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Mr. Browne: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand if I do not comment specifically on any matters that may be before the court or subject to police investigations or electoral petitions. I can make it clear, however, that the Government deplore vote stealing and condemn utterly intimidation of any sort, including that which is linked to the electoral process. I am happy to make this call at the Dispatch Box: if anyone suffered such intimidation in the recent elections, they should report the incident to the police or the electoral office, so it can be dealt with with appropriate vigour.
Although we do not want voters in Northern Ireland to become disillusioned with politics because they fear that elections are not fair, and although the perception of abuse must be dealt with, it is nevertheless the Government's view that draconian measures are not the answer. When taking measures to prevent electoral fraud, we must ensure that we do not put obstacles in the path of genuine voters. Only if we strike that balance will the measures that we take be broadly acceptable to the House and the electorate.
My predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), dedicated much of his time at the Northern Ireland Office to considering the nature of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland and what could be done to prevent it. I pay tribute to him for his work. I am sure that the House will agree that his contribution on this issue and also the range of matters with which he dealt as Parliamentary UnderSecretary of State for Northern Ireland was significant. It is fair to say that we would not be discussing the Bill without his efforts to find workable solutions to the problems. He met representatives of most of the Northern Ireland parties at the end of last year to discuss the proposals in the Bill. At those meetings, there was broad agreement to the proposals, especially in respect of introducing a photographic electoral identity card.
We have been criticised because the measures in the Bill have not been introduced before nowan issue raised by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). I stress that that has happened not because of a lack of commitment to the problem. The time before publication of the White Paper was used for extensive discussion with the parties and others to ensure that our solutions to the problem of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland were workable and broadly acceptable. I regret that it was not possible to introduce legislation before the elections on 7 June.
Even if the changes made by the Bill had been introduced before the elections, however, the procedures could not have been implemented straight away, as they depend on material collected in the autumn canvass. We had to ensure that the electorate and the parties were well informed about the changes that are being made and that the people were not disfranchised as the result of any untimely haste. In discussion with the Northern Ireland
The measures proposed have been refined after detailed consultations with the political parties and the chief electoral officer. We have not been idle in implementing other changes that are not covered by the proposed legislation. For instance, new measures already in place are rolling registration and local processing of absent vote applications. The chief electoral officer has powers to examine the records of certain public bodiesfor example, the Housing Executive, the district councils and the Rate Collection Agency. The existing IT in the electoral office is shortly to be replaced with updated equipment that will add to the efficiency of the office.
We have given the chief electoral officer extra resources to provide additional staff in both his headquarters and his area electoral offices. We have also recently commissioned research to quantify with more certainty the scale of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. The results of the research should be available in September. They will enable us to be better informed about the level of abuse and the form that it takes.
As I have said, the Bill builds on the recommendations of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. I wish to emphasise the value and importance of those recommendations. As I have told the House, I was a member of the Committee at the relevant time, and I am proud of the work that was done.
I am sure that the House will forgive me for taking a few moments to pay tribute to the work of the former Chairman of the Committee, Peter Brooke, both on the Committee and in making a significant contribution to the search for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. I am pleased to see so many of my former Committee colleagues in the Chamber. I look forward to them lending their particular knowledge and expertise to the debate.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I am pleased to be involved in a debate that is led by my hon. Friend, who played an important role in the Select Committee. He has always been involved in Northern Ireland matters during his time in the House, first as a Parliamentary Private Secretary and now as a Minister, and he is welcome.
Will my hon. Friend recognise the work of the committee of the Northern Ireland Forum, which produced a number of proposals that were later picked up by the Select Committee? The forum often produced valuable reports, often on a cross-party basis, which are not always recognised for their significance in the House.
Mr. Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I hope to live up to the billing that he has given me in the job that I have taken on. I paid particular attention to the forum's report in my introductory remarks. I am at pains to explain that the Bill is a result of a progression of thought. A number of bodies have contributed to that progression, and I hope that the Bill will be all the more welcome to the House because it is the result of a process in which many Members have played a significant part. I have no hesitation in paying tribute to the forum's work in that important process.
The Select Committee report was extremely thorough and it made an important contribution to the thinking behind the Bill, as did the work of other bodies. I do not detract from anything that we said in our report on electoral abuse. However, it should not be a criticism of the Bill, or of myself, that it does not implement all of the Committee's recommendations. As I have said, the Bill had to strike the right balance between limiting the opportunity for abuse and putting obstacles in the path of genuine voters.
On closer examination of the Select Committee's report, not all of the measures recommended by it were feasible, nor would they have been effective in the way proposed. For example, the use of the national insurance number as a personal identifier had certain demerits. We considered carefully the idea of making the national insurance number an identifier, as well as the date of birth and signature, as proposed in the Bill. We are not convinced that the national insurance number would add sufficient value to justify its addition as an identifier. Arguably, it would create new difficulties. For a start, most people do not know their national insurance numbercertainly, many people do not know it. Would a presiding officer be justified in refusing someone a ballot paper if they could not recall theirs? It is possible to have more than one national insurance number. One can have a temporary national insurance number. There is evidence that people who may not legitimately have a national insurance number have more than one.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): The hon. Gentleman will know from his experience on the Select Committee that that was not the reason why the national insurance number was sought as an identifierit was so that when registration took place, the chief electoral officer would be able to identify multiple registration.
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of that. I will in a few moments come to the other problems with using the national insurance number as an identifer and give our view of how multiple registration should be dealt with.
One of the other reasons why we rejected the idea of using the national insurance number as an identifier was the legal constraints of data protection that would have to be overcome. That would require additional legislation. In any event, the national insurance number was never intended to be an identifier for anything other than fiscal or employment purposes.
It is possible to think of any number of personal identifiers: the number of personal identifiers that one could demand of people may be unlimited. In striking the appropriate balance, we think that it is appropriate to introduce into the system only the personal identifiers that are necessary to achieve the checks to ensure that fraud does not take place. We should not include in the electoral process all the identifiers that are available.