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Clause 3 — Absent votes and declarations of identity

Part of Orders of the Day — Election Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:53 pm on 31st October 2001.

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Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 9:53 pm, 31st October 2001

As I said at the beginning of the Committee stage, in my many years as Liberal Democrat Northern Ireland spokesperson, I have seen Ministers come and go, each more brilliant than the last. Looking at the Minister, I can honestly say that I see a very nice man. Frustratingly, however, he does not listen. As other Members have said, I heard him congratulate himself on the fact that the Bill has changed very little; that made me think of an iron fist in a velvet glove, frightening Labour Back Benchers into supporting things which, if they had reflected for a moment, they would not have supported.

In the Chamber, the majorities in votes on this matter have been large, but in Committee, many Divisions were nine votes against eight. In terms of political parties, the Minister was losing votes by five parties to one on many of the arguments. Mr. Robinson made the point that cross-community support has been garnered for many ideas which the Government have rejected. As a consequence, the Bill will not be as good as it could have been with the benefit of that input.

With regard to national insurance numbers, the Minister once again failed to justify his refusal to adopt the proposals made by so many people and so many parties. We had a debate on bar codes, then he had the audacity to say that we should now see that our proposals were unhelpful, but his arguments were not particularly robust. On time scale, his desire for flexibility made him inflexible in dealing with our proposals. Any business would set a time scale and regard that as a proactive gesture that would focus the team to achieve the launch date that had been outlined.

I have learned a great deal in the debate. I have learned that although she challenged me on whether I know my national insurance number, Shona McIsaac knows hers by heart. I hope that the shame that she must now feel will cause her to encourage the Minister to think again. I have learned that our winning some of the arguments was insufficient to cause the Minister to think again. That is a matter of concern. I have also learned that there is cross-party support for the essence of the Bill. On occasions, that cross-party support, at least on the Floor of this House, has not been sufficient to convince the Minister to think again.

On balance, the Bill is good, but it could be even better. On balance, the Bill will have an impact, but not the full impact that it could have had with those further proposals. There is work to be done in another place, and no doubt the Government will be challenged on some of the familiar territory that we covered in Committee and on the Floor of the House. I congratulate the Minister on his ever-patient and ever-pleasant demeanour. In the words of Arnie Schwarzenegger, "We'll be back."