Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Peter Robinson: 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?

Mr. Browne: 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.

Mr. Blunt: 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?

Mr. Browne: 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.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful.

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

Mr. Andrew Turner: 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?

Mr. Browne: 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.

Mr. Andrew Turner: 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.

Mr. Browne: 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.

10.45 am

Mr. Barnes: 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.

The Chairman: Order. Interventions should be short contributions, not speeches.

Mr. Browne: 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.

Mr. Blunt: 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.

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