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Mr. Blunt: Can the Minister reassure the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and me that his arguments are based on considerations of practicality—whether it will be possible for him to introduce the cards in time for 2003, and whether the public information campaign to which he referred will achieve his objective in terms of take-up of the card? If he can run a public information campaign and introduce the measures, surely it would be in his interest to reinforce his position in statute.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, as it gives me the opportunity to set his mind at ease on the practicalities. I am confident that we can meet, in practical terms, the objective that I have set. Earlier, he invited me to tell him whether practical difficulties would arise and he said that he would not insist upon the amendment if that was the case. I do not seek to use that excuse, however, as my understanding is that the measure can be achieved practically. The one element that I cannot assess is the valid response of the ordinary voters of Northern Ireland, on which I shall have

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to make a judgment. That is the only reason that I have ever given for the need to retain flexibility. I am not alone in holding that view, which has support. Hon. Members who represent significant parties and a substantial number of voters in Northern Ireland agree that that is the appropriate approach. There is a difference of view about the matter, but that is my position and has been since the issue was injected into the debate.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Putting it bluntly, the Under-Secretary appears to have handed Sinn Fein a veto on the process by refusing to include a deadline in the Bill. What will happen if it can blackmail, bully or intimidate its supporters into not carrying the card? I understand the argument of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) that they have no interest in doing so, but he is wrong. The Under-Secretary has said—he can correct me if I am wrong—that he could not introduce it without evidence of widespread support from all the parties. Is not that handing the bullies a veto?

Mr. Browne: With respect, the hon. Gentleman misrepresents me. I have never said that any party has a veto. Contributions to the debate suggest that one party may seek to obstruct implementation. If that happens between now and May 2003, it will be a factor that must be taken into account, but in no circumstances am I suggesting here or in any debate that if a party chooses to cause such difficulties, it will be a reason for not introducing the photographic identification cards. I am saying that we cannot introduce a change if an accidental effect is to disfranchise people who wish legally to exercise their vote, as would happen if they had no confidence in the system. It will be my responsibility as a Minister, and the responsibility of other politicians who vote for the change and operate within politics in Northern Ireland, to work together to achieve confidence. If we achieve that confidence, we will achieve the objective. There is no practical reason why we cannot do so.

Lembit Öpik: I intervene a second time only because the issue is so important. Everyone seems to agree with the desired outcome, but the Under-Secretary seems to need some flexibility just in case his desired deadline is not achieved. Will he at least consider including in the Bill a deadline that he is pretty certain can be achieved, even if it is May 2005 or 2006? That would at least enable everybody to know there is a date after which it would not be acceptable to use inappropriate identification

Mr. Browne: With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, he asks me to put certainty into uncertainty. I am suggesting that there is one uncertain element in the process: the response of the voters. Until that element is tested, we will not know its effect. As I do not know how the electors will respond, it is pointless to include a deadline at all. I cannot attach certainty through uncertainty.

6.15 pm

Mr. Trimble: I am slightly confused about the point that the Minister is trying to make. Is he saying that he cannot introduce the measure if there is an insufficient take-up of cards, or that he will not do so if people lack confidence in the system? Most of his comments suggest that he holds the latter position. If that is the case and he

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is concerned only about whether people have confidence, will he explain on what possible grounds they might not be confident?

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. If I was not making myself clear, I shall try to do so now. I was trying to explain that if the small proportion of people who may need the card do not have confidence in the system and do not claim it, that will lead to a lack of take-up. One is a consequence of the other. He shakes his head, but as neither of us has asked voters to come forward for voluntary or compulsory identity cards, he can be no more confident that his assertion is any better than mine in respect of whether a lack of confidence will lead to a lack of take-up. With all due respect to him—these are his voters and he may know them better than me—he has never before asked the electorate to do this. We should work together to inspire confidence in the system and to get people who do not have this new form of photographic identification to come forward for voluntary cards. We must secure sufficient take-up, so that we can pass the test that we have set ourselves and ensure that everybody has a reasonable opportunity to obtain the card. With confidence, we can then remove the non-photographic forms of identification.

Mr. Trimble rose

Mr. Browne: Obviously, that is not clear enough for the right hon. Gentleman; no doubt I have confused him even more. We will soon find out.

Mr. Trimble: I think that I am beginning to understand the Minister. He is using the word "confidence" when it would be better not to do so. He appears to be speaking purely about uptake. He said that we had not asked people to do the same thing before, but that is not true. We successfully introduced the concept of identity documents for elections, which is novel to people outside Northern Ireland, just as we introduced different forms of voting long before any other part of the United Kingdom. The electorate of Northern Ireland are capable and intelligent enough to cope with the situation, as they have proved time and time again. The Minister appears to be speaking purely about uptake. He also used the word "confidence", but that is a different thing. Lack of confidence could be a factor in any failure to take up the card, but it would not be the only one. I was trying to find out whether he would take the decision purely on the basis of whether there was a lack of confidence or whether the matter is simply one of take-up. It appears that he is talking more about take-up than anything else.

Mr. Browne: If the right hon. Gentleman now knows what I am talking about, I can move on.

I regret to say that I shall also resist amendments Nos. 18 and 19, which were tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire. I express regret because he knows the regard in which I hold him on these issues. He has made a valuable and consistent contribution to debates about them for many years.

The amendments propose that the electoral identity card should be mandatory and the only form of identification that is acceptable at the polling station in Northern Ireland. As we said in the White Paper, the Government's ultimate aim is for every voter in Northern Ireland to be

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issued with an electoral smart card bearing a unique identifier. I think that that answers another question asked by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. In a moment, I shall deal specifically with his point about Home Office proposals. As I told the House on Second Reading, the introduction and use of an electoral smart card bearing a unique identifier is an aspiration. If every voter in Northern Ireland had to be issued with such a card, we would effectively be requiring all adults who wished to vote to carry a mandatory identification card.

There would be no point in introducing a mandatory smart card unless we could be certain that it was more secure than the existing forms of photographic identification. It would therefore need to contain biometric data about the holder, be that an iris scan, fingerprint or hand geometry scan.

The Government would be foolish to rush into such a radical new scheme before we could be confident of the practicalities or that the voters and political parties in Northern Ireland were happy to accept such a scheme. I hope that I have used the word "confident" properly in that sentence. We will continue to give further consideration to when it might be possible to initiate such a secure electoral identity scheme. However, such a scheme would not be introduced without wide consultation with all interested parties, and primary legislation would be required to introduce such a card. Hon. Members who seek an assurance from the Government should be aware that it remains our intention, as expressed in the White Paper, to proceed to such a system.

Mr. Barnes: I thank my hon. Friend for his earlier comments. The point about take-up has some relevance to my amendments. If a situation is reached where the take-up of identity cards is inadequate and the other forms of identification have to be used—if the legislation has not bitten—we may have to look closely at a system that is universal and compulsory. However, I welcome the Minister's comments about potential developments.

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