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Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): It was evident from the contributions made in Committee that both sides supported the concept that identification for electoral purposes should be restricted as soon as possible to photo-identity. I and others tabled amendments to ensure that people could no longer use the non-photo identity documents that are most used for electoral fraud. For example, the medical card has been replicated in its thousands in Northern Ireland in an orchestrated way. Although social security benefit books are less easy to obtain, they are also used to perpetrate electoral fraud.

I have great sympathy for the intention behind new clause 1. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he has considered the remarks made in Committee about

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aged persons' ability to use the Translink photo-identity as an electoral document. He gave the proposal fair wind in Committee, but I would like him to reaffirm that such a proposal will appear in amending rules and regulations.

My problem with new clause 1 arises from something that the Minister said in Committee. Indeed, it is why I withdrew my amendments. In the second sitting, he clearly said that it was his intention by 2003


Anyone who has not got a passport or a driving licence—or a Translink card, if the Minister accepts that suggestion—will be issued with the new electoral photo-identity card. That will enable all non-photographic forms of identification to be withdrawn or designated invalid for electoral purposes.

I was happy and content with that assurance until unfortunately, in the third sitting, the Minister stated:


I quote that carefully because I want the Minister to respond to it. In the same paragraph, he said that the Government intend to remove all non-photographic forms of identification as soon as possible, hopefully before the anticipated Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 2003—if not before then, of course.

I want complete clarification of that. Does the Minister think that the electoral officer has sufficient resources and that it is practical to impose the withdrawal of non-photographic identification by, say, spring 2003? That is germane to the debate. I sympathise with the thrust of the new clause and would want that reflected in the rules and regulations that are imposed.

If the Minister is able to reassure me on that, I will take on board his other caveat about the danger in the process. The lack of time, resources, technology or techniques could mean that a significant number of people will not have photo-identity cards by April 2003 and will be disfranchised if new clause 1 comes into effect. That is a subjective judgment. I need assurances about the resources and the technicalities as they relate to implementing the Government's intent, rather than worrying that the Bill's measures are not capable of being implemented by spring 2003.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): It seems that there is a broad consensus on this issue. New clause 1 and amendments Nos. 10 and 17 would achieve the same objective—to ensure that the identification for voting includes photographs. The second objective is to have the arrangements in place by 2003 in time for what we expect will be the next Assembly election. The Minister says that they are also his objectives. On that basis, I expect him to say that he is prepared to accept the new clause and amendments.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne) indicated dissent.

Mr. Trimble: The Minister may want to consider the exact form in which the amendments are drafted, but it is

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very much in his interests to accept them. I am rather disappointed to see the Minister shake his head when I say that. I advise him that it is greatly in his interests to adopt that course of action.

5.45 pm

In Northern Ireland, it has for a long time been clear that there is substantial abuse in respect of identification documents. They were introduced with the wholly laudable objective of preventing personation, and they succeeded in eliminating personation by all parties bar one. Personation in Northern Ireland is now committed by only one party, because only one party has the resources necessary to contravene the current system. Those resources should not be underestimated. The Minister knows that in financial terms, if not in manpower terms, that party's resources far exceed his party's. The Minister's party would have great difficulty matching it in terms of effective political organisation, because his party cannot match the resources of a party that runs rackets on a huge scale in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

There is a serious problem because that one party has the resources needed to contravene the current arrangements and it does so through non-photographic forms of identification, especially the medical card. The abuse has been known about for ages, and for ages Members of Parliament and members of the Northern Ireland parties have urged successive Governments to deal with that abuse. I remember six or seven years ago speaking to Northern Ireland Office Ministers and being assured by them that they would tackle the problem and do so promptly. I was told that legislation would be in place in time for the next general election—the one held in 1997; that legislation never appeared. In 1997, the new Labour Government assured us that they would tackle the issue and that legislation would be in place before the next general election; no legislation was in place by the time of this year's general election.

Finally, the legislative process has started, but can the Minister assure us that he will achieve the objective of having only photo-identity by May 2003? I hope that he can, but I know that there has been bureaucratic resistance to such a measure for the past half dozen years or more. I strongly urge him to accept in one form or another amendments that would put on the statute book the requirement that the measure must have been implemented by May 2003. Without that discipline and that argument to use against those who adduce reasons to delay, I greatly doubt his ability to deliver.

I do not doubt the Minister's intention, but I doubt whether he will be able to deliver in the next 18 months—the issue is delivery. We shall of course listen to what he has to say—what promises and undertakings he makes—but I repeat that to ensure the objective is achieved, it would be better for the provision to be on the statute book.

New clause 1 and the other amendments set out various forms of photographic identity document. Some of the proposals point towards the establishment of a system of identity cards for the whole population. The Liberal Democrat spokesman echoed the reservations voiced by the spokesman for the official Opposition. I have never understood why some people do not like the idea of identity cards, and I have never been able to find any coherent reason for opposing such a system.

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Identity cards do not cause a problem anywhere else in Europe—this is one of the few occasions on which I recommend practice in the rest of Europe as a guide for us. Compulsory ID systems elsewhere are a convenience—it is quite a disadvantage not to have an identity card system. I see hon. Members turning around, and I do not want to open up an entirely different debate; I merely observe in passing that I do not understand the objections.

I should like the Minister to respond to one point relating to identity documents and the proposals before the House. On Monday, the Home Secretary made a statement in which he said that he would introduce by January a system of identity cards for asylum seekers that would use fingerprints, signatures and biometric techniques. All those bits of information would be on a smart card that would be available by the end of this year. I think that I am right in saying that, in Committee, the Minister said there would be difficulty in producing smart cards in that time scale. Evidently, progress has been made since the Committee reported, but I urge the Minister to look again at including that range of material on the appropriate cards, as we are dealing with people who are adept at forgery and manipulating the system.

There is a consensus in the House on the need to move to photo-identification alone and for that to be in place by May 2003. The only argument is about the details and ensuring that there is a statutory obligation; we urge the Minister to accept that there is a statutory requirement for such identification. That way, we might at least have some confidence. However, if we weighed the Government's pronouncements against the background of pronouncements by previous Northern Ireland Office Ministers stretching back over several Administrations, confidence would be in short supply.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): For the most part, I walked the same path as the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) in Committee, but we parted company on the issue of identification. The Minister is not being unreasonable in resisting the new clause; I trust that he will continue to do so.

The general consensus in Committee was that, while we were keen to have a Bill that would be powerful and effective in limiting the activities of electoral fraudsters, we did not want to do anything that would deter a significant number of people in Northern Ireland from being able validly to register and vote. If we are to succeed in the interests of democracy, we must ensure that whatever good we achieve in deterring the fraudster is not offset by deterring people who are genuine and want to exercise their franchise, as it is intended that they should. The Committee considered that balance as, indeed, must the House; the Minister had to consider it when the amendment was tabled in Committee, and he must consider now that it has been tabled on Report.

As right hon. and hon. Members have said, it is desirable to have an entirely photographic identification card system in Northern Ireland as soon as possible. Whether that identification is a driving licence, a passport, a custom-made ID card, or, hopefully, if the good intentions of the Minister are followed, the concessionary pass produced by Translink and the Department for Regional Development, the inclusion of which came about as a result of good, sound Democratic Unionist party policy, that is the way forward. However, we must

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recognise that, at the moment, the most popular forms of identification at elections in Northern Ireland are probably benefit books and medical cards.

That is the reality; those of us who have attempted to carry out an investigation which, if not scientific, at least helped us to get some feeling of the use of identification at polling stations, came away with the clear view that those were the main identifiers in use. If that is the case, the burden is on the Government to ensure that those identifiers are replaced by photographic identification. The Minister should therefore delay any statutory requirement to take existing identifiers out of use and employ only photographic identification until he is sure that there is a sufficiently high uptake of the new identifiers.

I would not vote for the Bill—this is how important the matter is to me—if I thought that the end result would be a significant number of genuine people being unable to vote and if, correspondingly, an unspecified number of people, whose total is probably hard to determine, were able to abuse the system. The political parties in Northern Ireland and the Government must therefore be satisfied that the uptake is sufficiently high. That does not remove the requirement that the Government should have a clear goal, nor does it remove the requirement that the Northern Ireland political parties should ensure that they keep to that goal and timetable as far as possible.


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