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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.