With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 13, in page 2, line 6, at end insert `and
(c) the national insurance number of each such person.'.
No. 14, in page 2, line 20, leave out `both his date of birth' and insert `his date of birth, his national insurance number,'.
No. 15, in page 2, line 30, at end insert `and
(c) the national insurance number of each such person.'.
No. 16, in clause 2, page 2, line 44, leave out `question' and insert `questions'.
No. 17, in clause 2, page 2, line 45, after `birth?', insert `and, What is your national insurance number?'.
No. 34, in clause 2, page 2, line 45, at end insert `what is your National Insurance number?'.
No. 35, in clause 2, page 3, line 3, at end insert—
`(aa) his failure to state correctly his National Insurance number pursuant to rule 35(1A); or'.
No. 20, in clause 6, page 5, line 12, leave out `or date of birth' and insert `, date of birth or national insurance number'.
No. 21, in clause 6, page 5, line 25, after first `birth', insert `or national insurance number'.
No. 22, in clause 6, page 5, line 26, after second `birth', insert `or national insurance number'.
No. 10, in Title, line 5, after `signatures', insert `, National Insurance numbers'.
In the short debate on the programme motion, I indicated that the general principle of the Bill had been accepted by hon. Members on both sides of the House and I expect, therefore, of the Committee. For each of us, the balance is between taking steps to ensure that there is a greater curb on those who would perpetrate fraud while, at the same time, causing the least discouragement to people who desire to register and to vote validly. I suspect that the only disagreements in the Committee will be about how one strikes that balance.
A wide body of opinion believes that it would be helpful to include the national insurance number on the registration form. It would then be available to the chief electoral officer and his staff for postal vote purposes and, as indicated by other amendments, it would be on the electoral register in the polling station and could be used as an identifier when a person came forward to claim a ballot paper. The wide support is demonstrated by those who have appended their signatures to the amendment and by the historical debate about electoral fraud and the review of legislation.
The recent debate began with a session of the Northern Ireland Forum. After an election, the chief electoral officer identified electoral fraud at a high level, and a committee was set up in the forum to look at what changes could be made to reduce, if not halt, electoral fraud. One of the key issues it identified was the inclusion of the person's national insurance number. When the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee considered the matter—we were delighted to have the Minister among our membership, and he supported the report—it also identified that as an important issue. The Committee report said that
``Registration forms should contain more identifying details to overcome the problem of illicit multiple registration and to make fraudulent applications in another's name harder. These should include date of birth, a signature and the national insurance number of the voter.''
In evidence to the Committee, the then chief electoral officer, Mr. Bradley, referred again to the issue. He said:
``To prevent multiple/false registration the registration form could also require the individual's national insurance number and/or date of birth to be given. Computerised cross-checking of similar names with a view to prevent improper registration would be greatly assisted by that additional data.''
Under cross-examination in the Committee, Mr. Bradley further confirmed that that would greatly assist the electoral office. A former deputy electoral officer was an expert witness to the Committee and he too identified inclusion of the national insurance number as a vital issue that the Government should take into account.
Several other representations were made to the Committee, including some from political parties, arguing that case. The national insurance number is unique to the individual. It is open to fraud, but it makes the life of the would-be fraudster more difficult and gives him more hoops to jump through. It makes it much more difficult to attempt to take someone else's vote. Use of the national insurance number can cut out that fraud. If someone wants to provide for themselves a second or multiple vote, they can undoubtedly take steps illegally to obtain an additional national insurance number, but the possibility of a legitimately registered voter's card being stolen is reduced or even removed.
As well as providing a further indicator, the inclusion of the voter's national insurance number would enable the electoral office to identify multiple registrations. That is important, obviously in relation to amendments on multiple registration and multiple voting, which I will move later, but also in that it is a safeguard for the system. Even the amendment on registration tabled by Conservative Members recognises the assistance that it would give in tracking those who have registered at more than one address. There are plenty of John Murphys in Northern Ireland—there are probably plenty of Peter Robinsons as well. [Interruption.]
Order. I remind hon. Members to switch off mobile phones or pagers. It is also very rude to read pagers while the Chairman is on his feet. I ask hon. Members to be a bit more considerate to the Committee.
There is only one John Murphy or Peter Robinson with the national insurance number that has been legally provided to him. The national insurance number therefore helps to reduce the problems facing the electoral office and presiding officers.
When the question of using national insurance numbers was raised by the Select Committee, the Secretary of State at that time, Mo Mowlam, had only one argument against it, which was that such a move would provide a restriction that was not in existence in other parts of the United Kingdom. However, the Bill includes other measures that are unavailable in other parts of the UK.
I have not heard a persuasive argument against the inclusion of the national insurance number. Obviously, not every citizen has committed it to memory, but it should not be difficult for anyone to provide themselves with it. Used with a signature, it would be of great help in reducing fraudulent claims for postal votes and ballot papers. I trust that the Committee will favourably consider the proposal. It was the only issue that I forgot to raise with the Minister in discussions with him, so I will listen with genuine surprise and expectation to what he has to say. However, as he told me about the Government's overall thought, it is not with tremendous hope that I wait to hear his comments.
I join in the earlier felicitations to you, Mr. Hood, and good wishes for your chairmanship, which I know from reputation, will be exemplary. I also welcome the Minister to his first tryst at such an occasion. We have met many other times, but not in this arena.
I endorse entirely the comments of the hon. Member for Belfast, East and lend whatever support I can to his amendment and the consequential amendments. Hon. Members must be clear about the importance of the Bill to Northern Ireland. The old system was a bit of a joke: people impersonating family members who could not get out to vote were tolerated and had no great impact on the results. However, we see now organised and militarised fraud of the electoral system, which produces results against the wishes of the electorate. Those results have been significant enough to change perhaps the political direction of Northern Ireland, which is why the Bill is so important. The legislation will attempt by every means possible to clamp down on fraudulent voting, which is under a systematic, paramilitary dictatorship. It is essential that we address all aspects of fraud, however cumbersome and difficult that may be.
I had a brief conversation with the Minister about introducing national insurance numbers as a means of identification. I did not receive any encouragement, but I am determined to press forward with other hon. Members to implement this provision. As has been said already, the national insurance number is unique to each individual in Northern Ireland. It has a built-in age bracketing, and is easily available on many official letters and tax forms. People identify with it and, as a unique number, it is ascribed to one person and one address only.
A national insurance number is much more traceable than a signature or date of birth, the use of which I also support. A database is readily available. The technology is already there. A number quoted can immediately be checked via a central database and the person confirmed yea or nay. Certainly there will be some loopholes with people using fictitious national insurance numbers, or even duplicate ones, although that would be rather stupid. But such loopholes would be miniscule in the scheme of things and would be no more rampant than fictitious dates of birth or forged signatures, which are much harder to identify.
The universality of the information, the common use it has in everyday life and its particular allocation to the elector mean that the national insurance number should be required in all aspects of voting. It should be required on registration and on all absent voter applications. On polling day, the name and national insurance number should be presented to the presiding officer. It is simple to refer to the central database to verify the information. It will cut out an enormous amount of fraud. Hopefully, it will be included in the new electoral ID card that is proposed only in part in the Bill. The clause dealing with that is simply permissive and not mandatory, which is disappointing.
I shall be guided by you, Mr. Hood, about speaking to the other amendments in my name about national insurance number information. Suffice it to say they deal with various matters such as registration, absent voter application or polling day questions, and would amend the data or the questions to provide for national insurance numbers to be required or requested. Amendment No. 10 would add ``National Insurance numbers'' to the title of the Bill.
Thank you, Mr. Hood. In that context, I simply refer the Committee to the fact that amendments Nos. 2, 13 to 17, 20 to 22 and 10 all concern the logical implementation of having national insurance numbers in all aspects of voting such as registration, absent voting and polling day questions to be put to the elector. I hope that hon. Members will not feel short-changed if I do not go into each of them in detail, but they relate simply to the necessity of carrying through the proposals on national insurance numbers.
I support the lead amendment and the consequential amendments and encourage the Committee and the Government to consider this serious submission, which clearly has cross-party support in Northern Ireland. That in itself is unique. The Government should listen to this because it is better and simpler than some of the proposals in the Bill.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). We should take his remarks seriously when he talks about systematic militarised fraud and an organised paramilitary dictatorship abusing the electoral system. We all know who we are talking about here. We are talking about Sinn Fein, which has yet to decide whether it will be fully integrated into the democratic process. Our concern is its capacity to abuse the democratic system if it behaves as an organised paramilitary movement.
We must remember the scale of the potential organisational ability of Sinn Fein-IRA in Northern Ireland. It has many full-time officials of one sort or another funded by a wide variety of sources, which gives it a grotesquely unfair advantage over other parties in Northern Ireland. The organisation of elections must reinforce the people who are supporting democracy whole-heartedly so that the system is beyond reproach. That is why we are debating the Bill in the context of Northern Ireland electoral fraud. That is why measures taken over the past 20 years have changed how elections are organised in Northern Ireland in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom and why Parliament will take appropriate measures when the Bill becomes law.
All five opposition parties view the key issue of national insurance numbers as critical. Coincidentally, those parties all have Members in Northern Ireland. The one party that does not allow itself Members there is the Government party. All who take part in the electoral process in Northern Ireland are of one mind about what should be done on this issue and the one party that does not allow itself to take part is of another mind. I hope that Government Members will think carefully as we proceed with our debates.
I whole-heartedly endorse what was said by the hon. Members for South Down and for Belfast, East, who drew attention to the Minister's past as a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, which voted in favour of the report of 11 March 1998—the first part of the parliamentary considerations of this issue. The hon. Member for Belfast, East also drew attention to paragraph 58 of the report. It bears repetition because the Minister must deal with the problem in his reply. He endorsed the conclusion:
``Registration forms should contain more identifying details to overcome the problem of illicit multiple registration and to make fraudulent applications in another name harder. These should include date of birth, signature and the national insurance number of the voter.''
How could a parliamentarian serving on a Select Committee reach that conclusion after mature reflection and, within a few short months as a Minister, come to a different conclusion?
In the first instance, it is hardly a few short months since the report was published. As the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Belfast, East rightly pointed out, the report's conclusion was arrived at on the basis of the evidence. I shall make clear in my reply that I have had time for further mature reflection on the basis of other evidence. As the Secretary of State recently said, quoting someone else, ``When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?''
I shall not embarrass the hon. Gentleman by asking him whether he knows his national insurance number, but I will embarrass him by saying that when he spoke to the chief electoral officer yesterday and was asked the same question, he did not know his national insurance number.
That brings us to the point about whether electors should be asked for their national insurance number when they go to the polling station. On the basis of the evidence, I differ from the hon. Members for South Down and for Belfast, East, because it is probably not reasonable to expect voters to recall their national insurance number immediately. However, that is not material to what is on the registration form. Electors have enough time to consult their personal records and complete the registration form with the national insurance number.
We look forward to hearing the Minister's further mature consideration now that he has had the privilege of advice from his officials in the Northern Ireland Office. The previous Secretary of State said in her evidence to the Committee when that question was put to her—I have lost the reference and shall paraphrase—that she expected MPs to weigh the evidence and come to a conclusion themselves, and that their opinions as parliamentarians would have some weight in the decision by the Northern Ireland Office on the matter.
Let us deal with the importance of the register and how vital it is that, as far as possible, that document is beyond reproach. The hon. Member for South Down spoke about the effect of elections in Northern Ireland. He said that the systematic fraud—he called it militarised fraud—that had taken place was changing the direction of Northern Ireland politics. If a referendum on the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland were held again, plainly, the decision should be based on a register that is as absolutely accurate as possible. The issue is likely to be put to the people of Northern Ireland at some stage—if not at frequent stages—in the future, as it has been in the past. That is why it is vital that the register be as beyond reproach as we can reasonably make it. The discussion that we are now having is about the test of reasonableness.
Perhaps it is not reasonable to expect voters to be able to recall their national insurance number in answer to a straightforward question, but it is certainly reasonable to ask voters to obtain their national insurance number from records that they almost certainly hold at home. The issue at stake is whether the other information that will be required on registration makes the inclusion of the national insurance number unnecessary.
In my conversation with the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, to which the Minister referred, I addressed the issue of whether signatures could be checked against each other. He told me that early advice from consultants was that it was not yet possible to do that. Therefore, the only reliable way to compare one with another through a computerised check is to compare data with data, which means comparing national insurance numbers or dates of birth with records that are already held.
The national insurance number is important because it would enable a cross-check to be made against other records and not simply the records formally held by the chief electoral officer. That is vital because people in Northern Ireland can register in both their Irish name and their English name, which immediately raises the question of how to check two names that appear to be different but are in fact one name that is registered twice. If someone who registers in both names had also to provide their national insurance number, that check would throw up the fact that they were registered twice.
I expect the Minister to point out that national insurance numbers are not beyond reproach, which is true. Of course the Department of Social Security is constantly trying to ensure that its database of national insurance numbers is as accurate as possible, but the fact that that system is not perfect is not an argument for doing without that cross-check on registration. It would place another serious barrier in the way of people who want deliberately to register twice, to have twice or three times the weight in our democracy of people who follow the proper and legal course of action.
The work by the party of the hon. Member for South Down before the 1997 election is instructive. Its research found that in one constituency in Northern Ireland there were 18,000 people with the same name as someone else as compared to 6,000 in a London constituency. In 1996, it tried to determine whether people were correctly registered and was able to make 204 challenges, of which 101 were allowed. That exercise was carried out by a political party that is not funded in the same way as the main opponents in its community—if I can put it like that. The SDLP operates under a significant disadvantage in that it is funded wholly by legal means and does not have success in fund-raising abroad owing to the misrepresentation of the activities of other parties, including its main opponents in seats such as Belfast, West. That shows the necessity of making a register as accurate as possible.
I want to go further in dealing with the office of the chief electoral officer and whether it will be able to carry out checks on the basis of signatures on the registration form. The chief electoral officer cannot carry out a signature check on the basis of a computer check against an application for an absent vote; it must be done manually. I asked him whether he was systematically checking, for example, all the absent vote applications that were received at the last minute during the last general election, and the best description of his reaction was a hollow laugh.
The office of the chief electoral officer is engaged in the current registration exercise, and he simply does not have the staff to check systematically all 5,000 or 10,000 absent vote applications in constituencies where elections were most closely contested to establish their validity. We shall discuss the absent vote form under another clause, but that is an example of the need to be able to cross-reference against a register that contains as much information as it is reasonable to request.
I assume that when the Minister replies he will give us the basis of the advice that it is not possible, on pragmatic grounds, to include national insurance numbers. I hope that we will have the opportunity to find out whether it is possible to test that. If the register in Northern Ireland is not as robust as we can make it, the whole basis of democracy in Northern Ireland is undermined. If people cannot have confidence in decisions taken using the ballot box, what we are all about in this place is negated. If the basis of the register is undermined by, in the words of the hon. Member for South Down, a systematic, organised paramilitary dictatorship, we will have profoundly failed in our duty to the electors of Northern Ireland.
We all agree with the sentiments and intent of the Bill, and most of the amendments are intended to make the Bill more specific and give it robustness—to use the word of the hon. Member for Reigate—so that it achieves its declared aim. It is interesting to note that the Government try endlessly to create cross-community support, but when they have a means of achieving it, as they have in the amendment, they seek to ignore it. It is ironic that when there is such commonality of view on the inclusion of the national insurance number as an additional safeguard against electoral fraud, the Government try to disregard that advice.
To clarify a small point, I hope that the hon. Member for Reigate was not suggesting that the Liberal Democrats and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland are in exactly the same party—although I congratulate David Ford on his wonderful election as leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.
The intention of the amendments seems clear. As has been said, many of us support the inclusion of the national insurance number, believing that although it does not provide certainty, it provides more security, as another means of trying to ensure that individuals are who they say they are. Everyone aged 16 or over has a distinguishing national insurance number, and for all the reasons already outlined, which do not need repeating, there is a compelling logic for including that coding, which is unique to each of us, as another means of insurance.
Amendment No. 34, in my name and that of the hon. Member for North Down, would allow the presiding officer in a polling station to ask someone for his or her national insurance number before giving them a ballot paper. That would give substance to the earlier amendments as it would allow us to do something with the information collected. The hon. Member for Belfast, East has made several comments on that, and amendment No. 2 in his name, which the hon. Member for North Down and I support, is entirely consistent with the intent of amendment No. 34.
Amendment No. 35 refers to the election rule that allows for the delivery of a ballot paper to a voter except in cases of doubt. That would have the effect that if a voter failed to state their national insurance number correctly when asked, it could raise—these are the crucial words—reasonable doubt as to whether they were the voter or proxy whom they claimed to be. However, that should not on its own be enough to deny a voter a ballot paper. It seems unlikely that, as has already been said, everyone will know their national insurance number by heart or carry the card at all times.
Similar techniques are used, to some effect, to check the activities of individuals in Northern Ireland. On one occasion there, I was riding my motor bike and was stopped at a police checkpoint. As was often the case, I was asked to inform the officer of my motor cycle registration. I got it completely wrong because I had forgotten that I was riding my mate's bike. There was a rather long inquiry into why the bike I was riding had a different number from the one I had given. I managed to convince them that I was a law-abiding citizen and after about 10 or 15 minutes I was allowed to go. I hope that those hon. Members who are smirking are not implying that I stole my mate's bike, because I did not.
My example highlights the fact that a reasonable doubt had been raised in the police officer's mind and he used the means at his disposal to ensure that I was who I said I was and had not stolen the bike. The same applies in this case: using a national insurance number does not provide certainty but, for the reasons given, it provides extra checks that can lead towards certainty.
I support amendments Nos. 20 to 22, tabled by the hon. Member for South Down, which tidy up the provisions on national insurance numbers. The hon. Gentleman said that we should attempt, by every means possible, to limit the risk of fraudulent voting. I qualify that by saying ``every practicable means possible''. Using the national insurance number is an eminently practical means that could reasonably be included.
In my many years as Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Northern Ireland I have seen Ministers come and go, each more impressive than the last. However impressive is the individual before us today, it is important that there is a consistency and a cohesion between what succeeding Ministers do and the recommendations of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. That Committee spent much time deliberating these issues, taking evidence and putting forward a cohesive recommendation for the Government to consider. I look forward to the Minister's defence of the Government's choosing to disregard the Committee's recommendations and advice about electoral fraud. Given the consensus of the other parties in this Committee, unless the Minister can rustle up a proof worthy of Fermat's last theorem, I ask him to think again about including national insurance numbers.
Like four other members of this Committee, I was a member of the Select Committee that drew up the report on electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland. It is a good report, and it prodded the Northern Ireland Office into action to produce the Bill, so it was a worthwhile exercise.
However, opinions may change according to debate. The debate on the amendments raises some questions to which I should like someone to respond, especially if they want me to support the proposals. The hon. Member for Reigate made a couple of points that worry me. He said that the national insurance number system was not perfect; if it is not perfect, it may create problems with registration, because it means that some legitimate claims for registration may be questioned. People who are entitled to be on a register might not be included because of delays while the system of national insurance numbers is sorted out. There is now a rolling electoral register, which means that as people move around Northern Ireland their names can be moved on to new registers. Time will be required to check out the details. In many cases, the switch will be automatic, because the national insurance number will tie in with the records that the electoral registration officer receives. However, if the information does not fit, there will be a danger that some people will not be placed on registers despite being entitled. I find that disturbing. I accept that fraudulent registration is a problem and that we need methods to counter it, but we should consider the other side of the coin.
Will the hon. Gentleman hazard a guess as to whether the delay in putting someone on to a register because of a national insurance number check would be greater than the normal delay in getting on to the rolling register, which is between 30 and 35 days? Does he believe that the danger of people being omitted from the register for a brief time is greater than that of people fraudulently registering?
There is a considerable problem that people who are entitled to be registered are not being placed on registers. There is always the danger that some people are on the register fraudulently. I was a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and am concerned that there should not be fraudulent registration, but I am also concerned that we should have full and proper registration. We do not have that in the United Kingdom, despite the fact that we have moved to a rolling register, which I call a crawling register. Both concerns are important, and I would not want to have to balance the numbers.
The hon. Gentleman says that there may be a considerable problem of people being unable to register, who are otherwise legally entitled to do so, on account of their national insurance number. That is entirely in the hands of the chief electoral officer. The hon. Gentleman is raising a problem that does not exist. Placing the national insurance number on the registration form would allow a check to be undertaken later. Everyone has a national insurance number. Some people perhaps have more than one, usually illegally but occasionally properly—they may have a temporary number for one reason or another. As everyone has a number, it is unlikely that the measure would prevent registration. The purpose is to throw up cases where people appear to be double-registered and to prompt investigations. It would then be up to the chief electoral officer to decide whether such people should be taken off the register. I assume that they would not be removed unless it were established that they were improperly there in the first place.
The point was raised earlier about whether there would be a delay in the electoral registration officer placing people on registers. Now the argument is that people will be put on registers and checked out later. I am not sure whether that would be the procedure. I would have thought that the measure gave the returning officer sufficient authority to prevent someone being placed on the register if he or she thought that the application were fraudulent. It would be a worthwhile exercise if each case were guaranteed to be fraudulent. However, it was suggested that, if the system were not perfect, that might not function in some cases, and it might delay someone appearing on a register and being able to exercise their enfranchisement entitlement.
I intervene only to say that I share my hon. Friend's understanding of the effect of the provision. It will either delay or prevent people from getting on to the register. It will not allow people to get on to the register temporarily until such time as matters are checked.
That may be a minor problem but it is serious that some people who are entitled to be on an electoral register do not get on to it. I may have a bit of an obsession about the matter, but the basic building block of democracy is that everyone who is entitled to vote should be on the register.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that line 17 on page 2 states that
``The entitlement of a person to remain registered . . . terminates if the form mentioned . . . does not include'' the necessary data? It does not say that the person will not be registered.
I have not looked at that in detail yet. I shall look at it closely. However, the Minister said that he understood that the position was as I described it.
The hon. Member for Reigate favoured the amendments that would mean that the national insurance number facilitated proper and correct registration but did not accept subsequent amendments, which suggested that it would be used as a second identifier in polling stations. Certainly I have a great fear about the second identifier having to be used and people being asked to bring or to remember it, or to have it placed upon the electoral identity card, which will not cover everyone at present.
The problem is that the amendments are interlinked. If we pass amendments that allow the national identity card to be used for facilitating purposes, are we setting ourselves up to take the second set of amendments that go beyond what the hon. Gentleman himself wants? We have a procedural problem. The arguments against the second identifier are powerful and link back to us passing the initial amendments. Those are my two major concerns.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Hood. I should have done so earlier, but such is my feeling of guilt about Thursday that I overlooked it. I am delighted to see you here today.
I will add only a few observations as we begin the debate on national insurance numbers. I am sorry if it is legalistic but the recent decision in the Heathrow airport case reminds me that the span of our rights under the European convention on human rights is more or less open-ended. No one can predict whether people are entitled to a good night's sleep when they live near an airport—an issue that will be debated again.
``The High Contracting Parties undertake free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislation.''
The most important words are
``under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people''.
I agree with the Minister's introductory point that no one wants to place unnecessary obstacles in the way of voters. We genuinely want to help them to cast their votes. However, electoral fraud is a serious problem in Northern Ireland and we all need to act together to eradicate the distortion of electoral results.
I recall apologising on Second Reading for appearing to be cynical, but hon. Members will notice that clause 1 contains a loophole whereby the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland may dispense with the requirement to append a signature on the annual canvass if he is satisfied that there is incapacity or the voter is unable to read. People are sent the annual application forms for the annual register in good time, so even though details of our national insurance number are not at our fingertips all the time, there is an adequate period after the delivery of the canvass to households for people to check their national insurance number. Clause 1 contains a loophole whereby those who cannot sign are not obliged to provide even their national insurance number. Surely a logical requirement should be built in to close that particular loophole.
Many young people—I am staggered by the number—know their national insurance number. People who claim benefits—old age pensioners, for example—also have easy access to their national insurance number, so why should it not apply to those who want to obtain their rightful vote? Will the Committee consider closing the loophole by insisting on the requirement to provide national insurance numbers?
I do not want the Government to be taken to court following the Heathrow airport decision because conditions have not been put in place to ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people. The European Court at Strasbourg ruled that it was insufficient for the Government to ensure no breach of rights; they had a positive duty to put in place legislation or administrative procedures that guaranteed people's rights under the convention. Various members of the Committee support that positive move and the Minister could easily accept it.
There is an air of confidentiality on the Government Benches and I am unclear about the precise objection of the Minister and his hon. Friends to the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East. It is difficult to establish the Minister's intentions and those of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). What precisely do they object to and what has changed their minds since they signed up to the Select Committee report? As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said, a serious matter must have changed over the period and persuaded them that what seemed a sensible proposal is no longer sensible. I should have liked to hear more from Government Members, so that we had an opportunity to respond rather than to speak first and hear the Minister respond later, although I accept that that is a procedural matter that we cannot shift.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate spoke about the possibility of a future referendum on the status of Northern Ireland. Even more likely in the near future is a referendum on the status of the United Kingdom. I should not like that referendum to be affected by multiple registrations in one province of the United Kingdom either.
It is an interesting point. Will the hon. Gentleman now advance the argument that all voters throughout the United Kingdom should be required to give their national insurance numbers, so that if we have a referendum on the euro, there will be a similar degree of certainty about that register?
I intended to deal with that issue slightly later. There was multiple registration in my constituency at the last general election, which may be why it was the last constituency to declare a result in England, Wales and Scotland. The difference is that those who may be responsible for multiple registration on the Isle of Wight do not carry guns. Liberal Democrats on the Isle of Wight do not carry guns, as far as I know, and nor do Conservatives and representatives of other parties. As the hon. Member for South Down implied, however, those who are responsible for multiple registration in Northern Ireland do carry guns—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr. Hood.
The nub of the matter is that multiple registration by extremists drives politics into the hands of extremists—it has happened in one province of the United Kingdom—and we have a duty to take every possible and reasonable measure to prevent that. I have heard no reason from Government Members as to why the proposal is unreasonable.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that for many elections, although not all, has proportional voting, which is even more vulnerable to the effects of multiple registration than the first-past-the-post system. Again, we have a duty but I have heard nothing to explain why it is not possible to put the perfectly sensible proposal from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee into law.
Almost as an aside, the hon. Gentleman said that the proportional representation method of voting was more prone to electoral fraud than the straightforward first-past-the-post system. I have not experienced that. Of four categories of election in Northern Ireland, three are by proportional representation. We have a direct first-past-the-post system, or whatever it is officially called, only for election to this House. Has he any evidence for his remark that PR is more prone to fraud than direct election?
Everyone has only one vote, whether it is a PR election or a first-past-the-post election, but they can use that one vote in preferential terms. The strength of the argument comes more from the outcome of an election. A PR election's outcome can be more easily affected by fraud than that of a first-past-the-post election, because a fraction of one vote would be sufficient to decide between two candidates at later stages of the poll.
It is interesting that we are discussing multiple registration and are linking in the national insurance number provision. We need another set of amendments to deal with multiple registration. Even if national insurance numbers are used, it is still possible for multiple registration to occur. The hon. Gentleman is presumably proposing to set up that measure with the proviso that it will need to be added to later with other measures.
Perhaps I can answer the point on which the hon. Gentleman intervened. He quoted—
Page 2 of the Bill refers to a person's entitlement to remain on a register. Part of the hon. Gentleman's point is therefore legitimate. However, numbers of people coming up for registration for the first time are not included. I imagine that anyone moving into Northern Ireland from other sections of Great Britain, from the Irish Republic, where they would be entitled to a qualification over a period, or from the Commonwealth would be liable to problems. The debate has thrown up a difficulty.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his two points—the first of which was that I had an argument. I would like to rest on that. On his earlier point about multiple registration, I do not wish to stray into the question of whether multiple registration that is legitimate under current rules should be prevented. That is for a later stage in our consideration. I was making a point about fraudulent multiple registration of people who perhaps do not even exist. Placing the national insurance number on the registration form would enable electoral registration officers, assisted by those who may challenge registrations, to deal with that.
While the hon. Gentleman is dealing with the issue of outcomes and the creation of an accurate register, perhaps he would care to reflect on the difficulty experienced by the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland in creating a register by canvassing—unlike in the United Kingdom where it is normally done by a simple return of post. It is difficult to canvass in constituencies such as Belfast, West, and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where the election was extremely close and subject to a court action. Outcomes are affected if the register is not accurate in areas such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on that.
The effect of multiple or fraudulent registration in very marginal constituencies under the first-past-the-post system, and, indeed, on all elections under a proportional system, is considerable. I do not usually worry about the effects of the European Court of Human Rights on how we conduct our business in this country, but my hon. Friend the Member for North Down has made it clear that I should worry about that. The Government should also worry about it. I have not yet heard any reason why the proposal should not be carried forward.
A further problem has now been raised, which I had not thought of before: canvassing. Canvassing takes place widely in Northern Ireland. It is an activity that is engaged in almost universally. I would recommend that it should take place throughout Great Britain. However, if people are canvassing in order to get register details that are then checked by the returning officer, they will presumably, under the provisions, have to ask for national insurance numbers. Will it be possible or easy for people to search out their national insurance number when someone has knocked on the door? It is not an item that many people keep handy, but is something for which they will have to search through their records.
Of course, I accept that it will not be possible for everyone immediately to put their hand on their national insurance number. However, I understand that canvassing is not the only way by which people get their names on the register in Northern Ireland. It is one way but not the only way.
I hesitate to extend the hon. Gentleman's speech ad infinitum. Nevertheless, we are discussing the changing of habit. It may be difficult for people to find their national insurance number the first couple of times but, over time, they will have it closer to hand if they expect that they will be asked for it. Perhaps this is a false concern.
Very quickly—I do not propose to extend this any longer than is absolutely necessary and offer my apologies if I do so.
I had some experience of Northern Ireland in a previous incarnation some 15 years ago. One of the great problems at that time for many of the young people involved in the security services was identifying people when they came through the checkpoints. Indeed, we were involved in an election campaign, and I vividly remember the problems that those in the electoral station had in identifying people who came to vote. Even 15 years ago, people talked about the use of identity cards and national insurance numbers as a solution to the problem.
It is worth sparing a thought for the people who have to carry out our instructions. Often, it is a great deal more complicated on the ground than it seems in a Committee Room in Westminster. Those who carry out the provisions will appreciate anything that we can do to make their task easier and clearer.
The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) in his short but helpful contribution a few moments ago put his finger on part of what we seek to achieve, which is practical solutions for dealing with the mischief that has been identified without creating burdens either for legitimate voters or for those whom we charge with the task of carrying out a difficult job on the day. To some degree, the extent of the problem that we face was graphically illustrated by the contribution of the hon. Member for South Down.
The amendments are not designed to address the problems of identifying voters at the polling station. They address the mischief of illegal multiple registration. I understand that that was the objective of the principal mover of the amendments. Other amendments address the activities of people in the polling station, and I will deal later with why they are inappropriate.
The hon. Member for South Down accurately identified the general mischief, and the hon. Member for Belfast, East accurately summarised the balance that needs to be struck in addressing it. The package of proposed measures will tackle electoral abuse effectively without inconveniencing or discouraging the honest voter. It will result in a workable balance. The Government's position is that the Bill achieves the objective of tackling the mischief; consequently, there is no need to go further. It is possible to imagine demanding that people who seek to register produce any number of identifiers that are unique, or nearly unique, to them.
In response to recommendations, including those of the forum to which the hon. Member for Belfast, East referred and of the Select Committee, of which I was a member, the Bill seeks to get the balance right. We took consultation across the board, with the chief electoral officers and with other representatives, and took into account the additional investment, especially in computers and software; we believe that the balance is right and that we need not go further. We certainly need not go to the point where we may be in breach of the article of the protocol of the convention to which the hon. Member for North Down referred. She said that she wanted us to move together and tackle electoral fraud, which is exactly what the Government have done. The length of the process is because serious consideration has been given by me, by my predecessors and by others to the helpful recommendations of the forum for political dialogue and to the Select Committee's recommendations. There have been consultations with those whom we charge with the responsibility of carrying out the practical effect of our decisions and with the parties in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom.
It is no accident that the Bill has general support—the arguments are only at its margins. Its general thrust is agreed; it was supported on Second Reading and I have heard no criticism of it. It is inappropriate to inflate into an issue of principle a debate at the margins in respect of what is proportionate and what is the appropriate balance. I do not say that people are doing that, but there is a danger that such matters will be represented to those outside the House as being great issues of principle. This is not a great issue of principle; a decision has been taken about the balance to be struck, against circumstances which I shall go into in more detail. It may not be the same decision as that to which I was party when I was a member of the Select Committee. We considered a substantial part of the evidence but not all of it and the fact that I have now changed my mind is a reflection not of my position but of the practical view that I now hold that the proposal is as far as we need to go in relation to other measures that we are taking. It is as far as I, as the Minister, think I can require any honest voter to go.
That is the context in which I have taken the decision and I hope that hon. Members will understand that. It is not a dishonest decision that is taken for reasons that are kept confidential; it is taken in an exercise of balance that I have been keen to articulate at every opportunity in various conversations about the matter and on numerous occasions in the Select Committee.
My job as Minister is not to put before the House provisions that prevent people exercising the ballot in a fraudulent fashion which, at the same time, prevent honest, decent voters being able to exercise their ballot without unnecessary and irritating encumbrances. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire is important. It is not for me to weigh in the balance what the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) invited him to do: to decide whether it is more worthwhile to prevent an unknown number of people behaving fraudulently than it is to prevent an unknown number of people exercising their legitimate rights, even if that number is smaller. It is my duty as a Minister, if it is practical, to create a system for people to exercise their legitimate right to the ballot with the minimum of hindrance and with the protection of the law of the land, which now includes the convention, against those who attempt to steal votes or to use the system fraudulently.
When one does not have the responsibility of taking such a decision it is easy to say that this, that or the other check can be added—the number is endless—but at some stage, someone has to say, ``We have achieved the necessary balance and we do not need to go further.'' The Bill shows that we have achieved that aim, with one minor exception, which shows that I have an open mind: I have been persuaded in respect of dates of birth for absent votes, which I shall come to later.
The conclusion that the Bill strikes a workable balance is supported by the present chief electoral officer. The hon. Member for Reigate may therefore be reassured that the principal officer, whom we ask to put into practice the effects of our deliberations, believes that the Bill as drafted is sufficient to tackle the mischief under discussion and that it will be of no additional help to extend the requirements of registration to include the national insurance number.
I have alluded to some general issues in my opening remarks to which I shall return. If the hon. Gentleman thinks it is appropriate at this time, I am happy to give way to him.
The Minister referred to my conversation with the chief electoral officer, whom he now quotes in support of the Government's position. The chief electoral officer said that what was desperately needed was a consolidation of legislation on the conduct of elections—the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, East—because the matter is hideously complicated. I hope that the Minister can give me a commitment that that will be attended to swiftly and that it will not take as long as it did for the Bill to be introduced once the Select Committee had produced its report. I found the objections to the national insurance number raised in our conversation as unconvincing as the arguments that the Minister adduced. Simply to say that the chief electoral officer supports his position is not good enough; we must hear the practical arguments against including national insurance numbers on the register.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; I hope he did not think that I was about to conclude my remarks. I intended to go into the matter in more detail and to address the points raised by hon. Members during the debate.
I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman found my explanation of the necessary balloting exercise to be unconvincing; I regret the passing of his predecessor as Opposition spokesman, who supported what I say. Other hon. Members who have an interest in the issue and to whom I have spoken express their support for my general approach. If the hon. Member for Reigate finds it unconvincing and is not persuaded, then he is on his own. I can do nothing about that.
I would not want the Minister to be under the illusion that I have difficulty with his approach; of course he is trying to strike a balance, but our discussion is about where that balance should lie. So far, we are awaiting evidence that will show why national insurance numbers create such difficulty and why the Minister is convinced that the balance should be different from that proposed by Opposition Members and, indeed, his hon. Friend the Member for South Down.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's clarification; his position now seems to be that he agrees with me. I am content with the fact that if he agrees that it is a balancing exercise and the issue is where we strike the balance we can proceed. We could have saved ourselves a few minutes there but we can proceed.
My second point is that in the interests of accuracy, the Committee should not proceed on the basis that the electoral register for Northern Ireland is substantially inaccurate. People make sweeping generalisations about Northern Ireland that are no doubt informed by their experience and by numerous anecdotes and the folklore that the hon. Member for South Down described. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that the electoral register in Northern Ireland is significantly less accurate than the electoral register in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Indeed in the White Paper, ``Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland'', which was published in March 2001, the present chief electoral officer was quoted as being
``of the belief that his register is 91 per cent. complete and at least 94 per cent. accurate.''
[Interruption.] Hon. Members must understand that 100 per cent. accuracy is impossible in those circumstances. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire continually points out, the register is inaccurate because people who are entitled to be on it are not. The inaccuracy is not accounted for in the main by evidence of illegal multiple registration. It is the caution of chief electoral officers and the barriers that they already put in place of registration that cause people not to be registered and the fact that people move and registers become outdated. That is why the register cannot be said to be completely accurate in the main.
My hon. Friend's concern about the accuracy of registers is one that, as democrats, we should share in relation to our constituencies, never mind Northern Ireland. Significant numbers of people who are entitled to vote are not on the register. That is why the whole thrust of the changes to electoral law in Great Britain has been towards making it easier to get on to the register so as to ensure that the maximum number of people have the right to exercise their vote. That should be another factor that is taken into account in striking the balance.
The Minister quoted the figures of 91 per cent. complete and 94 per cent. accurate and went on to explain why it is inaccurate. It sounded to me more like an explanation of why it was not complete than why it was not accurate. Could he explain further?
I will try to spell this out simply. The register will be incomplete if people do not get on to it. It will be inaccurate if people who are on it are not registered at the right place because they have moved. It is part of the same process. People may well be on the register but not where they should be. The information from the chief electoral officer confirms that the electoral register in Northern Ireland compares well with other registers in the UK. It is the most comprehensive personal database in Northern Ireland, but we can improve it. We must understand that we can never achieve 100 per cent. accuracy, particularly because of the movement of the population, but also because for one reason or other people cannot overcome some of the current impediments to getting on to the electoral register.
If there are to be quotations from the Select Committee report or from the evidence given to the Select Committee, it is important that they are put in context or accurately recorded. The previous chief electoral officer, Mr. Bradley, mentioned NI numbers in his evidence to the Select Committee. He said,
``If we establish a methodology by identifying electors then you can cross check, cross refer and keep better records.''
That is exactly what the Bill is intended to do. He continued:
``My two key areas are identification of individual electors by date of birth, national insurance, whatever.''
He did not even express a preference between date of birth and national insurance. He went on to speak about finance, better registration and cross-checking of abuse of postal votes and personation. The Government have given the chief electoral officer the finance for a new IT system, which is in the process of being contracted.
In deference to Mr. Bradley, I am sure that he would want to be quoted fully and accurately in the report of these proceedings. Mr Bradley was asked:
``Would the inclusion of national insurance numbers, which are individual to everyone, not help the situation for your records?''
His response was:
``I would welcome either a National Insurance Number or date of birth, and that is common in many countries. If one has the two parameters, ie. the date of birth and National Insurance, it is a very easy matter to run a search through the computer database and that would solve the problem and I would welcome that very much. It would make life much easier and reduce the scope for abuse considerably''.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, as between us we have accurately reported the dichotomy that even Mr. Bradley presented to the Select Committee.
As I was saying, the Government have given finance to the chief electoral officer for a new IT system. In his view, the provisions in the Bill to use dates of birth and signatures give him the ability to identify electors more easily. Those are some circumstances that have changed since the consideration of the Select Committee. The chief electoral officer now believes that, if he has the computer equipment and necessary software, which he will have some time in the future, he will be able to carry out checks to identify fraudulent multiple registration and to pursue it.
I will just finish this point. Hon. Members, in particular the hon. Member for Reigate, raised this issue. There is cross-checking with other organisations. Regulations under the Representation of the People Act 1983, which were introduced in February 2001, already give the chief electoral officer the powers to examine the records of certain public bodies. He is allowed access to the records of public authorities such as the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the district councils, the Valuation and Lands Agency, the Rate Collection Agency and the register of births, deaths and marriages. Although the evidence of other databases cannot be used to correct the electoral register, they can reveal possible inaccuracies and allow the chief electoral officer to investigate them. That is as it should be.
The chief electoral officer's role is not to decide that one database or set of information is better than what he has or better than what is provided by electors, but to give him the opportunity to check information that has been given to him, allowing electors to satisfy him that they should be on the register.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the question as it allows me to clarify. We are in a rolling contract process. Anyone who has observed Governments' experience of contracts in the past would welcome the rolling out and constant testing of them. The system will be rolled out from next year and the contractual intention is that the system will be capable of carrying out the necessary checks on store signatures and dates of birth that are obtained from individual canvass forms. The canvass will begin this time next year.
In conjunction with voluntary electoral ID cards and other photographic identification that will replace the existing group of specified documents, the system explained in the Bill will be in place for the election of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2003. The acceptability of the process to ordinary decent voters in Northern Ireland is important. Apart from those whom we ask to administer the practical effects of the legislation, those voters—the decent people who want to exercise a legitimate vote—matter most in the process. It must be acceptable to them, and the Government must retain the right to consider how the people of Northern Ireland are taking to the process, particularly the requirement for photographic identification. That has all-party support in Northern Ireland. We all want people to use photographic identification when they turn up to vote at polling stations.
We must be mindful that, although we have consulted widely, we do not know how acceptable it will prove across the board, to all the people of Northern Ireland. That will have to be factored into our plans. We cannot allow the system to disfranchise a large number of people. If it is my responsibility as Minister at the time, I shall not allow that to happen. We must take it forward at a pace acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland to ensure that, in trying to achieve our objectives, we do not cause further damage.
If the hon. Gentleman were patient, he would realise that I have tried to structure my speech in a manner that is responsive to the issues raised by members of the Committee. If he wanted me simply to stand up, give two or three reasons and then sit down, he could have made that clear in his contribution. I shall proceed to structure my speech in a manner that is comfortable to me. If hon. Members wish to intervene, I shall endeavour to answer their questions. I am endeavouring now to answer the hon. Gentleman's question.
The hon. Gentleman appeared to be critical of the inaction of the chief electoral officer in failing to check those who had applied for absent votes. At this time of year, chief electoral officers throughout the country are preparing the information to produce a new electoral register. That is their main job at this time of year. A canvass may be going on in Northern Ireland at the moment, but the compilation of the new register is the primary objective now. If it is to be 91 per cent. complete and 94 per cent. accurate, that hard work must be carried out now.
The chief electoral officer is also continuing to work with us on one of the most important aspects of the legislation—the contracting for and design of the IT system and its relevant software. If that does not work, nothing will work. He has his priorities right at this stage and I reject any implicit criticism of the two jobs that he is undertaking now.
The Minister may not be able to answer immediately, but I would be grateful if he wrote to explain how the 91 per cent. complete and the 94 per cent. accurate figures were arrived at? I ask because the measurement technique is important.
The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question and also right that I cannot answer it immediately. I shall write to him, so he is right in three senses.
The chief electoral officer and staff must have the necessary resources to check registrations and to ensure that the accuracy of the register is improved and maintained. The Government have already made additional resources available to electoral officers—resources repeatedly asked for by the predecessor of the present electoral officer. The additional resources include staff and the IT equipment to which I referred earlier. I meet the chief electoral officer regularly to ensure that the objective of improving the system is carried out as accurately and effectively as possible.
I have constantly made it clear to the chief electoral officer, as I do to the Committee, that requests for additional resources to support the vital work of the electoral office will be considered in a positive light. Additional resources have recently been made available for equipment for polling stations. There is therefore no question of a lack of Government resources standing in the way of combating fraud. I must put that canard to rest.
Before responding to the matter so exercising the hon. Member for Reigate, I must deal with the confusion about the effect of the amendments. It was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire, who was accurate and not at all confused, although other hon. Members may be.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight referred to subsection (3)(b), which relates only to those remaining on the register after the annual canvass. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire argued—and he was absolutely right—that the amendments could prevent people from getting on to the register in the first place. Some people could be denied their right to vote while various checks took place. Initial applications for registration would, if the amendments were accepted, need to include the national insurance number. A person who is already registered would need to include their national insurance number on their annual canvass return in order to remain on the register.
In a moment, but I want to put the mind of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire at rest about the canvass. Under the Bill, it will be impossible to get on to the register after a house-to-house canvass alone. Every individual elector will have to return a completed form, which will be the key to getting on to the register. I shall discuss the requisite information in detail later, although most hon. Members probably know what is required.
If someone sends in a form that includes what appears to be his date of birth, signature and national insurance number, will the action of the registration officer subsequently be to place that name on the register? Under the Government's proposals, he would have no way of checking the dates of birth or signatures, so he would presumably place the names on the register. If the amendment were passed, he would have a way of checking the national insurance numbers. However, I am still unsure. Would he place such people on the register subject to a later check that may follow from a challenge, or would he not place them on the register until he had checked every national insurance number?
The hon. Gentleman supports the amendment but is asking me its effect, which is an interesting situation. My understanding is that the amendment would deny people their right to registration until their national insurance numbers were checked. If that check could not be done as simply as the hon. Gentleman believes they could—I will come to some reasons for that later—the person would not get on to the register.The question arises whether it is appropriate to deny people the right to be registered while checks take place, or indeed the right to be registered at all if they cannot provide the information, as a necessary impediment to fraud. The Government believe that the Bill plus existing law provide sufficient impediment to fraud and opportunity for people to check. That position is supported by the chief electoral officer who said that, with the information that the Bill will provide for him and the new computer system and software, he is confident that he will be able to check, identify and investigate multiple registrations and reveal those that are attempts at fraud.
I am anxious that, before the Minister concludes his remarks, he gives some cognisance to the fact that I and other Committee members intend not to deny people their vote but to ensure that voting is preserved for those who are entitled to vote. None of the propositions is intended to make that more difficult. Does the Minister agree that the percentage of accuracy of the electoral register, to which he referred, includes illegal and erroneous registration? He could take a few per cent. off it for people who are illegally registered. I presume that the comparison is made between those registered and the population eligible for registration.
Does he agree that the Bill, which I welcome entirely but am trying to improve, means that the only way that the electoral officer will be able to use a signature and a date of birth as cross-checks will be manually for absent voter applications? There is no readily available comprehensive database of dates of birth from the past 90 years from housing executives or local council departments, but there is one primary available database, which is used for a plethora of circumstances from health to tax. That is the national insurance number database. As the electoral application form arrives in a household at least four to eight weeks before it is collected or posted, there is ample time for any person to find their national insurance number, notwithstanding the fact that they use it every day of the week anyway. We could then have a post-registration check by computer, not by hand—
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention, which I suspect extended for longer than he had planned. He does not need to reassure me on behalf of Committee members that their motives are pure. No one intends to devise a system that denies people their vote, although the unintended consequences of some amendments might be an unnecessary impediment.
On my hon. Friend's second point, we would not be considering the Bill if it were not the Government's view that fraud was taking place. Immeasurable though it is, there must be some fraud. There are provisions to deal with the mischief of illegal multiple registration, and recognition that it is part of the problem is implicit in those provisions, so that reassurance is not needed either.
I hope that the final part of my speech will satisfy my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Reigate and others on national insurance numbers, although I suspect that the issue will not go away and we shall debate it again in future.
Clause 1 enables the chief electoral officer to collect additional identifying information from registered voters. Electors and those applying for registration will be required to state their date of birth and sign the form for the annual canvass as well as stating their name and address, which is current practice. In certain circumstances, such as incapacity, the chief electoral officer will be able to dispense with the requirement for a voter to supply a signature. We shall come to that later in our deliberations.
The Government do not support the amendments to add new requirements in respect of national insurance numbers at registration and polling stations. I appreciate that the intention behind them is to provide another weapon in the battle to prevent electoral fraud, but they would not succeed in doing that. Furthermore, such a step could deny legitimate voters their right to vote.
As I said on Second Reading, it would not be right to impose unreasonable burdens on the majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland, who merely want to exercise their franchise as they are entitled. We shall take all reasonable steps to prevent fraud, but they must be measured and proportionate. We need to strike a careful balance between preventing fraud and deterring ordinary voters.
Many people do not know their national insurance number. Indeed, the hon. Member for North Down graphically drew my attention to the difficulty that faced one of her constituents in trying to establish her national insurance number to access benefits. Faced with what seems to some—I stress that—a cumbersome and complex process for finding out their national insurance number, ordinary voters may simply return their canvass form without including it. If the amendments were accepted, those people would then have to be removed from the register. Clearly, that would be unfair and disproportionate.
The amendments would be likely to have a disproportionately harsh effect on the elderly, who may be unable to remember their number or not know how to find it out. By contrast, few of us forget our date of birth, although some of us find it painful to remember it.
Using national insurance numbers in that way would not be as effective in combating fraud as those who support the amendments think. As has been pointed out, it is possible, whether legitimately or not, to have more than one number. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) drew our attention to his experience in prosecuting people who were using national insurance numbers for fraudulent purposes in significant numbers.
I shall deal with the amendments that propose the use of national insurance numbers at the poll. I know that they are not universally supported by those who proposed the other amendments. Clause 2 already provides for an additional statutory question about date of birth, which may be put by the presiding officer at an election in certain circumstances to verify identity. That new power, combined with the move to photographic identity documents only, will be extremely effective in preventing fraud at polling stations.
Asking for confirmation of the national insurance number would not add value to the steps that we propose to take. As I and others have said, many people will not recall their national insurance number. Are they to be denied a vote, even if their identity document is correct or if they have confirmed their date of birth to the satisfaction of the presiding officer? That would surely be unfair.
By introducing such a requirement, we would be putting in place a system whose integrity cannot be guaranteed. It would not necessarily be effective. Furthermore, there is a real risk that it would disadvantage and discourage genuine voters. We could introduce any number of checks on identity, as I said previously, but we must ensure that what we do will cause minimum disruption to voters. We must strike the right balance between preventing fraud and not putting obstacles in the way of the public.
For those reasons, and with the assurances that I have given to hon. Members about other developments in relation to the conduct of the poll, I hope that hon. Members will not press their amendments.
I rise to reply to the Minister's contribution, having waited in anticipation for the detailed reasons that he was to adduce as to why national insurance numbers would present such a burden to the electorate so as to prevent numbers of them from registering. I waited and waited, but no evidence was presented.
The Minister suggested that the elderly might not be able to remember their numbers. There is no need for anyone to carry around in their mind their national insurance number in order to register. I understand that representatives of the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland will call on people's homes up to three times in order to complete the register. Only after that will people have to register on their own. They will be able to consult documents that they use every day, particularly if they are elderly and drawing a pension, on which their national insurance number will be present as an easy point of reference; and that is only if they are unable to receive the assistance of the representatives of the chief electoral officer.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Actually, I find the debate extraordinary. I do not understand how the Minister has been able to come to his conclusion about where the balance lies. It is in contravention of all the available evidence.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many people in our constituencies are not as adequate as those of us in this Room at dealing with electoral processes? A constituent who came to see me on Saturday failed to claim his pension because he had forgotten his date of birth. Any extra requirement will by its nature affect people who register to vote, and the balance is between that effect and having a clear register.
It is a balance. However, let us remember that we are trying to draw it in Northern Ireland, where there is, in the words of the hon. Member for South Down, an organised, paramilitary process of systematic abuse. Therefore, the balance to be drawn in the constituencies in Northern Ireland is different from that which would be drawn in his constituency and in mine. That is why we are considering the matter.
The Minister's comments seemed slightly confused. When he was adducing evidence from the chief electoral officer about the quality of the register, he said that it compares well with other registers in Great Britain. Later in his remarks, he said, ``Of course, there is a problem in Northern Ireland, which is why we are bringing forward the measures.'' Which is it?
What is inconsistent about those two remarks? The information in relation to completeness and accuracy provided by the officer who is responsible for it is that it compares well with the rest of the United Kingdom but, equally, the Government recognise that there is a problem that must be addressed. Governments have recognised for many years that there is a problem in Northern Ireland, which is why we make different requirements of people in Northern Ireland when they come to vote. What is inconsistent about saying that we have an accurate register that is assessed by the chief electoral register, but that there are problems?
I happily accept that there are problems. However, if the register were as accurate as other registers in Britain and if everything were hunky dory in Northern Ireland and we were not dealing with all issues—
The indications are that the registers in Northern Ireland are more accurate than those in Britain. We are discussing the problem of fraud but because of canvassing, more people get themselves on to registers in Northern Ireland as a percentage of the eligible population than in Britain. The information on that is readily available.
That is a separate issue to the one that we are considering of people who illegitimately get themselves on to registers, effectively stealing votes from people who are legally exercising their rights. That is the concern to which the Committee must address itself. It is a different issue to that of whether the number of people registered in Northern Ireland equates to the number registered in my or another Member's constituency. We are talking about the potential for illegal or additional registration in Northern Ireland. The trouble is that when one conducts tests on a register, illegal registration is detected and those people do not then appear on it. Therefore, the figures should be treated with some scepticism. There is at present in Northern Ireland a paramilitary force that is determined, through systematic organisation, to gain as much advantage as it can, through legal and illegal means.
I rather object to the view that Labour Members are not trying to tackle the problem of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. The Bill is a Government Bill. It is based largely on the Select Committee report. Many people have been dedicated in trying to change the measure. The electoral returning officer who gave evidence to the Select Committee pointed out that illegal registration is not the major area of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. The principal problem is that of people who do not normally vote, but who are legitimately on the register having their vote pinched by others.
That attends to issues that we will discuss later about absent votes and the ability to cross-check information such as dates of birth and national insurance numbers. I am grateful for the Minister's indication that he is prepared to move at least one stage further in terms of absent votes. However, while absent votes may be the area of greatest abuse of the Northern Ireland electoral system, we must come back to our duty to have a register that is as accurate as possible. The Minister was unable to produce even remotely convincing arguments that if people had to put their national insurance number on the registration form, several people who should be registered would cease to be so. How the Minister is able to draw the balance that he did therefore escapes me.
I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman is labouring the point. He surely would not wish to enact any measure to combat fraud that denied people their legitimate right to vote. He says that the Minister has not produced any evidence, but the Minister has at least produced some doubt and if there is doubt then the measure should not proceed.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is extremely odd to draw the balance in that way, saying that if the least element of doubt or the slightest difficulty were put in the way of electors, such as having to remember their name or to write their name on a form, they would not be registered.
There is a duty on voters to register. In Great Britain the householder has a duty to complete the form and to do so accurately. If it is not accurate he has committed an offence. Filling in the form is therefore something of a burden on the householder. Is the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) seriously suggesting that because it is a tiny burden it should not be done? In that case, the hon. Gentleman and I part company. In order to protect the interests of the honest, legally registered voters in Northern Ireland, there needs to be a duty on them to ensure that they register properly and that their vote is not stolen or devalued by others who seek illegally to abuse the process.
The Minister is right: we are trying to decide where to draw the line and what information it is appropriate to ask electors to provide in order to compile an accurate register. He adduced Mr. Bradley's evidence
to the Select Committee. The hon. Member for Belfast, East produced the evidence quicker than I did to make it clear why Opposition Members are convinced that the balance lies with including national insurance numbers. It is, as Mr. Bradley said in his evidence, ``a very easy matter'' to run a search through the computer database and to check a national insurance number and date of birth against the name of a registered elector. That would solve the problem.
It is easy to run a search. It cannot be done on the signature that has to appear on the new registration forms. If we want to make it easy to check, as far as we can ascertain, that the register is accurate and in order, and if the Minister has not convinced the Committee, as he has not convinced me, that sufficient burdens are placed on electors already without their having to provide national insurance numbers, surely he should accept the amendment.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the primary purpose of including national insurance numbers in registration is not to help or hinder registration but to have a counter check when postal votes are applied for and people apply to vote in person at polling stations?
My first point of departure about the register is that it must be as accurate as possible. To require the national insurance number on the registration document as a form of identification would allow the chief electoral officer to check it against another national database. As the Minister pointed out, there are already provisions for him to check the name against Housing Corporation records and the records of other state bodies. Everyone has a national insurance number and some of the records currently being checked are not comprehensive. Undertaking checks would be much easier.
The other amendments in the group would require the additional question, ``What is your national insurance number?'' to be asked in the polling station. I came into the Committee with an open mind about whether that was a reasonable question to ask electors in the polling station. In the light of the debate, I now believe that it is fair for the Government to point out that it will not be possible for people to remember their national insurance number in the polling station. However, if photographic identification is required, it will go a long way towards addressing the problem of personation. Other amendments in the group take account of hon. Members' remaining concerns about national insurance numbers.
Under new clause 5, people would have to sign when they received a ballot paper and there would thus be a cross-check between the signature on the registration form and the person who claims the ballot paper. That would address the personation issue because people would know that the person turning up at the polling station to claim the ballot paper could be cross-checked against the person on the registration form. That would be 100 per cent. comprehensive. Therefore, I do not think that subsequent questions about national insurance numbers, if people have satisfactorily produced photographic identification, are necessary—
It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.