I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments:
No. 13, in page 2, line 6, at end insert
(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
(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, clause 2, in 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 26, 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'.
I should mention the fact that I associated the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) with the amendments in the name of the official Unionists, the Liberal Democrats and the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). Those amendments deal with the question that should be asked at the polling station about national insurance numbers. The hon. Member for Belfast, East has, quite properly, pointed out to me that his name does not appear on those amendments. Amendments Nos. 2 and 10 apply to the issue of the national insurance number going on the register. That is one issue; the other is the question that should then be asked at the polling station.
On the major issue of national insurance numbers being required in order to be placed on the register, I should say that we know that the Government want to improve the position on electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. That is why we are considering the Bill. We also know that the Select Committee that investigated this in 1998, which included the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) and the Minister, came to the conclusion that national insurance numbers should be required. We know, too, that Pat Bradley, the then chief electoral officer, said that that would ``solve the problem''.
We have heard that the practical arguments against including national insurance numbers have been thin and have not convinced Opposition Members. We know that all parties that allow people in Northern Ireland to belong to them want national insurance numbers included as a requirement for registration. The Government have told us that resources are not an issue. If one takes that at face value—as we should, because the Minister made the statement in Committee earlier today—there is no explanation why the Government are resisting the measure. I understand that the Minister may have more to say on the matter before we decide whether we should press the amendment to a Division but, as things stand, I believe that we should press it.
I am grateful for the opportunity to share with the Committee various facts that I have had checked, taking advantage of the Committee's adjournment. I hope not to prolong the debate significantly but to provide those who return to the debate with some practical information that may inform their contributions.
It is true that everybody has the right to vote, but not everybody has the right to a national insurance number. That may come as a surprise to some people. I have listened to hon. Members saying confidently—presumably they researched it—that people who do not know their national insurance number can find it out for the purpose of electoral registration. That is simply untrue. To obtain a national insurance number, people must meet one of two criteria: they must either claim benefit or pay tax. National insurance numbers will not be given to those who do not fulfil those criteria. Those people would be disenfranchised as a consequence of the amendments.
I can give the Committee a recent example of someone who would be entitled to vote but was not entitled to a national insurance number—indeed the Inland Revenue refused to give her one. A British family moved to South Africa some years ago when their daughter was very young; at the age of 18 she returned to Britain to study at university. She wanted to apply for a student loan but was unable to do so because she did not have a national insurance number and, moreover, was not entitled to one. Normally, children of 16 or over receive a national insurance number, but only if they are receiving child benefit, as that satisfies one of the criteria. The student was not receiving any benefit and was not entitled to a national insurance number, but she was entitled to vote. She was a British citizen who applied to the Inland Revenue and was rightly denied a national insurance number on the grounds that she was not intending to claim benefit or to work while studying at university.
I admit that that is an unusual case, but I use it to illustrate a serious point. A grave flaw in the argument is that we should just require national insurance numbers to be used for qualification for being on the electoral register. We do not, presumably, expect people to start claiming benefit or having to work so that they are entitled to a national insurance number in order to get a vote. That would be ludicrous, and that argument is not being made.
A further example is a childless French woman who is married to a Northern Ireland resident. That is not beyond the bounds of possibility. If the woman did not work or claim benefit, she would not be entitled to a national insurance number. However, she would be entitled to register to vote so that she could exercise her democratic right to vote in the European, parliamentary, local government and Assembly elections. She could not go on the electoral register if the amendments were accepted.
I acknowledge that the number of people living in Northern Ireland who meet such a description is likely to be relatively small but, as a Minister, I cannot accept the amendments if they mean that one person in Northern Ireland would be denied their right to vote. That would undoubtably be the case for at least those two examples.
Mr. Blunt rose—
I shall finish these points, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
Theoretically, while it would be possible for the chief electoral officer to check national insurance numbers that were provided to him on registration, he would have to do that by accessing the departmental central index, which is part of the Inland Revenue's computer system and is the database containing all national insurance numbers. For the chief electoral officer to check all 1 million or so individuals on the electoral register in Northern Ireland, he would need direct access to the DCI. However, the national insurance details of Northern Ireland and Great Britain are kept together on the DCI. The chief electoral officer could not be granted access to only the Northern Ireland data. Therefore, he would have direct access to vast amounts of irrelevant but sensitive data, which is contrary to the principles of data protection. Hon. Members may say that that could be resolved and no doubt technologically and in terms of computers it can be. However, whether it could be resolved against the deadlines that we, and others, have set for the changes is a different matter.
We cannot dismiss the principles of data protection because one of its basic principles is that a general identifier can be used only for the purpose for which it was issued. In the case of a national insurance number that is the administration of national insurance. It seems unreasonable to amend the Data Protection Act 1984 in the time scale set, which we would have to do but is probably unachievable, to allow the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland to have access to the national insurance numbers of electors while every elector in Northern Ireland is not entitled to, or does not have, a national insurance number. Even if we were to proceed down that route, it is unlikely that we would complete all necessary legislative and administrative changes by the target date of spring 2003, at least not at the expense of other measures. Specific legislation would be needed to amend the Data Protection Act to allow the chief electoral officer to make use of electors' national insurance numbers. In the light of those additional factors, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn, and that hon. Members will be satisfied that it would not be sensible for national insurance numbers to be used for electoral purposes.
I was going to intervene on the Minister, but if I ask him a question, maybe he can respond.
Once, I was told that a person with two good reasons often has none. I now hear a completely different set of justifications for why the use of national insurance numbers is not acceptable from the ones that we heard this morning.
During my earlier contributions, the hon. Gentleman and others said that my reasons did not go far enough and that they wanted more practical examples. I have taken advantage of the break to find more practical information with which to inform the Committee. The reasons are not different but additional to this morning's argument, which I accept that the hon. Gentleman rejected. That does not mean that it was not a good, solid argument. It was a good, solid argument, and the fact that it is now a better argument is to the disadvantage of the hon. Gentleman and not me.
I am grateful for the Minister's aspiration to seek the truth, which I and all Opposition Members share. However, this is more than a matter of simply illustrating the points that were being discussed before. To suggest, for example, that a significant proportion of individuals may masquerade as childless French women in order to vote, or, more to the point, that any Opposition Member has even implied that one must have a national insurance number to vote is to miss the point. The phrase that most Opposition Members used was that it could provide a reasonable additional security in order to identify the veracity of an individual's claim to be the person they say they are, not that it was absolutely mandatory to have a national insurance number. I hope that the hon. Member for Belfast, East will share his views on that.
My second point is that to argue that there is a data access issue, which, on its own, would be sufficiently controlling to prevent us from using this additional security is to massively underestimate the wit of man. It would not be that difficult, if we thought that it was the right thing to do, for the Inland Revenue to provide security by having a separate register for those living in Northern Ireland, or something similar. Therefore, that is a tactical justification for opposing a strategic proposal.
Lastly, I respect the Minister for having investigated and provided these examples. I do not question his sincerely held concerns about them, but I simply have a different view. The subset of individuals who would be excluded from having a national insurance number is so small that there are ways to work around that. In addition, I sincerely believe that the Data Protection Act is not a sufficient justification to move away from a proposal that Opposition Members believe would massively tighten up the likelihood of avoiding electoral fraud.
Obviously, I will deal with the Minister's late intervention in the debate, which seems to be an act of desperation. First, however, I want to deal with some of the other comments that have been made during the debate.
The hon. Member for South Down assisted us greatly by providing a context for our debate and painting some of the backcloth to what electoral fraud means in Northern Ireland—its impact in terms of electoral outcome, and the politics of that region of the United Kingdom as a result of electoral changes. Most of us can see that in at least three recent elections to this House, the result could have turned on a small number of votes that had been fraudulently cast. It is therefore important for us to recognise that at least one organisation has a military discipline and capacity to organise a level of electoral fraud that can make a difference to an election result.
The hon. Gentleman also properly pointed out—I noticed that the Minister made no effort to deal with the issue—cross-party, cross-community support for this measure, which, in other areas of their activity, the Government desperately seek. It seems strange that when they find such support, they turn their back on it, and decide that they know better, even though, in the past, they would have nodded in assent to the sentiments expressed by the amendment.
The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) has clarified my position in relation to the amendment. My name is appended to amendments Nos. 2 and 10—No. 10 is simply a consequential amendment. I have not added my name in support of the other amendments, but like the hon. Member for Reigate, I have left myself with an open mind and intend to listen to the arguments that are advanced. If, as stated by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), such a question can be posed at a polling station and it will not in itself deny someone a vote, I should be more likely to support the further amendment. I have taken a minimalist approach—I could even say ``moderate''—and have tabled an amendment that would deal with the matter by registration.
The hon. Member for South Down made his most telling point during an intervention, which as you pointed out, Mr Hood, allowed him to go into detail. I wish that he had had more time to expand on it in his earlier speech. What he said about the national insurance number was right. It is the only verifiable, cross-checkable—if there is such a term—identifier. The Minister is all for what can be done within the realms of his timetable and, as yet, a cross check on a signature or date of birth cannot be made under the data bank. Such data is available for national insurance numbers, which is what makes them attractive.
The hon. Member for Reigate rightly identified Sinn Fein, in particular, when he referred to the electoral abuse that has taken place. It may be necessary for us to expect that if the Bill is enacted, with or without amendments, it will not have a massive impact on election results in Northern Ireland. Much of the damage has already been done. I refer to our present four-party system in Northern Ireland. The reality with sectarian elections is that in a race in Mid-Ulster, for example, where the Social Democratic Labour party and Sinn Fein are attempting to gather the nationalist vote on one side and the Democratic Unionist party and the Ulster Unionists are trying to gather the unionist vote on the other, whichever of the nationalist parties or the Unionist parties finds itself sufficiently ahead in such a hot-bed constituency is the party that the rest of the nationalist community is likely to plump for next time around. If, through electoral fraud, the Sinn Fein organisation had managed to get itself ahead of the SDLP, it would have gained the incumbency value that comes with that. I am not sure whether the abuse that is being sorted out now will have the effect that some of us would consider desirable.
The hon. Member for Reigate also raised the important issue of funding for the electoral office. Much of the Bill could be undone if the office does not have the necessary resources or staff. I am not assuming that the Minister will not arrange for the necessary funding, but it is essential that such funds are available. Much of what we are dealing with requires human checks to be made during the process. The electoral office has found it difficult to ensure that checks have been made. Indeed, reference has been made to that during today's debate. We must increase the amount of funding that is available to the electoral office.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire told us about finding himself on his friend's motor bike. We noted that it took him all of 15 minutes to convince the police officer that he was a law-abiding citizen. I do not know what arguments he advanced, but it seems a long time for a Liberal Democrat to take to convince the forces of law and order.
Perhaps it would have made a difference and shaved a minute or two off the time.
The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the pattern of consistency and cohesion that previously existed between the work of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the Government, which he felt had been interrupted by the Government's approach to the amendment. However, it is not simply a matter of the Government's approach being inconsistent with that of the Select Committee. The Government's approach is inconsistent with the Minister's past approach and the approach of the hon. Members for North-East Derbyshire and for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), who enjoyed membership of the Select Committee and joined us in supporting the sort of issue with which the amendment deals. The Northern Ireland Office review of electoral fraud went further than I did, saying:
``These proposals would quite probably significantly reduce the amount of opportunist personation at polling places.''
It even supports the suggestion in the amendment that such a question should be asked at polling stations. Therefore, there has been a change of attitude.
The Minister said that the matter was one of balance. Holding ministerial office seems to have affected his equilibrium on the issue. I suspect that most of us would recognise that the issues have not changed since 1998, when the Select Committee considered the issue.
I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire say that he had been persuaded to change his mind because of the debate, because at that stage no one had spoken in support of the view that he now holds. When he further explained that some issues had arisen that had caused him to do so, he argued that he had just discovered that the national insurance number system ``was not perfect''. He could safely have assumed that in 1998 as much as today. None of the systems is perfect, but such information would be a great help as an identifier in registration.
The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire also had a stab at suggesting that some matters had caused him anxiety. Delay in registration was one factor on which he relied at one stage, hoping that his view of what canvassing meant would support that. It may be worth while my dealing with delay in registration. I do not believe that it could lead to the denial of anyone's right to exercise the franchise. The hon. Gentleman seems to assume that the system of checking is inefficient and ineffective and that the process does not and cannot work.
The canvassing system works as follows. During August, the electoral office delivers a form to the homes of residents in Northern Ireland. Its officials do not stand and fill it in but say that they will return in a matter of weeks to collect it and leave the form with the householder to fill in. There is therefore plenty of time for people to find out their national insurance number, if they have one, and fill in the form properly. When the form has been filled in and collected by the canvasser or returned by post by the householder, it is gathered by the chief electoral officer's staff, who go through the necessary processes. We should not forget that the electoral register is not published until February, so there are weeks and months during which this matter could be dealt with. Even if it were not dealt with, the reality is that there is rolling registration—I mention that quickly before the officials tie themselves in knots trying to answer my previous point. It clearly would not take too efficient a checking system to be able to work through the process in a matter of weeks.
Another important factor relates to what the Minister said about the mischief that the amendment intends to address. He was right in saying that each of us must decide when it is appropriate to draw the line. However, in attempting to do that, we must base our decision on the arguments that have been advanced and on the difficulties that may be met by those seeking to register if the question in the amendment were asked. The Minister seemed to be having some difficulty at that point, which was just before lunch. After saying that it was a matter of balance, he did not seem to have any further arguments to advance—I hope that he will forgive me for characterising his argument in such a way. During the lunch break, however, he recognised that some argument had to be advanced, marshalled his forces and gave us two arguments.
The Minister's first argument was based on the fact that some people do not have a national insurance number—a fact he seems to have only just discovered. However, there are other questions on the form sent out by the electoral office that it is not essential to answer. There would be no difficulty in putting on the form ``National insurance number, if applicable'' or ``if any''. People who have no national insurance number could leave a gap. The electoral office would then be able to check whether the gap was left because the person who filled in the form wanted to avoid providing damaging cross-checking information or because the person genuinely did not have a national insurance number.
The issue of data protection has been waved at us in the past; it did not cut much ice before and does not do so now. In this highly technical age, to find a program that could sift Northern Ireland national insurance numbers from the rest would hardly be at the cutting edge of information technology, and would fall well within the timetable that the Minister has set. I appreciate the correspondence that I have received from the Minister and the consultations that we have had. However, I do not believe that he has marshalled sufficient argument to suggest that the amendment would provide an obstacle that would in any way make it more difficult for people to register or—as might be argued on the other amendments—to vote. My view is still that the national insurance number is sufficiently accessible. It is not simply another identifier but it is probably the best available. Acceptance of the amendment would in no way damage the Bill and would tighten the safeguards that are available to us. I have heard no convincing reason not to press the amendment to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 9.
I beg to move amendment No. 38, in page 1, line 16, after `satisfied', insert `by evidence'.
With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 26, in page 1, line 18, at end insert—
`(4C) The Chief Electoral Officer shall as a priority develop a scheme to ensure that, as far as reasonably practicable, those unable to comply with the requirement mentioned in subsection (4A)(a) above shall be issued with an electoral identity card.'.
No. 39, in page 2, line 12, after `satisfied', insert `by evidence'.
No. 27, in page 2, line 15, at end insert—
`(1C) The Chief Electoral Officer shall as a priority develop a scheme to ensure that, as far as reasonably practicable, those unable to comply with the requirement mentioned in subsection (1A)(a) above shall be issued with an electoral identity card.'.
No. 40, in page 2, line 35, after `satisfied', insert `by evidence'.
No. 28, in page 2, line 37, at end insert—
`(2C) The Chief Electoral Officer shall as a priority develop a scheme to ensure that, as far as reasonably practicable, those unable to comply with the requirement mentioned in subsection (2A)(a) above shall be issued with an electoral identity card.'.
The amendments, which stand in my name and that of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, can usefully be divided into two groups. The first comprises amendments Nos. 38 to 40 and relates to the provision in clause 1 for the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland to be able to dispense with the requirement for a signature in the event of a voter's incapacity or inability to read.
The second set comprises, youthfully, amendments Nos. 26 to 28, which would require the chief electoral officer to give priority—it would not be an obligation or duty—to those who are genuinely incapacitated or illiterate in the issue of electoral identity cards.
Reading clause 1, I was struck by the breadth of the discretion given to the chief electoral officer, although I in no way question his integrity. It states that the chief electoral officer may dispense with the requirement for a signature ``if he is satisfied''. The clause does not say how he will be satisfied or refer to any evidence. The amendments would insert the words ``by evidence''. We have not been prescriptive about the type of evidence, but the amendments would shift the test of satisfaction from being subjective to one that can be objectively measured.
Background literature, including even the White Paper, refer to not only the electoral office but political parties checking through the registration. It is difficult for political parties to challenge the exercise of the electoral officer's discretion if he is not required to provide evidential support for its exercise. The amendment would shift the burden from being subjective to objective—a simple and logical move.
Amendments Nos. 26 to 28 relate to the insertion of the words:
``The Chief Electoral Officer shall as a priority develop a scheme to ensure that . . . those unable to comply with the requirement . . . shall be issued with an electoral identity card''.
It applies to those unable to sign because they are incapacitated or illiterate.
Under the Bill, the new electoral identity cards do not require a signature, but they will bear photographs and contain full names and dates of birth. For those genuinely incapacitated and unable to sign, the electoral identity cards seem ideally suited. We have no wish to place obstacles in the way of voters who genuinely want to cast their vote, but if new electoral identity cards are being introduced under the Bill, priority should be given to those who are at present unable to register on the canvass. At a polling station, that could eradicate the embarrassment caused to people whose names are not on the register because they have been unable through genuine incapacity or illiteracy to sign it or give their date of birth. Priority should be given to such individuals.
I shall not detain the Committee. The amendments proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire seem unobjectionable. Who could object to placing a duty on the chief electoral officer to be satisfied by evidence? The lesson of electoral practices in Northern Ireland is that it is better to close down a potential loophole if one can see it coming. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for North Down predicted an increase in the recorded illiteracy rate in Northern Ireland as people try to take advantage of the clause. It is right and sensible to place a duty on the chief electoral officer to attempt as a priority to help people who might or might not be illiterate and to reduce the scope for abuse by the use of electoral identity cards. The Opposition support the amendments.
I shall deal with amendments in the order in which they were debated rather than the order in which they are presented on the amendment paper.
I say at the outset that I appreciate the intention, explained by the hon. Member for North Down, to ensure that people intent on committing electoral fraud do not escape detection by claiming to be incapacitated or unable to read when that is not the case. However, the Bill permits the chief electoral officer to dispense with the requirement for signatures only if he is satisfied that it is not reasonably practical for that person to sign in a consistent and distinctive way.
In deciding whether he is satisfied, the chief electoral officer must look at the evidence. Amendments Nos. 38 to 40 are therefore unnecessary because in making a decision about whether he is satisfied, the chief electoral officer will by definition review all the information available to him. The words in the amendments are already implied and do not need to be added to the legislation. He cannot be satisfied in any way other than by the evidence, so they are not necessary.
I understand that amendments Nos. 26 to 28 are intended to prevent people from claiming to be unable to provide a signature in order to commit fraud. Although the amendments require the chief electoral officer to develop a scheme for the issue of photo identity cards as a priority, they would make it mandatory for him to issue a photo identity card to people who qualify for that priority process. While I support the objective, these amendments are not necessary either.
The Bill provides for the issue of an electoral identity card by the chief electoral officer and by 2003 it is my intention, as I said on Second Reading, that the new cards will be issued to those who do not have a passport or a driving licence. That will enable us in the same time scale to remove all the non-photographic forms of identification so that everyone, whether or not they can provide a signature, will have to have photographic identification in order to cast their vote at the polling station. It does not seem to me to be necessary to specify that, for a priority group, that identification must be the electoral ID card rather than a passport or driving licence. Such a requirement would place an additional burden on the electoral office when it will be busy doing many other things. It would have to cross check those who had not provided a signature with those who had already applied for an electoral ID card and would have to ensure that cards were provided for all in the first group.
There would be a burden on the voter, as those who already had a driving licence or a passport would still have to obtain a card. That may not have been the intention of the amendment but that would be its effect. There is a potential for confusion there. Most importantly, as I have outlined, there would be no real benefit, as everyone will have to have a form of prescribed photographic identification to vote at the polling station. The new requirement, combined with the universal requirement to provide a date of birth, seems to provide the necessary safeguards. I hope that, with those assurances, the hon. Member will withdraw the amendments.
I thank the Minister. I found that clarification helpful. I am sorry that amendments Nos. 26, 27 and 28 give the impression that there would be a requirement. That was not our intention. I am happy with the Minister's clarification and his assurances. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
The two amendments stipulate the way in which signatures are to be stored once they have been collected on the forms for the annual canvass, electoral register and applications for postal and proxy voting. The report of the elections review lays out the advantages and disadvantages of several methods of collection, storage and verification. On balance it seems that the most voter friendly method of collecting signatures is in a paper format. Those forms could be converted to computer records by being electronically scanned and then transferred to a computer database. The advantage is that validation could still be carried out by visual comparison. The computerised record system would be much quicker, more efficient and certainly a more secure method of verification than the storage and retrieval of paper files. As ever, we aim to be as helpful to the Minister as possible. No thanks are required on the assumption that he accepts our amendment.
In that event, I shall not hold my breath for the thanks. I hope however that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North Down when I say that the new IT system to be rolled out by the electoral office next spring will allow the chief electoral officer electronically to store signatures as well as dates of birth of electors and those applying for registration. I assure those who fear that that information will be gleaned from the register and used for other purposes that, apart from the dates of birth of those who will become 18 in the coming year, the information will not appear on the electoral register. The information will be used in the electoral office and at the polling stations.
It is the chief electoral officer's intention that such information should begin to be stored electronically as soon as it is available—from the autumn canvass 2002—provided that the Bill is acceptable to the House. It is unnecessary to write the requirement into the legislation. The Government provided a clear explanation in the White Paper. The point of collecting the signature and date of birth is that they can be stored electronically and used efficiently and effectively as additional identifiers to combat fraud. We are at one on the practical consequence, but it is unnecessary, as I explained, to amend the Bill to achieve that purpose. It was the point of the exercise all along the line. With those assurances, I hope that the hon. Member will withdraw the amendment.
The Opposition and all parties represented in Committee want the Bill to make progress. It is a pity that the Government were unable to accept our earlier amendments on national insurance numbers. An opportunity has been missed, but it is not sufficient to induce the Opposition to vote against the clause. However the Bill ends up, following our deliberations, it will improve the position in Northern Ireland.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.