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Clause 1 — Registration: provision of signature and date of birth

Part of Orders of the Day — Election Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 31st October 2001.

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Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 7:00 pm, 31st October 2001

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.