures forward. The new clause gives clarity and certainty and I am sure that, although Ministers always want flexibility, this is a flexibility that he could well do without.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

Now that there is a more relaxed atmosphere in the Committee perhaps I can deal at greater length with some of the issues that have arisen. I should make my position clear in relation to the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. I tend to favour the Minister's approach and I should like to explain why.

It is not unreasonable for the Minister to leave open the timetable for removing the existing prescribed documents which are not photographic, until he is satisfied that there has been sufficient uptake of the new identification card and to ensure that the Translink-DRD card is available. I said earlier that if I were not satisfied in this area I would vote against the next stage of the Bill. I do not believe that there is any advantage in us producing legislation that will make electoral fraud more difficult if at the same time we disfranchise a significant section of legitimate and valid voters.

If we accept that principle, the Minister must be satisfied about those who genuinely come out to vote and discover at a later stage that the identifications specified by legislation have changed. There should be available to them a form of identification that they can readily use. That is not an unreasonable position. However, I agree with the general thrust that the Minister must have a goal and must work to a timetable. The difficulty in prescribing it in law could bring us to a situation where the Translink card is not included and the ID card has not been sufficiently taken up and perhaps 10 or 20 per cent. of the electorate are not able to exercise their franchise because of the exclusion of benefit books and medical cards.

We need to remind ourselves that although, according to the evidence given to the Select Committee by electoral officers, electoral fraud is most likely to come by the use of a medical card as identification, a medical card is also probably the most used valid means of identification of people who elect Members from Northern Ireland to the House. We must exercise great care in that regard.

I said on Second Reading that, as the Minister had placed in the legislation the requirement that the new photographic identity card should have the name, date of birth, photograph and signature of the voter—I am not sure whether there was any mention of an address—when there was in existence with the driving licence a photographic card that had all that information on it, it was unnecessary to reject it at a polling station because it did not have the second piece of information, the paper document on which endorsements are placed. I am happy to say that my licence, valid from 1996, has no endorsements. The paper document is not relevant in determining the right to vote, and there is no information on it that is necessary for electoral purposes. Therefore, the plastic photocard is sufficient, as it bears all the information that the Minister will have on the new ID card.

The hon. Members for South Down and for North-East Derbyshire raised two points about the difference between the part and the whole of the driving licence. The photographic counterpart of the old driving licences that were available in Northern Ireland, which is the type that I hold, is the part that would be relevant for electoral purposes.

For the new licence required under the European Union regulations—it bears the crest of the stars of Europe on it and says driving licence across the top—the photocard itself is the driving licence, and the paper document becomes the counterpart. That is the reason for the awkward wording. However, in both cases, the plastic photo part of the driving licence is the part that bears all the information required by the Minister, and I am delighted that the Minister recognises that it is satisfactory for identification purposes. I am even more delighted that that can be dealt with through administrative changes and does not require any further legislation. Therefore, I have no wish to press that issue any further.

I welcome the Minister's remarks about the Translink-DRD concessionary card. Again, that card will provide all the necessary information. I have no doubt that the amount of cross checking will satisfy the Minister with respect to the required level of security. My only nagging concern is about when it will be included as a specified document by way of secondary legislation. I understand that, under the amendment, the concessionary card would immediately be a valid means of identification. The Minister's concern is that there would be a lack of security with the present travel card. I recognise that, but it is probably more secure than the medical card. As it has not been a means of identification for electoral purposes, it would be easy to pay special regard to anyone seeking a travel card from the moment that the Bill was enacted until April next year when the new card becomes available.

I do not share the Minister's reluctance to accept that the change could be made now, but I am reasonably content that the Minister's intentions are good and that he hopes to be able to include the Translink card by April. That will probably facilitate between 100,000 and 200,000 individuals—a significant number, which will help the Department reduce the work necessary to provide electoral identification cards. The Minister has more than met my hopes, so I do not want to press my new clause.

I should like to make one further comment about the procedures that will be applied when the legislation comes into force. The Minister's suggestion in response to the hon. Member for Reigate might be useful, but I am unsure how easily it can be fitted into the document. One respect in which the Northern Ireland Office report failed us was the absence of quantification—or at least some guesstimate—of the usage of the presently required documents. That would have given us an idea of the extent of the Government's task in providing photographic identification for electoral purposes. A question about whether people would prefer to use a driving licence, passport or Translink concessionary card would let the Government know what they have to achieve over the coming months.

A major advertising information campaign is crucial and political parties should play their part in it to ensure that people have the necessary means of identification for voting at polling stations. Over recent years—I include the June election—I have been disappointed by the low level of advertising and information emanating from the electoral office about possible difficulties at the polls. There were two elections on 7 June and different electoral systems were in use. Insufficient information was provided to help voters understand the difficulties. If the information had been of a higher standard, many of the problems might have been overcome. The Government need to work much harder on the marketing front to ensure that everyone is aware of the changes. People must not be allowed to retain the impression that any form of photo identification will be sufficient.

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire may not be aware that one can currently go to a polling station with a medical card that bears no photograph, while a police warrant—possessing a high degree of security in relation to its issue—is unacceptable. Either we have the precise documents prescribed or a free for all, which might allow greater abuse. The documents should be specified. Including the travel card will widen the system sufficiently to bring in a section of the community that I felt would find it most difficult to apply for the new identification card. I welcome that, but the Minister must assess whether there has been sufficient uptake and consult fully with the political parties in Northern Ireland before he makes that decision.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 11:00 am, 18th October 2001

I apologise for my brief absence, Mr. Amess. I was drawn away from the bosom of the Committee by pressing and unexpected matters.

The Minister began his comments on amendment No. 37 by saying that he would try to explain in the simplest possible way his reasons for objecting to it. He is too brainy for me, because it still was not simple enough. Why is the Minister unwilling to accept the necessity of having a backstop by which time the changes will have had to have been implemented? To his credit, he agrees that non-photographic forms of evidence are suspect and can be forged, the medical card being the most infamous. As such, we all agree in principle with the changes, but the Minister seems unable to accept that, until those changes have taken place, electoral fraud in Northern Ireland will be simpler than it will be when photographic identification has been introduced.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could address the issue that I and the hon. Member for Belfast, East addressed at some length. If there is a strict timetable and the moves do not get the confidence of the vulnerable people whom we are all keen to ensure are not disfranchised, the amendment would disfranchise them. What does the hon. Gentleman suggest a Minister should do if 10 per cent. or 15 per cent. of the voting population are not to be allowed to vote?

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I was going to address that point later, but I shall do so immediately, and the Minister is free to intervene if he is not satisfied.

The backstop date is an insurance policy that guarantees that the change will be made. It converts the actions incumbent on the Minister and the Northern Ireland Office from passive to active. It will be their responsibility to fulfil the objectives of the Bill by a certain date, which makes all the difference in the world. The Minister is right to say that there will be resistance. The hon. Member for Reigate made the same point, but rightly went on to point out that any loophole, weakness or vulnerability in implementation will be seized on by those who wish to continue the process of electoral fraud. There could be coercion, pressure and a host of other justifications that cause individuals to resist change or organisations to feel that, by providing obstructions, the Government's commitment to the implementation date will be open ended.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

If an organisation perceived an interest in intimidating or discouraging some supporters from providing themselves with the form of identification, but other sections of the community provided themselves with it, would it not be self-defeating? They would find that their voters were without identification while other voters had the card.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

That is an incisive point. As he has highlighted, even without a deadline, law-abiding citizens are likely to comply. However, if there is not a legal deadline, those organisations that are intent on pursuing electoral fraud will have the power to prevent the changes.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

The reality is that the Minister is still capable of proceeding to the disadvantage of any organisation that held its supporters back from providing themselves with the necessary identification.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 11:15 am, 18th October 2001

I understand the hon. Gentleman's comment. If one makes the deadline compulsory, thereafter the voters of those organisations that have deliberately resisted the implementation of the change will be disfranchised. I believe that that was the point that the hon. Member for North Down was making, and it is exactly the point that I and the hon. Members for Belfast, East and for Reigate made.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I say that I am becoming increasingly confused by the stand that the Minister is taking, as represented by his last intervention on the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. The Minister asked the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire what he is supposed to do if X per cent. of people are prevented from voting.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

If I can ask my question, perhaps the Minister can then ask his.

The Minister asked the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire what he expected him to do, other than delay the deadline, if X per cent. of people in Northern Ireland were prevented from voting because of a failure to take up the card. That is a contrary position from the one that he took in answer to one of my earlier interventions, when he stated that intimidation will not be seen as a good reason for delaying the removal of the non-photographic means of identity.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I believe that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has saved me from my own slight mist of confusion with regard to the comments of the hon. Member for Belfast, East, by introducing a fog of confusion of his own. I understand the point that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight is making, but I wish to give way to the Minister to clarify it.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me the opportunity to speak for myself instead of being misquoted.

May I put this another way for the hon. Gentleman? With the exception of the support that the hon. Member for North Down gives to the amendment, which ties me to a specific timetable, in all my conversations with Northern Ireland politicians, I have been urged to maintain a balance between the need to tackle fraud and the need not to disfranchise voters. I keep that to the forefront of my mind. Until today, those politicians have consistently agreed with me that I must retain flexibility for the very reason that I and the hon. Member for Belfast, East have articulated.

Perhaps I could ask a question of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and, through him, the hon. Member for Reigate: would he be happy to apply such a level of inflexibility to a monumental change for the voters of Montgomeryshire? I suspect not.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I doubt whether it would make much difference to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight if such a change were to be introduced for Montgomeryshire. To answer the Minister's question, which he directed to me, I remind him once again that we are talking about this in relation to Northern Ireland because there is a specific and particular problem there. I think that all members of the Committee would agree that it is tangibly more serious and extreme than the problem elsewhere.

If it turned out that there were comparable levels of electoral fraud in Montgomeryshire, of course, I would be extremely sympathetic to introducing appropriate legislation to overcome the problem. If that required us to set a timetable for introducing key elements of the legislation, so be it.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

The point about intimidation was answered by the hon. Member for Belfast, East when he said that it would be counterproductive for organisations to be involved in intimidation. That does not mean that the problem goes away because there is also the problem of electorate apathy when it comes to taking up their rights and getting hold of a card. There may be some who eventually turn up and vote because they have other ways of doing it. Flexibility must be allowed for a reason other than that of intimidation.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I have answered the Minister's question about Montgomeryshire. Where the problem exists, one must create an appropriate response. That is why the intervention of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire was important. What is an appropriate response? That is at the core of the question whether there are deadlines. While new clause 6 proposed by the hon. Member for Reigate and the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North Down and myself approach deadlines in different ways, they both seek to establish the principle of a deadline by which time the change should be introduced.

The Minister said that when the Government are satisfied that everyone has obtained, or had reasonable opportunity to obtain, a voluntary identity card it will no longer be acceptable to use non-photographic identity cards. Even the Minister agrees that there comes a point when one does that. We are not tied to 18 months although I think that that would be a reasonable period. The hon. Member for Reigate can say whether he is tied to 1 April. However, I am keen on the idea of setting a deadline by which point we will know that this crucial change in the legislation has to have been implemented.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

Has the hon. Gentleman read the evidence that Sinn Fein submitted to the Select Committee when it investigated this? It said:

``We would therefore argue for an end to the current identification regulations because we believe they restrict the electorate's freedom and impose an unnecessary burden on them.''

Every party represented in this Committee is in favour of these identification regulations and toughening them to prevent malpractice. Surely any ability for one party to argue that all its people are disfranchised and that it cannot go ahead because it has not signed up for it should be avoided. One way out would be if the Minister took it on and said that he did not care and that the regulations were coming in. The other way would be to say that he quite understood and that the implementation of the regulations would be delayed. Given the Government's record, I can guess which he would choose.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

That helps me to correct my misunderstanding of what the hon. Member for Belfast, East said earlier. If there is a deadline by which time one must have some form of photographic identification or be disfranchised, I am sure that organisations that have sought to abuse the system would themselves become proactive in ensuring that all their voters had photographic identification. I hope that I have correctly grasped the important point that the hon. Member for Belfast, East made earlier.

It is quite clear to us all that the question of photographic identification is at the heart of the Bill. If the Minister is not willing to accept the deadlines that we have proposed, I implore him at least to give us an assurance before we conclude this debate that he will consider coming back with a backstop deadline. If it is two, four or eight years we would know that there was an point by which the Government would be obliged to make the change. That is how any business works. Businesses do not ask their managers to fix things some time: they ask for a completion date for a project and it is then incumbent on the manager or project team to achieve that. I am not sure why the Minister feels that this unquestionably challenging but manageable project should not be subject to the same kind of focus that will achieve the result.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

What if there has been no intimidation, apart from the intimidation of political parties to get their own members to register and yet still after the most extensive effort by the Northern Ireland Office there is a shortfall merely because people have not come forward in sufficient numbers when they have been given the opportunity? They will then be disfranchised.

Lembit Öpik rose—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.