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It is astonishing that the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West has been given a rap over the knuckles and three weeks gardening leave from the House, when Mr. Hamilton and othersas my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) was about to sayhave suffered a disparity of treatment that is acutely evident to the House.
It is unfortunate that the Committee has not accepted Mrs. Filkin's findings in total. The House will know that I hold no brief for the lady, but she was painstaking in this investigation. It is not a good omen for the future, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, must prove his Committee's robust independence in these matters. He must ensure that hon. Members brought before the Committee receive parity of treatment.
However, I want to end on a note of agreement. I hope that under the stewardship of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire the Committee will be much more robust in sweeping aside complaints that are of a partisan nature and which do not involve serious misdemeanours with regard to the House. Such complaints merely serve to undermine the House's status in public confidence.
(i) approves the First Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 297); and
(ii) accordingly suspends Mr. Geoffrey Robinson, Member for Coventry North West, from the service of the House for three weeks.
'(1) From 1st April 2003, paragraph (1E) of rule 37 of the parliamentary election rules applicable to elections in Northern Ireland, imported into Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 by section 1(2) of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985 (c. 2), is amended in accordance with subsection (2).
(2) Sub-paragraphs (a) to (g) are omitted and the following are inserted:
"(a) the plastic photographic card which is, or forms the counterpart of, a current licence to drive a motor vehicle;
(b) a current passport issued by the Government of the United Kingdom or by the Government of the Republic of Ireland;
(c) a senior citizen's concessionary fare pass issued by the Northern Ireland Department for Regional Development;
(d) a current electoral identity card issued under section 13C of this Act.".'.[Mr. Blunt.]
'for sub-paragraphs (a) to (g) there is substituted'.
'(4) In Schedule 1 (parliamentary election rules), in rule 37(1E) (specified documents), sub-paragraphs (c) to (g) are omitted.
(5) Subsection 4 shall come into force on 30th April 2003, or 15 months after the coming into force of the rest of this section, whichever is the latter.'.
Mr. Blunt: In rising to speak to new clause 1, I wish to make it clear that I do so in the spirit that has accompanied the Bill in its progress to date. Hon. Members of all parties support the Bill's objectives. Like all other amendments tabled for debate today, the new clause is designed to help the Bill.
I shall begin by recounting to the House a statement made in Cabinet by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He is reported by the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), to have said that the aim in Northern Ireland is to achieve the politics and the practice of politics that are normal in a liberal democracy. If that remark has been slightly mistranslated in its passage from what was originally said
There is evidence of counterfeit medical cards being used as forms of identification. That is why these provisions are required and the Minister's objectives must be supported. The Committee was told of the Royal Ulster Constabulary raiding the offices of a political party and identifying a production line of counterfeit medical cards.
The new clause would assist the electorate if they were confused about the form of identity required in the polling station. The Northern Ireland Office commissioned research on the general election; it took into account the experiences of members of the public and polling clerks as well as considering polling station precedents. The evidence showed that a number of people were turned away from the polling stations because they had brought the wrong form of identification. Many had come with some form of photographic identification that was not listed; some had come with the wrong part of their driving licence, as the Northern Ireland driving licence is in two parts.
New clause 1 would give effect to the Minister's objectives by listing four types of photographic identification. The hon. Gentleman told us in Committee that the measures could be introduced by regulation. However, if the House supports the Minister in his objectives, it will be appropriate to put this measure into primary legislation now. That is what is behind new clause 1(2). There was no dispute in Committee that having voters produce these forms of photographic identification was a desirable objective.
The timetable that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I have suggested in new clause 1 is the Minister's own. He has told us that his objective is to get this system up and running for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections due in May 2000, and we have taken him at his word.
The transfer from non-photographic forms of identification to a completely photographic system offers great advantages in terms of certainty. The public information campaign in Northern Ireland can be undertaken by the Northern Ireland Office and also by the political parties there. It will be in their interests to ensure that all their supporters can take part in the election and that they obtain some acceptable form of photographic identification.
The inclusion of concessionary fare passes for senior citizens as an acceptable form of identification after 2002, when I understand that the new photographic passes are to be introduced in Northern Ireland, will deal with the larger part of the population who do not have a driving licence or passport and who would otherwise need one of the new electoral identity cards. It would reduce the burden on the Northern Ireland Office and the chief electoral officer of producing electoral identity cards. Only a small proportion of the population would not have one of those three forms of identification.
On the timetable in the legislation, the Minister may find that part of the electorate or a political party that wants to retain non-photographic forms of identificationso that they could continue to produce counterfeit medical cards, for exampleorganises to resist the introduction of an electoral identity card. The Minister made it clear in Committee that he would be influenced if there were such a body of opinion in Northern Ireland and if people did not take up the necessary electoral identity cards or have other acceptable forms of identification. If the legislation contains a date, as it would if new clause 1 were accepted, the Minister's hands would be tied, as would be the hands of the Department and the chief electoral officer, and they would have to ensure that the scheme was a success.
I would be grateful if the Minister dealt with this matter in his reply. Did he say that it was impractical to introduce these measures for the May 2003 Assembly elections? He said that he was concerned that some of the electorate might resist taking up the identity card. If there are practical objections and it is difficult to meet the timetable for administrative or bureaucratic reasons, it would of course be appropriate to reconsider the deadline set in the legislation. If the Minister makes that point, I would not want to press the new clause in its present form. The date in the new clause is not immutable. It is meant to reinforce the Minister's position.
I thoroughly respect amendments Nos. 18 and 19 tabled by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who has stuck to the view that he and the other members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee took in 1998 when they recommended a new, universally issued electoral card. In Committee, the Minister raised an issue of principle, saying that the people of Northern Ireland should not be subject to impositions that were materially different from those imposed on the rest of the United Kingdom. The electoral identity card that the chief
The proposals of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire would impose an identity card on the whole population of Northern Ireland. The debate about identity cards and their compulsory imposition on the electorate in a particular part of the United Kingdom should not be held in isolation, however. I thus tend to support what I assume is the view of the Minister: in these circumstances such an imposition would be wrong.
Furthermore, to issue identity cards to the whole population of Northern Ireland would create a significant administrative burden. However, if one was dealing only with that small percentage of the electorate who do not have some suitable form of photographic identification, the proposals would be achievable, and at much less cost to the taxpayeralthough we have been assured, throughout the Bill's proceedings, that resources are not an issue.
Amendment No. 10, tabled by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), gives a timetable, but one that remains in the gift of the Secretary of State. Under the Bill's current provisions, the Secretary of State can choose when individual sections of the measure will come into force. The amendment thus does nothing to reinforce the Secretary of State's position; it merely imposes on him a 15-month waiting period once he has decided that he is ready to implement the provisionsunless, of course, that date happens to be before 30 April 2003.
That is not necessarily the best way to proceed. If things slide to the right, as they tend to do in the course of time, we should find, if we accepted the amendment, that the Minister was stuck with a 15-month notice period when he had decided he was reasonably ready to implement the legislation. It would be preferable to work to a fixed date.
If measures to combat electoral fraud are to be subject to acceptance by the electorate, as they would be if new clause 1 is not accepted, the Minister would be left open to undesirable pressures and persuasion from those parts of the electorate and political parties who want to continue to cheat the system. It would be better if the Minister's declared aims were reinforced by the acceptance of new clause 1.