Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lady Hermon: I beg to move amendment No. 43, in page 4, line 26, at end insert—

    `(4A) The information contained in paragraphs (a) to (d) of subsection (4) above shall also be stored electronically on a computer chip incorporated into the electoral identity card provided for by this section.'.

The amendment is straightforward. I hope that there will be a change, and that this time the ayes will have nine and the noes eight.

The electoral identity card will be introduced on a voluntary basis. It is also apparent from the Bill that it will be free of charge to the applicant. On Second Reading, I noted that Northern Ireland now has a reputation for leading the world in police reform and human rights legislation. It was suggested then, and I repeat now, that we have a golden opportunity to make some progress and show that we are also leading on electoral reform.

If we supply, free of charge, electoral identity cards with people's photographs, their full names and the other information as stated in clause 4, it would seem a simple addition to incorporate a computer chip in the card. That would ultimately result in a breed of smart card, which I think is the technical term. I am pleased that the Minister has expressed the view that the architecture will be in place for IT to help with the next scheduled Assembly elections in 2003. Although the amendment will involve expenditure, the Minister has made it clear that the Government will not hesitate in financing the reforms and the necessary IT. Perhaps he could add it to the software package that is currently being negotiated?

6.45 pm

Mr. Browne: I should say at the outset that I have no objection in principle to an electoral identity card on which information is stored by an electronic chip. However, there are practical drawbacks to such an approach. In particular, at this stage in the process it may be difficult to obtain public support for such a significant change.

The electoral identity card will be one of several photographic identity documents that will be acceptable at the polling station. Although more than one form of identification can be used, it does not make sense for information to be stored on only one of them. Information will not be stored electronically on a passport or on a photographic driving licence. If the Translink card comes up to the security standards that we hope it will, the information stored on it electronically will be for a different purpose, in which, in any event, we are not interested. Such technology would be useful if the card were to be used to facilitate electronic voting, but that is not its purpose. Electronic voting may be an aspiration, but it is not the card's current purpose and it does not fit into this statutory scheme.

Lady Hermon: The point is that we have just heard that the card may have an electronic chip built into it. My difficulty in accepting that derives from clause 4:

    ``an electoral identity card becomes current on the date of its issue and ceases to be so on the expiry of the period of 10 years''.

Is the Minister telling us that after 11 years the technology will be available to put an electronic chip into all forms of identification? I understood from the earlier part of the debate that he was confident that the architecture and software would be in place for 2003. Is it his intention that electoral identity cards, the first of which will be valid for 10 years, should be issued at some expense—perhaps considerable expense—by the electoral office, but there will be no attempt to put in an electronic chip before the 10 years have expired?

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution. However, if she thinks that that is my position, she misunderstands me. I do not know when and if Parliament may decide to move to electronic voting. We have had significant reform of the electoral system throughout the United Kingdom in the previous Parliament. I suspect that before we embark on further changes we shall want that to bed down to see how it works. The next time Parliament turns its attention to electoral law, it may do what many have been crying out for in this debate: consolidate the law to make the position clearer than it is at present. However, I have no crystal ball in relation to that.

It is interesting that the hon. Lady chose time limits—not quite arbitrarily, but from the Bill—in order to illustrate her point. I have had some discussions through my officials with those who are responsible for contracting for and designing the Translink card. That card has an electronic chip in it, which is to be used for other purposes: accounting by individuals to whom it is granted. It is not to be used for voting purposes.

Interestingly, I understand that the most robust card that was appropriate has an electronic chip with a life of only five years. I have not examined whether we could at this stage produce a card with an electronic chip that could be used for voting purposes, if and when the technology became available. However, it would be somewhat ironic if we were to go to the expense of issuing the best cards that we could now, with a life of only five years, and found that the voting process did not catch up with the technology during that period.

Looking at time limits illustrates why the inclusion of such a chip is probably not in our practical interests. It is probably not useful to add a chip to the card when its purpose is identification of those who will carry it as eligible to vote. There will be no electronic voting and so no purpose for the chip. It may well turn out to be a useless expense. It may run out of life before it could be used for anything else.

Lembit Öpik: It sounds as if the Minister in principle agrees with what we are trying to achieve with the amendment—moving towards a smart card. Will he confirm that he is saying that the timing is wrong, but the principle is probably right in the medium term?

Mr. Browne: If it is any help to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, if it makes his day, I will go some of the way with him. I said at the outset that I had no objection in principle to the amendment. That is the best he is going to get from me today—that I have no objection in principle. I suppose that I could also say that I have no objection in principle to the Liberal Democrats.

Perhaps more importantly, we need to consider how the public would view a card incorporating a chip. We always have to bear it in mind that what we are embarking upon will, at the end of the day, require us to persuade about 30 per cent. of the voting public in Northern Ireland that they should volunteer to get an identity card for this purpose. We have to take those people with us. There will be a job of education and persuasion to be done. Many of those people will be elderly people, who may have no other forms of identification, and who may be suspicious of what they are being asked to carry around and what it can be used for.

We ought not to add any more hurdles to our task of persuading the public. How would the hon. Lady or I persuade an elderly person that he or she should accept an identity card with an electronic chip that served no actual purpose in relation to the reason for the card being issued, but that might serve a purpose at some time in future? It seems unnecessary and we should not place ourselves in the position of having to deal with it. People must not be dissuaded by our actions from applying for a card because they have fears, whether they are grounded or groundless. If that were to happen, we could not, in all conscience, withdraw the non-photographic forms of identification. We may find that we have defeated our objective because we have disfranchised many people who would not go along with the measure.

We cannot be seen to be denying people their vote. Equally, we cannot be seen to be defeating the principal objective by stretching slightly too far. We do not need to stretch as far as this at present. We may in future need to stretch, but when we do we will have to do so in the context of a better argued case and with technology that will allow us actually to use those chips. I hope therefore that the hon. Lady will be persuaded to withdraw the amendment, but I look forward to it being resurrected in the future, when the electronic industry and voting in general have caught up with her enthusiasm.

Lady Hermon: The Minister was able to read across the Room that we virtually agree with what he has just said. We have agreed that we must work on him on the next occasion.

I am happy with the Minister's clarification and concession and I thank him for agreeing in principle with the amendment. However, having listened to the debate, I remain deeply worried that we have allowed there to be a loophole under the Bill. I am not directing that comment at those who are genuinely incapacitated or unable to read. We will have a system whereby electoral cards will not have a chip. Furthermore, such matters will not even be considered at this stage. We will not have a signature on the register of those who are not genuinely incapacitated or unable to read. The signature of those who are not genuinely incapacitated when they apply for an absent vote will not be read by the use of technology.

Mr. Browne: I have spent much time today correcting members of the Committee who have misrepresented the position. The hon. Lady has made one or two generalisations that are not entirely accurate, but her one clear misrepresentation is that people will be allowed not to sign. That is not so. Registration will require a signature unless the chief electoral officer is satisfied—on the evidence—that the person is incapable of signing or unable to sign for a legitimate reason. We are not creating an enormous loophole whereby people may be allowed not to sign. I do not want the Bill to be misrepresented.

Lady Hermon: I appreciate the points that have been made by the Minister. It was not my intention to misrepresent the Bill, but having lived in Northern Ireland and having witnessed the exploitation of loopholes under legislation, I and other members of the Committee have a genuine worry that, when there is potential for exploitation by those who are extremely well clued into the legislation, advantage will be taken of the loophole. I did not intend to misrepresent the Government's intentions. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

        Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Stringer.]

        Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Seven o'clock till Thursday 18 October at half-past Nine o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Hood, Mr Jimmy (Chairman)
Barnes, Mr.
Blunt, Mr.
Browne, Mr.
Farrelly, Paul
Hayes, Mr.
Hermon, Lady
McGrady, Mr.
McIsaac, Shona
Merron, Gilliam
Munn, Ms
Öpik, Lembit
Purnell, James
Robertson, Hugh
Robinson, Mr. Peter
Salter, Mr.
Stringer, Mr.
Turner, Mr. Andrew

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