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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 7:30 pm on 31st October 2001.

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Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East 7:30 pm, 31st October 2001

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.