Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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

Mr. Blunt: 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.

Mr. Peter Robinson: 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.

11 am

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.

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