With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 7, in page 1, line 11, at end insert—
(c) the national insurance number of each such person, if they have one.'.
No. 8, in page 2, line 9, at end insert—
(c) the national insurance number of each such person, if they have one.'.
No. 2, in page 2, line 23, leave out—
'both his date of birth' and insert—
'his date of birth, his national insurance number if applicable,'.
No. 9, in page 2, line 33, at end insert—
(c) the national insurance number of each such person, if they have one.'.
No. 5, in clause 3, page 4, line 15, at end insert—
'(3A) In section 6 (absent vote at elections for an indefinite period) and in section 7 (absent vote at a particular election), there is inserted at the end of paragraph (1)(c) the words—
", which shall include the date of birth and the national insurance number of the applicants, if applicable".'.
No. 6, in Title, line 2, after "signatures", insert ", national insurance numbers.".
Amendment No. 1 is designed to assist the Minister to return to the conclusion that he and his colleagues on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee reached in 1997. He was not at that time burdened by the cares of office, nor by the need to negotiate with the Treasury to ensure that the necessary resources are available for the actions that he has promised.
This group of amendments is the most important to be debated this evening. In relation to the previous group of amendments, I hope that we shall in the end learn the considered position of five of the six parties involved in the Standing Committee. The Minister will know, however, that all the Northern Ireland parties support the proposal that people should supply their national insurance numbers when they apply to join the electoral register in Northern Ireland.
Of course, unlike the Minister, I was not a member of that Select Committee and did not take part in its proceedings. I am perhaps therefore not entirely bound by the terms adopted by that Committee and do not feel a loyalty to them. But in connection with the first group of amendments—which would have required that everyone in Northern Ireland had an electoral identity card—I paid tribute to Mr. Barnes for his clarity, and for his consistency in sticking to the Select Committee's conclusions. I am therefore puzzled that the hon. Gentleman appears now to be inconsistent in his stance on national insurance numbers. He may of course have been influenced by the debates. The Government widened the membership of the Committee to include representatives from the SDLP and the DUP, which was extremely welcome. However, it meant that the Committee was, unusually in this Parliament, on a knife edge. On that occasion, every party except the Labour party supported making national insurance numbers a requirement to register. The majority in Committee was only nine to eight. The hon. Gentleman's vote was clearly of immense significance to the Government.
Paragraph 58 of the 1998 Select Committee says:
"Registration forms should contain more identifying details to overcome the problem of illicit multiple registration and to make fraudulent applications in another's name harder. These should include date of birth, a signature and the National Insurance number of the voter."
The Select Committee was heavily influenced by the evidence of Mr. Pat Bradley, who had been a chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland for nearly 17 years when he came before the Committee and who was clearly an expert. I should like to quote his responses to questions from the hon. Members for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs). When asked by the hon. Member for South Down about his canvassers collecting and confirming information for putting the register together, Mr. Bradley replied:
"The officers collect the data from each household. They collect the information on the registration form. They are not able to confirm the information—and that is what the system is set up for at the present time—or to turn round and be convinced on the spot that each person on that form has shown to the canvasser some sort of documentation to show they are who they claim to be and they live there. If you like, that is the weakness of the system, the fact that it is the householder's responsibility for putting down the names of those who are eligible and that information is then taken on board."
The hon. Member for East Antrim then asked Mr. Bradley:
"Would the inclusion of National Insurance numbers, which are individual to everyone, not help that situation for your records?"
Mr. Bradley replied:
"I would welcome either a National Insurance number or a date of birth, and that is common in many countries."
His next point was crucial:
"If one has the two parameters, i. e. the date of birth and National Insurance, it is a very easy matter to run a search through the computer database and that would solve the problem and I would welcome that very much. It would make life much easier and reduce the scope for abuse considerably."
We had a lengthy debate about this in Committee. Indeed, the subject took up the whole of the Committee's first sitting, at the end of which the Minister replied to the Committee. I do not think that he convinced himself. Indeed, he was so unconvinced by his own arguments that he returned in the afternoon to put forward further objections to including national insurance numbers. I will deal with these in turn, and if I am being unfair about the arguments I am attributing to the Minister I hope he will correct me.
The Minister's first argument was that people do not know their national insurance number or how to find it out. That argument does not stand up to analysis. The Minister was particularly concerned about the elderly. Elderly people receive pensions and therefore have their national insurance number immediately to hand in their pension book.
In the process of registration, canvassers call at people's houses up to three times to get the information. The Minister shakes his head, but I received that information directly from the chief electoral officer. People have up to three weeks, if not longer, to complete the forms. To argue that people are unable to obtain their national insurance number in that period does not stand up. There are any number of forms of assistance open to them if they are unable to do so.
The Minister also argued that people who did not pay tax or receive benefits might not have a national insurance number. He gave the example of a student who had come back from South Africa. The fact that the Minister was having to grub around for such examples showed a degree of desperation in his attempts to convince the Committee of the merits of his argument. My amendments and those in the name of Lembit Öpik address the matter by saying that the very few people who do not have a national insurance number cannot be required to give it. They hardly represent an overwhelming number of electors.
The Minister argued that a chief electoral officer had to check records held at the Treasury, where all the national insurance numbers for the United Kingdom are held. He said that members of the Committee might say that that could be resolved and that no doubt, in terms of computer technology, it could be. We all say that, and as Mr. Robinson said, sifting Northern Ireland national insurance numbers would hardly be at the cutting edge of technology. To find a software programme that would distinguish between the national insurance numbers of people registered in Northern Ireland and those of the rest of the United Kingdom would not be terribly difficult.
That was one argument. The Minister was adducing arguments under data protection legislation that it would be inappropriate for the chief electoral officer of Northern Ireland to search the whole United Kingdom database. I do not see why it is remotely inappropriate for the chief electoral officer to search the whole United Kingdom database to check that a national insurance number belongs to the person who has claimed it. In the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes, that would indeed be appropriate. I was trying to address the arguments that the Minister put forward later. The last refuge of a Minister in trouble when proposals are being made to simplify and clarify the system is the argument that there are problems under the data protection legislation.
It may well be reasonable to argue that all the United Kingdom national insurance registration numbers can be investigated and discovered, but it shifts the ground. The hon. Gentleman argued earlier that all one would need to do would be to look at the Northern Ireland numbers.
Both arguments hold good. If the Minister says that it is inappropriate to check the whole register of national insurance numbers—that is his argument, not mine—it is perfectly possible to separate them. However, I do not see why it should be a problem to check the national insurance numbers of the whole of the United Kingdom.
The Minister's next argument concerned practicality. He said that whether the issue could be resolved against the deadlines the Government and others had set for the changes was a different matter. The deadline is of the Minister's own making. We have just had a debate about deadlines and he has so far refused to be bound by them. He has not been prepared to put one in the Bill. Had he done so, there might be a modicum of merit in his argument. Even then, I do not think that there would be when it comes to deadlines.
Checking national insurance numbers is simply a question of passing the necessary legislation, complying with the Data Protection Acts if necessary, and having the computer capacity to enable the chief electoral officer to undertake the checks. There is no reason why national insurance numbers cannot be put on the return that people have to complete.
The Minister's argument about data protection is the final refuge of people who oppose simplifying any of our bureaucracy. I do not accept that the data protection legislation would necessarily apply if the software program were written so as to include only national insurance numbers in Northern Ireland. If, as he suggested, primary legislation were necessary to effect that change and include the numbers as part of the process, that should be enacted.
I assure the Minister that he would have the wholehearted support of the Opposition to achieve that objective. There is no reason why such legislation could not be put in place to make the register as reliable as it must be. If the register is unreliable and we do not get it right, there will be a question mark over the conduct of democracy in Northern Ireland. We attended to those arguments in Committee, where the hon. Member for South Down made it clear that the future of Northern Ireland and the development of politics there were being affected by electoral fraud. At some stage, there may be referendums on the future status of Northern Ireland. Under the present arrangements, an individual vote can carry huge weight in local elections and can decide which parties will represent people on councils.
In Committee, the Minister did not even convince himself with his own rhetoric. There is cross-community support for this proposal. The hon. Member for Belfast, East was in alliance with the hon. Member for South Down and united with the Ulster Unionist party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.
The amendments can only further the aims of the legislation. They are aims that the Minister and everyone in the House shares—tackling electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. In the main, the Minister has conducted himself with grace during the passage of the Bill. If he wishes to spare himself embarrassment in another place, I hope that he will have the grace to accept these amendments.
As the mover of the amendment, Mr. Blunt, said, my party and I have supported the inclusion of national insurance numbers as a form of identification for all electoral purposes—registration, postal voting and, in the appropriate circumstances, casting votes. The reason is simple. We understood the national insurance number to be unique to each individual and to be universal. Including that identification number on a registration form would enable other counter-checking measures to be used in the fulness of time. We would have three telling personal identification details—the date of birth, the signature and the national insurance number—all or some of which could be a means of identifying a fraudster.
The difficulty is that national insurance numbers are not universal, as the Minister explained well in Committee, which was an instruction to me. He gave some strange examples, one of which has been referred to—the teenage girl returning for education from South Africa. I confess that in the short time since our debate in Committee, I have searched my constituency for a childless French woman who has never worked or received benefit. I am not unoptimistic that I will achieve my objective, with all sorts of consequences perhaps in due course, but to date I have failed to identify such people.
The difference between the debates in Committee and this evening is that the amendment states that national insurance numbers should be used when they are available. I will not go into the cause and effect, but that is a reasonable proposition. In some genuine cases, they may not be available to people—by that I mean that they do not have such a number, not that they do not know it.
In my simplicity, I understood that every boy and girl was issued with a number at the age of 16. I may be wrong. I do not know how long the system has been in vogue, but it must be some considerable time—at least a decade. People who do not have a number must not have a pension and must never have worked, paid tax or filled in a tax return. That narrows the gap considerably.
The proposals in the amendments would seem to allow an exception for people who genuinely do not have a national insurance number—be they returning expatriates or European or Asian men or women who have not worked but have come to reside and at times to vote in Northern Ireland, where they are most welcome. It would not be an onerous task for the electoral officer, when he receives such an application, to see that the person seeking registration has not got a national insurance number and to telephone to find out why. One could ascertain the validity or the invalidity of the reason.
The important thing is that the majority of people—perhaps 97 per cent. or 98 per cent., although that is pure guesswork—have a national insurance number. It is an individual identifier, it is held on a common database and it is readily available to everyone on all sorts of documents that are carried daily—a tax form, a pension book and, I think, the Translink card, although I am not sure yet.
Using national insurance numbers would offer a great opportunity to create a significant database for the electoral system. At this stage, we cannot use signatures. They will not be digitised for some time. However, that does not prevent us from seeking the information. Initially, it will be used for the postal vote comparisons, which will presumably be manual until computers have the necessary sophistication.
We would be building a database. The national insurance database is enormous and can be checked, and I think that it would throw up any irregularities, which is all that we are concerned about. I am sure that we could cope with that with relative ease using computer technology. For that reason, I support the inclusion of national insurance numbers in the information given at registration, which can then be deployed for other purposes. The amendments propose a pardon for people who do not, for good reason, have a national insurance number. A simple inquiry would resolve that problem, which wipes out most of the arguments for not including the numbers as a personal identifier.
I could say that of all the debates in Committee, this was the most weakly argued by the Government, but I am a positive chap and I will say instead that of all the debates it is the one that provides the Minister with a shining opportunity to demonstrate the listening ear of the Government. I am sure that he is all ears as he listens to this debate and will show, once again, that the Government are primarily interested in doing the right thing rather than offering what at times seem to be specious arguments and setting their face against a common-sense proposal that is recommended by Northern Ireland parties on a cross-community basis, as well as by the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats.
Despite a long debate in Committee, the Minister failed to convince anyone—apart perhaps from himself and some of the loyalists in his party—that the argument against the inclusion of national insurance numbers was reasonable—[Interruption.] I realise that I may have just offended some loyalists and I apologise for doing so.
The arguments have already been set out clearly by previous speakers in the debate, but I have some brief points to add. The restrictions of the Data Protection Acts have been cited as a reason why the Government cannot include national insurance numbers. However, it would indeed be ironic if legislation to protect the public from corruption actually prevented the Government from introducing an electoral measure that would also protect the public from corruption in the form of electoral fraud. I do not believe that that is a reasonable argument behind which to hide. The Data Protection Acts were introduced to help us, not to hinder us. Certainly it cannot be strategically beyond the wit of the Government and their employees to ensure that the legislation is not a barrier to the change that we propose.
There was reference to the possibility of needing to check through 50 million or 60 million national insurance numbers. As the Minister knows, any computer could do that job in seconds—or minutes at most. That would not be a restriction. Furthermore, with a little creative thinking it would be easy to establish a list of those who were eligible to vote in Northern Ireland. The use of a tactical, technical defence to oppose the strategically important proposal to use national insurance numbers as a unique identifier does not stand up to scrutiny.
Mr. McGrady gave us an entertaining description of his research to show the small number of people who might be in the same category as the student whose family moved to South Africa—the example used by the Minister. An even more extraordinary example was that of the childless French woman, who was not working, not claiming benefit and was married to a Northern Ireland resident.
Yes, but the point is that we would know that fraudsters were using that approach because there would suddenly be a huge rise in the number of childless French women who were not working or claiming benefit, were married to Northern Ireland residents and were attempting to vote in elections in Northern Ireland. Once there were so many obstacles to cheating the system, the fraudsters might take the radical step of campaigning on the streets, handing out leaflets and canvassing rather than finding such exotic and elaborate means to continue their electoral fraud.
The Government have an opportunity to help themselves through the amendment. They should not regard the cross-community support for the proposed change as being based on a wish to beat the Minister into submission or as suggesting that he is not committed to doing the right thing. However, as we debate this point, it becomes increasingly difficult for those of us who support the use of national insurance numbers to understand the substantive opposition to the inclusion in Northern Ireland elections of what amounts to a human bar code. There really seems to be no more reliable means than the national insurance number to ensure that each person has a single, unique identifier. It already exists and does not need to be created especially for the election.
If the Minister has come up with genuinely new and significant arguments, I am sure that we could be persuaded by them. However, he has had a substantial amount of time, in Committee and afterwards, to explain the reasons for the Government's resistance to the inclusion of national insurance numbers.
With a little effort, everyone can find out their national insurance number pretty easily. They do not need to keep repeating—
I am being challenged to read my number, but obviously I would not like to see it in Hansard as it might cause me unforeseen problems—people might forget my name and would just refer to me by my national insurance number. However, I assure the hon. Lady that if the matter was important enough, I could leave the Chamber and find out my national insurance number, even though I was not prepared for that question. Furthermore, I am sure that for individuals in their own homes who are willing to play an honest and constructive part in the electoral process in Northern Ireland, such a matter would be no more difficult than it would be for me.
I remind right hon. and hon. Members that the change is not being proposed as a blanket, all-pervading necessity. The amendments allow for the fact that it may not be possible to provide a national insurance number. I appeal to the Minister to acknowledge that the amendment is a common-sense proposal that has significant support from both sides of the House, and to show that the Government are willing to listen to sensible ideas and, in the process, ensure that Northern Ireland has a much more reliable system than anything we have so far debated for checking that individuals are who they say they are.
I am sure that the whole House realises that the electors of Mr. McGrady have much for which to be thankful in having a Member who is so dedicated in his pursuit of issues that arise in Committee. Where that research might lead the hon. Gentleman, should he discover the person he seeks, only he can tell us. However, although he might have enjoyed that aspect of the Committee's business, I doubt that the Minister is enjoying this moment.
The Minister has been squirming for some time as we have debated the amendment—and so he should. He had a difficult time in Committee because his past was brought up, dragged before the Committee and thoroughly inspected. Once, the Minister was open minded; he was a free thinker who was allowed to reach conclusions based on his own judgment, but now he bears the heavy burden of office. Now, he has his civil servants around him. Now, he has the benefit—enjoyed by many—of having others to prepare the words he has to utter at the Dispatch Box.
The reality is that when the Minister was able to consider in the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs the merits and demerits of proposals such as those in the amendment, he knew where the argument lay. He knew on which side the weight and burden of the issue came down. He concluded—as did everyone on the Select Committee, even those of his colleagues who are also in denial tonight—that the right thing to do was to include the national insurance number on the registration form.
The Select Committee was not alone in reaching that conclusion. Others held the same view. The Northern Ireland Forum set up a committee to consider the issue and made the same recommendation, realising that the proposal made good sense. The Northern Ireland Office published a review paper which noted that it was worth investigating the inclusion of the number on the form. The paper went even further, by proposing not only that the number should be on the registration form but that people could be asked to give it at the polling station. That is a step beyond my proposal in the Standing Committee and that in the amendment. The proposal is much more moderate than that which the Minister and others have been prepared to align themselves with in the past.
In the past, people have considered and judged the proposal and found it worthy of merit, but on this occasion it has found the fulsome support of every Opposition party in the House. It managed to unite all the Northern Ireland parties in Committee, and I presume in the House as well. I thought that it was Government policy to achieve cross-community support. If such a consensus were achieved on any other issue, the Minister would almost die for it, yet here he has the Northern Ireland parties jumping up and down in front of him and he waves the proposal away; he does not want it. Why is it that when the Minister has, on a Northern Ireland issue, the Northern Ireland parties all saying, "Go in this direction!" he decides to turn his back and go another way?
The hon. Gentleman is posing a puzzle to the House. He suggests that the Minister, when he was a Back Bencher, was a seeker after truth and that the burdens of office have borne down on him and he has changed his mind. Might it not be that he is still a seeker after truth and that, as a Minister, he sought the advice of his colleagues in the Government and they said, "Above all you must not concede this amendment; the national insurance scheme is in chaos, but you cannot admit that in the House because some English Members also hold that view, and would like to hear it expressed from the Treasury Bench so that they may use it in campaigning to secure the national insurance system so that it is a safeguard of people's identity and can be used in a way that people on both sides of the House tonight wish it to be used in Northern Ireland"?
The House has heard what the right hon. Gentleman said. Given the right hon. Gentleman's history, I am sure that the Minister will want to be not only a seeker but a teller of the truth, and will want to respond to what has been said. The question is more for the Minister than for me, so I will pass it back to him and listen eagerly to his reply.
As the hon. Member for South Down said, the national insurance number is a unique identifier. Unlike the signature, unlike the name, unlike the date of birth, it is one for which there is a database, and it is something that can be extracted by the chief electoral officer to identify instances of multiple registration. If the chief electoral officer sees the name of John Murphy in the register half a dozen times in a street or an area, he has no real way of determining whether it is the same John Murphy, but if the national insurance number is to be given, very quickly he will be able to determine whether there has been a multiple registration by the same person and whether action needs to be taken. If the marked register is examined and it is found that someone with the same national insurance number has voted several times, it will identify where multiple voting has taken place, perhaps illegally in the context of anything other than a local government election. The mechanism will allow cross-checking to take place.
Re-reading the report of our debate in Committee, I was led to believe that the Minister's response did not amount to much more than what in Northern Ireland we refer to as waffle. There was no real substance to the argument that he attempted to marshal against ours. After he had had lunch and a regrouping—no doubt of those civil servants who give him advice, of whatever variety—the Minister came up with two points. One was that not everyone has a national insurance number, but he did not say how small was the group that did not have one, and he did not quite overcome the problem that we had posed by suggesting that the question on the form could end with the words "(if any)". It seems to me that no one will be punished if they do not have a national insurance number and do not write it on the form. The words "(if any)" appear elsewhere on the registration form, and it would not be inappropriate to insert them in this instance if there was any problem with people not having a national insurance number.
The second defence that the Minister put up was that not everyone can remember, or find, their national insurance number. The answer to that was simple. Potential electors will not be asked to fill out a form on the doorstep. A matter of weeks will pass between receipt of the form and the date by which it must be submitted, and that will allow people plenty of time to discover their national insurance number.
The defences put up by the Minister in Committee did not have much substance, so I hoped that he would reflect on the position and be prepared to meet the whole of the Opposition on the matter on Report. I hoped that he would be able to concede to the wish of the parties in Northern Ireland, and I regret it if, as his earlier remarks suggest, he intends to continue to resist it.
I hope that Mr. Blunt will press the amendment to a Division. I believe that in future the Minister will look back at that Division and be saddened that he allowed himself to be whipped by his civil servants into taking the stand that he is taking. I know that it is not his own inclination. I know his true inclination because I shared with him those amendments in the Select Committee when, in comradeship, we went down the same road together, and I hope that once again, when he has the opportunity to be freer in the way that he acts and speaks in the House, he might return to his former principled position.
Mr. Robinson has had some good fun at the expense of my hon. Friend the Minister, because my hon. Friend now adopts a different position from that which he signed up to in the Select Committee report—a report which I also signed. If the hon. Member for Belfast, East is so keen on consistency with the Select Committee report, it is unfortunate that when he was given an opportunity to support my amendments Nos. 18 and 19, which were taken from that report, he did not do so. I do not really condemn him for that because people's ideas alter according to their experiences. My position may have changed since I signed the Select Committee report; the Minister's certainly has.
I am keen on the argument that there should be an identifier, such as a national insurance number. It might be the case that the smaller the nation, the easier it is to sort things out. In Malta, which has identity cards, the identity card number appears on the electoral register. Moreover, a card is issued to an elector, through the police, at each election, and is handed in when people vote. A fresh card is issued afterwards. Therefore, it is possible to develop techniques that make use of good organisation in order to tackle some of these problems.
In Committee I expressed concern—and was taken to task by Mr. Blunt accepted that the national insurance system was less than perfect. How much less than perfect is it? If some people give their national insurance numbers and their numbers are not confirmed within the system or are not seen to be those that are supposed to relate to them, those people can be disfranchised, or temporarily disfranchised, until the problem is sorted out.
The national insurance system might be in chaos, as Mr. Field said, but the suggestion is not that people have no national insurance number, but that they have more than one. That is what needs to be sorted out. Any check of the cross-reference, such as that suggested by the hon. Gentleman, in which the correct national insurance number was included, would almost certainly involve a cross-check to that person.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Field suggested that the national insurance system was in chaos. If that were correct, there would be many serious problems in using the system as a check. If the chaos merely involves people having more than one number, it might be possible to sort out the problem if records are kept showing all the different numbers. Something that lies between being less than perfect and being chaos may be the type of problem we have to consider. If problems exist with national insurance numbers, there is a difficulty with the amendment. In Committee, the hon. Member for Reigate alerted me to that.
All the Opposition parties view the date of birth system proposed by the Government as inadequate. We have a better system—the national insurance system. Surely it is better to use that system, even though it is flawed to an extent, than to rely on a date of birth system, which most Opposition Members believe to be inadequate?
I understand that signatures and dates of birth will be used, and it is being proposed that national insurance numbers should be added. The date of birth is relevant because electors will be asked their dates of birth in addition to having to show their cards when they turn up at polling stations. Some people might get that wrong and some people might be disfranchised as a result, but that is very unlikely. It is much more likely that there would be difficulties with national insurance numbers.
People would have to complete forms and provide their national insurance numbers, signatures and dates of birth, and the one that they would be liable to get wrong is their national insurance number, so the electoral returning officer would have to return to the constituents to check whether an error had been made. When looking at national insurance forms and details and writing them down, how many people would get them wrong, especially in households where several people have to do that? Even if only 1 or 2 per cent. of the population get those numbers wrong, those people would be disfranchised, or they would have serious problems.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East was eloquent in saying that he did not want a system that actually disfranchised people who were entitled to be on registers, and I am keen not to introduce a measure that would remove people from the franchise.
The hon. Gentleman is skating on such thin ice that he could drown at any moment. The logical extension of his argument is that the Government should never produce any sort of form in case people fill it in wrongly. His argument is nonsense on stilts.
The Bill deals with voting arrangements, not the others things in which Governments engage. If people apply to the Benefits Agency for benefits and fill in their national insurance numbers wrongly, it is possible to go back to them to get the correct numbers, and it may also be possible to use other records to find the right numbers. That will not be so readily and easily the case with electoral registration. Under electoral registration law, people have a right to be on the registers, and they are technically subject to a £1,000 fine if they are not. That is a fundamental building block of our democracy, and we must ensure that, whatever system we use, we do not disfranchise people even though we are doing other beneficial things. Much in the Bill will get rid of fraud but, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East said, we cannot get rid of fraud at the expense of removing people who are on registers legitimately.
The hon. Gentleman made that point extensively in Committee. I was not convinced then and I am not convinced now—and so far as I can tell, neither is any other Opposition Member. He has not established why it is impossible for the returning officer to go back to those who may have made a mistake and ask them to check. Will he explain precisely why that is so impossible?
If 1 or 2 per cent. of the electorate are involved, the electoral registration officer would be involved in quite a task. He would have to contact people directly himself, or he would have to send canvassers or other people around to discover information about the small number of people who have been missed. Those people are likely to be among those who are also expected to choose identity cards. We would be in danger of creating a group of people who would be deprived and depressed in society. They would find it difficult to obtain identity cards, or they may not be keen to do so. They may be the very people who would get such information and details wrong.
We should not make the system too complicated. I wanted to make it universal, so that everyone would be involved and have to get a card to vote, but that could be achieved without the problems that the amendment would involve. I am simply saying that it is not beyond peradventure and absolutely clear that that system would work in the way that some of us, with our naive nature, and having listened to Mr. Bradley addressing the Committee, believe that it could.
First, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the system will involve a big job just once—the first time that everyone has to fill in the form—and that that is a small price to pay to reduce fraud? Secondly, will he note that the amendments states, "if they have one", so we do not want to change the national insurance system? We would merely create a data collection expectation, and the task would diminish massively when we had completed it once.
Fresh people will appear on the registers, so they will have to go through the system themselves. Perhaps it would be easier to work with young people who come into contact with their national insurance numbers and their electoral registration rights for the first time, and perhaps few difficulties would occur. People move in and out of Northern Ireland from the Republic and are entitled to vote—and from Great Britain as well. So such a system would not be automatically ready and easy.
I am in favour of modernised electoral registration systems that use all types of new technology. That is why I advocate the rolling register, and we have something like a stopping, standing still and crawling register, which has improved things. However, there is still a tremendous amount to be done, but much of that has to be done on a United Kingdom basis, and I believe that it should be tied in with identity cards, so that we could operate a nice clear system. I am worried that we may spatchcock some ideas on to the existing arrangements and that that will not work well.
I wish to put a couple of things on record. First, my colleagues and I fully support the amendment, and if it is pressed to a Division, we will support it. It is a sensible measure, and we note the strength of support for it on both sides of the House. I shall return to that point later.
In Committee, the Minister pleaded that one reason for not accepting the proposal was that some people do not have national insurance numbers. However, I draw Members' attention to the question tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Beggs, who asked
"how many and what percentage of United Kingdom citizens have a National Insurance number"?
Therefore, most people are covered by the requirement.
I express my disappointment at the way in which the Government are conducting business. Mr. Robinson focused his comments on the Minister and on the inconsistency between his past and present positions. However, the Minister is a member of the Government and he is now adopting their position. I am disappointed at their approach because when the measure was first suggested, we strongly expressed the view that although particular provisions were good in themselves, the Bill needed to be strengthened.
The Government assured us that they would give us a sympathetic response if we came forward with proposals that were, in particular, supported by both sides of the House and the main parties in Northern Ireland. If arguments against the amendment had carried any weight in Committee or in this debate, I could have understood the Government's reasons for rejecting it. However, we are faced with their stock response. They have published the Bill and decided to put up the shutters by fighting any amendment tooth and nail, irrespective of the merits of the argument.
The merits of the argument are clear. I greatly respect Mr. Barnes and I know that he has done much good work. He made a valiant attempt to defend the Government's position, but I am afraid that although we give him credit for doing so, he was not convincing.
Indeed, and I notice that, at the end of his comments, the hon. Gentleman came towards what will be the eventual solution, namely, an identity card system. I am sure that, in time, we will come to that, but how long will the luddites in the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office prevent us from moving towards that solution?
It is ironic that the current national insurance number system developed out of compulsory wartime identity cards. As Mr. Field suggested, over the years that system may have fallen into confusion and may need to be overhauled completely. That overhaul will come when we move to a nationwide system of compulsory identity cards—the issue can be resolved then.
I do not wish to delay our proceedings, because I know that other Members wish to speak. I simply wish to put on the record the fact that we support the amendment. I have read the Committee debates and I have not seen any reason why we should not. The House has had a little fun at the Minister's expense, but he could put an end to that and do himself and the Government much credit by undertaking seriously to consider our proposal.
Mr. McGrady spoke eloquently in Committee about the nature of elections in Northern Ireland. It is well worth repeating some of his sentiments, to explain—particularly to those outside the House—the widespread support for the amendment.
For some political parties, elections in Northern Ireland have for many years been an extension of the armed struggle. They are now a substitute for the armed struggle. They are militarised and they are conducted by men with guns who will fight, intimidate, bully, kneecap and sometimes murder to make sure that people turn out to vote in the way that those men want—not once, not twice, but as many times as they can get them to the polling station in whatever guise they can be bullied into adopting. That is the nature of an election in Northern Ireland, so it is no surprise that the turnout in elections there is continually high: it is the result of widespread militarised fraud conducted by paramilitaries.
It is splendid that the Government have introduced a Bill which at last attempts to tackle the problem of fraud in Northern Ireland elections. One party in particular undertakes such fraud. It is trying to squeeze out the party of the hon. Member for South Down, and it is in danger of doing so.
The amendment would prevent people as far as possible from registering twice when they were not entitled to do so. For example, they might register two different versions of the same name, or the same name in two or three different locations. They might even register in the same name at the same address, in the expectation that the returning officer or his assistants could be persuaded that there was an older and a younger man—or an older or younger woman—of the same name at the same address.
The amendment would require that when people registered to vote, they not only furnished their signature, date of birth and name and address but provided their national insurance number. A national insurance number is a unique identifier. There may not be many Lembit Öpiks in Montgomeryshire; there may be more Harry Barneses in North-East Derbyshire; there is certainly more than one Andrew Turner on the Isle of Wight; and I wager that there are many Peter Robinsons in Northern Ireland. However, the national insurance number is a unique identifier that the returning officer can use to check against the name.
If there were no unique identifier or the name did not match the national insurance number, the returning officer could undertake further inquiries. Mr. Barnes objected to that because he felt it might prevent people from registering in time for an election. However, in these days of a rolling register, it takes just 30 days between filling in the form and appearing on the register. Except in the most extraordinary circumstances, that should be time enough to allow any returning officer furnished with the right resources to check whether the applicant for registration does or does not exist.
My hon. Friend Mr. Blunt and Mr. Robinson ably related the proposal's history. The Select Committee on which the Minister sat agreed that such a provision was necessary. The hon. Gentleman changed his mind at some point before the Bill was drafted, and he explained his reasons in the Committee that considered it. They were feeble. He said that the difficulties involved in recalling a national insurance number at the time of registration might make it more difficult for people to register. He said that, on balance, it was unwise to proceed with the proposal.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate said, the Committee was so unconvinced—and more important, I suspect the Minister was so unconvinced—that the Minister went away and, between lunchtime and the beginning of the afternoon sitting, came up with new reasons. But they were not reasons to exclude the national insurance numbers proposal from the Bill. He had already given those reasons which, as I have said, he recognised were feeble. All the Northern Ireland parties supported an amendment similar to this in Committee, as did the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats, and although it was defeated, I do not believe that the arguments were defeated.
The only mildly constitutional party—if I can use that phrase—from Northern Ireland that opposes the inclusion of national insurance numbers chooses not to be represented in the House, and it is the greatest beneficiary of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. It is a scandal that its wish is being pushed through by the Government in the Bill against the advice of all the constitutional parties of Northern Ireland and the people whom they represent, who have suffered so long at the hands of the bullies, gunmen and terrorists whom Sinn Fein represent.
A date of birth can be duplicated, a signature may be inconsistent and names are frequently repeated, but a national insurance number cannot usually be duplicated. The amendment makes provision even for that tiny minority who do not possess a national insurance number. It would also enable greater scrutiny of postal votes. As we know, many people apply fraudulently for postal votes in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire repeated the assertion of Mr. Field that the national insurance system is in chaos. The Government have not relied on that argument yet, and unless they are prepared to do so, I see no reason why the House should reject the amendment.
The amendments would allow the use of national insurance numbers. That would add a great deal more protection to the integrity of the electoral system in Northern Ireland than the measures set out in the Bill. The vast majority of people have national insurance numbers. They are a prerequisite for paying tax and obtaining benefits. National insurance numbers are probably the most complete and easily accessible record of adults in the United Kingdom that we have, and we should not dismiss them lightly. I look forward to hearing the Minister's arguments on why he opposes the amendment because the arguments of Mr. Barnes did not persuade many hon. Members.
It is right to collect the numbers at the time of the canvass and cross-check them against the national insurance database prior to publication of the draft electoral roll. It is an important check on the validity of the voter's identification. I believe that there is sufficient time between the canvass and the publication of the register to undertake a proper check.
We should consider three questions in connection with the registration phase: will people know their national insurance number or have access to it; what happens if an elector does not have a national insurance number; and how will we manage access by the chief electoral officer to the national insurance database? Most people either know their national number or have access to it. I cannot say offhand what mine is, but I know that it is on my P60 and my payslip. People who receive benefits will know their national insurance number from their records. The argument that people do not know their number is neither watertight nor valid.
What happens in the rare instances when people do not have a national insurance number? I have seen the examples that the Minister gave in Committee. Some people may not have a national insurance number, but we will have enough time to go back to them to establish why. I appreciate that, in the first year of the register, additional time may be spent checking out people's arguments, but once the register is in place—it will have a relatively small turnover from year to year, and relatively few people will lack national insurance numbers—the practical long-term arguments against checking them out make that concern invalid.
On how we manage access by the chief electoral officer to the national insurance database, we have heard about the restrictions that the Data Protection Act 1998 places on access, and about the swathe of data to which he will have access and whether or not that will be irrelevant. Notwithstanding the myriad problems that seem to affect information technology projects commissioned by Governments, it is not beyond the wit of man to cross-check national insurance numbers against a database. It would be helpful if the database of national insurance numbers could cross-refer to the computerised records of tax and benefits. That would allow us to check not just the national insurance number and its uniqueness and validity, but the address that is given on the electoral registration form, so we can ascertain that it is the same.
I do not accept the argument that the Minister used in Committee. He said the law would have to be changed, which would not be feasible in the time scale. In response to the events of
The amendments offer a powerful way to improve the integrity of the electoral voting system in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister will not simply say no and employ flimsy arguments, because so far the arguments have lacked validity and do not stand him in good stead.
Having listened to the debate, I wonder how serious the Government are about cracking down on electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. Much could be done to improve the Bill, including the use of national insurance numbers, as set out in the amendment. It is astonishing that, despite the broad agreement of all constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, the Government oppose that. Having read the Committee proceedings, I know that the Minister's arguments were weak.
Of course, not everyone can say off the top of their head what their national insurance number is; I certainly could not. However, to suggest that it is not possible within a 30-day period for someone to produce their number is pathetic. Either the Government are serious about tackling electoral fraud or they are not. There is an opportunity to improve the Bill, and I should like the Government to take that on board.
I have followed the Bill's progress from some distance, but my interest in Northern Ireland is well known, as the Minister is aware. Following the excellent speeches made by some of my hon. Friends, will my hon. Friend Mr. Rosindell speculate in greater detail about why the Government are resisting what are clearly sensible amendments? My hon. Friend makes it amply clear that the proposals are supported by all the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, so why are the Government resisting good sense and good policy?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Government have yet again shown that in certain instances when dealing with issues relating to a part of our kingdom, Northern Ireland, they appease rather than take the action necessary to get a grip on the situation and ensure that democracy prevails against those who have turned to, and continue to employ, solutions that are outwith the democratic arena.
Although it is important that sensitive information is not disclosed unnecessarily, it is a typically public sector approach to admit that the technology to prevent that is achievable but to discount its use because of artificially imposed deadlines. I have read that in other reports. If something is likely to strengthen a measure, it is worth ensuring that it is included and delivered on time. It is typical of the Government's haphazard approach that they dismiss potentially useful ideas because they would be difficult or inconvenient to implement.
It has taken some time to produce the Bill. I am astonished that it has taken the Government so long, but judging by comments made earlier in the debate, it appears likely that it will take even longer to be implemented—yet another example of the Government's appeasement. The Government are being hypocritical: it is hardly credible to use as an excuse lack of time or the fact that people might not know their own social security or national insurance number. Few complain of not knowing their national insurance number when claiming benefits, so I do not understand why it should be such a problem when they want to vote.
There is no question but that the Bill will enable significant headway to be made. That is welcome. However, I urge the House to support the Opposition amendment to include national insurance numbers as additional identification markers for electors registering in Northern Ireland. I see no good reason why any of the obstacles that the Government claim exist should prevent the use of national insurance numbers in the electoral registration process.
Of course it will take time to construct a workable system, but in the long term the ability to cross-check national insurance numbers against those registering to vote—and later, if necessary, those voting—will provide an extra layer of security against electoral fraud. Simply giving dates of birth and signatures may prove to be insufficient to stop those who are determined to get around the system. National insurance numbers might not make the system foolproof, but they are unique pieces of information, specific to individuals, that are too valuable to ignore. I commend the amendment to the House.
If the few years that the Government took to consult widely on our proposals and to draft and introduce the Bill can be described as appeasement, I wonder what 18 years of refusal to address the problem can be called. Perhaps Mr. Rosindell can provide a suitable description before the end of the debate.
Amendment No. 1 requires electors to state their national insurance number, if they have one, on their annual canvass return. Amendment No. 2 terminates an elector's right to remain on the electoral register if they have a national insurance number but fail to provide it. We established in Committee that not everyone has a national insurance number, nor is everyone entitled to one. I acknowledge that the amendments are worded to get around that difficulty, but I remain concerned that they would disadvantage legitimate voters who simply do not know their national insurance number. Faced with the problem of finding out, people—especially the more vulnerable members of the community—might simply return their annual canvass form without including their number. Moreover, the amendments would impose an unnecessary administrative burden on the chief electoral officer, who would be required to check all those cases in which an annual canvass form was returned without a national insurance number to determine whether the elector actually had a number or was entitled to one.
Amendment No. 5 would require people to state their national insurance number, if they have one, when applying for an absent vote for either an indefinite period or a specific parliamentary election. It is possible, whether legitimately or not, to have more than one number. If someone gave a different national insurance number on their application for an absent vote from that which they had provided on registration, that would be a reason to deny them their vote, even if they held the two numbers legitimately. As I have said before, the chief electoral officer should be given as much useful information as possible to enable him to check absent vote applications against the information that an elector will be required to provide on registration, but the chief electoral officer does not consider that a requirement for electors to state their national insurance number on registration or on their application for an absent vote would be of any additional value to him if he is already able to check the signature and date of birth of electors against his records.
I have immense respect for the Minister, who is, from time to time, very amusing. Will he state how an individual can legitimately have two national insurance numbers? I might have misheard him, but I think that that is what he just said. Will he explain?
My understanding is that in certain circumstances individuals can be given temporary national insurance numbers, and that they can therefore have two national insurance numbers for different purposes.
The Minister gave the same explanation in Committee, and I have no reason to doubt its accuracy. However, is he going to list a series of practical problems as the Government's justification for not accepting national insurance numbers as a form of identification? If he is, does he not accept that those are points of detail and that we are in fact discussing an extremely important strategic opportunity to identify each potential voter using what is, for the overwhelming majority of people, a unique identifying number?
My concern, which I expressed repeatedly in Committee, is that we may inadvertently disfranchise people because of changes in the rules that we make. We had to strike a balance between interdicting fraud and not placing unnecessary obstacles in the way of legitimate voters, and identify where in the use of national insurance numbers such difficulties might be found. However, I am conscious—this was forcefully pointed out to me in Committee and on more than one occasion today—that all the Northern Ireland political parties represented in the Committee and in the Chamber today are as one on the issue. Mindful of that pressure and consistent with my approach throughout proceedings on the Bill, I have put a number of options to the test again, including data protection aspects, which are not minor, to see if the national insurance number can be used for electoral purposes in a way that does not disfranchise legitimate voters. However, as presently advised, I am not satisfied that they can; until I am, I have no alternative but to resist the amendments.
The Minister concluded his explanation on a wholly inadequate note; his arguments have been similarly inadequate throughout Committee and on Report.
First, I want to take up the Minister's point that the previous Government did nothing for 18 years. If that had been the case, there would not be a need for consolidation of the legislation now. There are so many different pieces of legislation floating round the system, which, from memory, were introduced in 1983, 1985 and 1989 to try to address the issue of identification in polling stations and elsewhere in piecemeal stages, that there is now a desperate need to consolidate them. The Minister knows well that that is the position of the chief electoral officer.
Of course, the Bill is welcome, but it only goes so far; on that issue, it could go much further to ensure that the register is, as far as possible, and given the limitations on the current national insurance system, beyond reproach. Mr. McGrady amused the House with an account of attempting to find a person who qualified as someone who does not have a national insurance number. Lembit Öpik made it clear that there was no more reliable way of establishing an individual's identity. It was a joy to see Mr. Robinson put the Minister through his paces and make him relive his past as a free-thinking member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Indeed, in attempting to reject the amendments, the Minister should bear in mind the fact that the hon. Gentleman was prepared to give him a flexible timetable on the introduction of identity cards. He might ask himself why, on this issue, the hon. Gentleman does not want to give him flexibility.
Mr. Barnes made a noble effort to defend the Minister. He confessed that, in 1998, when he was a Committee member, he was naive to accept evidence given to the Committee. I have never thought of the hon. Gentleman as naive, and he was certainly not naive when he agreed with every other Committee member, from every party, in reaching his conclusion in 1998. That conclusion is still shared by all the other parties that have taken part in consultations on the process.
My hon. Friend Mr. Turner properly drew attention to the level of intimidation and the issue of a unique identifier. He said that if the chief electoral officer were furnished with the right resources, there is no reason why national insurance numbers cannot be introduced. I wonder what advice the Minister has received from the Treasury. When he concluded his contribution, he said that he had received advice that led to his not being satisfied. He left it at that, leaving the House in the dark about the detail of advice that was so overwhelming that he could not accept the proposals.
My hon. Friend Mr. Rosindell asked just how serious the Government are about the proposals. I must tell him that I take what the Minister is trying to achieve in the Bill at face value. It would be wrong of the House to impugn his general motives. However, why are the Government resisting the amendment? They should consider just who their allies are. There are none in the House, but my hon. Friend will see that, in its evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in 1998, Sinn Fein said:
"Sinn Fein believes that there is a compelling and logical argument to ensure that the electorate have the maximum freedom to exercise their vote as freely as possible. We would therefore argue for an end to the current identification regulations because we believe they restrict the electorate's freedom and impose an unnecessary burden on them."
Well, that is a surprise. Why is it that, on the issue of electoral fraud, the Minister finds himself in alliance with Sinn Fein, rather than all the other parties in Northern Ireland? He should ask himself that question.
The hon. Gentleman and others have impugned the Government's intention as being in some way an appeasement of Sinn Fein and other groups. Has he any evidence whatever that that is the case? I, who reside in Northern Ireland, have no such evidence. It would be wrong to make such assertion if there was not a reasonable certainty of its validity.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman listened carefully to what I said. I did not say that. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford used those terms, but I have taken some trouble to dissociate those on the Conservative Front Bench from that suggestion, and to make it clear that we take the Minister's intentions at face value. I am not suggesting that he is in league with Sinn Fein in his proposals. I am merely pointing out to the House that it so happens that on this issue he finds himself at one with Sinn Fein, which would no doubt resist the proposal. It is the only other party that would do so. The Minister should consider the position in which he finds himself. I am not saying that there has been some arrangement or that a direct effort has been made to appease Sinn Fein on other issues. I am grateful to Mr. McGrady for giving me the opportunity to make that clear.
Having listened to the Minister's arguments in Committee and on Report, it is almost impossible to resist agreeing with the right hon. Gentleman. The Treasury has been behind many inexplicable decisions, when Ministers have been forced to explain the unexplainable to the House and put the case to protect the Treasury. Given the weakness of the Minister's arguments in Committee and on Report, the right hon. Gentleman's explanation is the one that most appeals to me.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely good case. If the Government seek to justify the introduction of identity cards for the security of the state, and such an identity card could well include a national insurance number, why should not a national insurance number serve to safeguard the country's democracy?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's general point. We have yet to see the Government's proposals for identity cards for the security of the nation. My hon. Friend's point about the security of democracy is extremely important.
On the suspicions directed at the Treasury, does the hon. Gentleman accept that however much of a mess the national insurance system might be, it is not a factor in the debate, because as long as someone could find his number, it could be entered and used in a database in Northern Ireland? The state of the national insurance system is probably not the explanation, but that makes the Minister's seeming intransigence on an eminently sensible idea even more confusing.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I am still attracted by the explanation from Mr. Field. The Government would have to admit that the entire national insurance system was in chaos. If it is in chaos, it is imperative that the Government sort it out. That is no argument against a cross-reference system to help protect against electoral fraud.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Trimble suggested that the Government were putting the shutters up; that they had produced the Bill and were too inflexible to consider change during the proceedings. That is one explanation, which we have encountered too often in the House, when the Government have been defeated on the detail of the argument. In this case the Government have been defeated strategically and in detail. We will press the matter, and if we are not successful this evening, the Minister will not have heard the last of it.