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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 8:00 pm on 31st October 2001.

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Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Conservative, Fareham 8:00 pm, 31st October 2001

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 11 September, Departments have moved quickly in recent weeks to the pressing need to change legislation.

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.