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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 8:30 pm on 31st October 2001.

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Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 8:30 pm, 31st October 2001

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.