Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Lembit Öpik: I could say that of all the debates in Committee, this was the most weakly argued by the Government, but I am a positive chap and I will say instead that of all the debates it is the one that provides the Minister with a shining opportunity to demonstrate the listening ear of the Government. I am sure that he is all ears as he listens to this debate and will show, once again, that the Government are primarily interested in doing the right thing rather than offering what at times seem to be specious arguments and setting their face against a common-sense proposal that is recommended by Northern Ireland parties on a cross-community basis, as well as by the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats.

31 Oct 2001 : Column 940

Despite a long debate in Committee, the Minister failed to convince anyone—apart perhaps from himself and some of the loyalists in his party—that the argument against the inclusion of national insurance numbers was reasonable—[Interruption.] I realise that I may have just offended some loyalists and I apologise for doing so.

7.30 pm

The arguments have already been set out clearly by previous speakers in the debate, but I have some brief points to add. The restrictions of the Data Protection Acts have been cited as a reason why the Government cannot include national insurance numbers. However, it would indeed be ironic if legislation to protect the public from corruption actually prevented the Government from introducing an electoral measure that would also protect the public from corruption in the form of electoral fraud. I do not believe that that is a reasonable argument behind which to hide. The Data Protection Acts were introduced to help us, not to hinder us. Certainly it cannot be strategically beyond the wit of the Government and their employees to ensure that the legislation is not a barrier to the change that we propose.

There was reference to the possibility of needing to check through 50 million or 60 million national insurance numbers. As the Minister knows, any computer could do that job in seconds—or minutes at most. That would not be a restriction. Furthermore, with a little creative thinking it would be easy to establish a list of those who were eligible to vote in Northern Ireland. The use of a tactical, technical defence to oppose the strategically important proposal to use national insurance numbers as a unique identifier does not stand up to scrutiny.

The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) gave us an entertaining description of his research to show the small number of people who might be in the same category as the student whose family moved to South Africa—the example used by the Minister. An even more extraordinary example was that of the childless French woman, who was not working, not claiming benefit and was married to a Northern Ireland resident.

Mr. Browne: It got a laugh.

Lembit Öpik: Yes, but the point is that we would know that fraudsters were using that approach because there would suddenly be a huge rise in the number of childless French women who were not working or claiming benefit, were married to Northern Ireland residents and were attempting to vote in elections in Northern Ireland. Once there were so many obstacles to cheating the system, the fraudsters might take the radical step of campaigning on the streets, handing out leaflets and canvassing rather than finding such exotic and elaborate means to continue their electoral fraud.

The Government have an opportunity to help themselves through the amendment. They should not regard the cross-community support for the proposed change as being based on a wish to beat the Minister into submission or as suggesting that he is not committed to doing the right thing. However, as we debate this point, it becomes increasingly difficult for those of us who support the use of national insurance numbers to understand the substantive opposition to the inclusion in Northern Ireland elections of what amounts to a human

31 Oct 2001 : Column 941

bar code. There really seems to be no more reliable means than the national insurance number to ensure that each person has a single, unique identifier. It already exists and does not need to be created especially for the election.

If the Minister has come up with genuinely new and significant arguments, I am sure that we could be persuaded by them. However, he has had a substantial amount of time, in Committee and afterwards, to explain the reasons for the Government's resistance to the inclusion of national insurance numbers.

With a little effort, everyone can find out their national insurance number pretty easily. They do not need to keep repeating—

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): What is yours?

Lembit Öpik: I am being challenged to read my number, but obviously I would not like to see it in Hansard as it might cause me unforeseen problems—people might forget my name and would just refer to me by my national insurance number. However, I assure the hon. Lady that if the matter was important enough, I could leave the Chamber and find out my national insurance number, even though I was not prepared for that question. Furthermore, I am sure that for individuals in their own homes who are willing to play an honest and constructive part in the electoral process in Northern Ireland, such a matter would be no more difficult than it would be for me.

I remind right hon. and hon. Members that the change is not being proposed as a blanket, all-pervading necessity. The amendments allow for the fact that it may not be possible to provide a national insurance number. I appeal to the Minister to acknowledge that the amendment is a common-sense proposal that has significant support from both sides of the House, and to show that the Government are willing to listen to sensible ideas and, in the process, ensure that Northern Ireland has a much more reliable system than anything we have so far debated for checking that individuals are who they say they are.

Mr. Peter Robinson: I am sure that the whole House realises that the electors of the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) have much for which to be thankful in having a Member who is so dedicated in his pursuit of issues that arise in Committee. Where that research might lead the hon. Gentleman, should he discover the person he seeks, only he can tell us. However, although he might have enjoyed that aspect of the Committee's business, I doubt that the Minister is enjoying this moment.

The Minister has been squirming for some time as we have debated the amendment—and so he should. He had a difficult time in Committee because his past was brought up, dragged before the Committee and thoroughly inspected. Once, the Minister was open minded; he was a free thinker who was allowed to reach conclusions based on his own judgment, but now he bears the heavy burden of office. Now, he has his civil servants around him. Now, he has the benefit—enjoyed by many—of having others to prepare the words he has to utter at the Dispatch Box.

The reality is that when the Minister was able to consider in the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs the merits and demerits of proposals such as those in the amendment, he knew where the argument lay. He knew on which side the weight and burden of the issue came down. He concluded—as did everyone on the Select

31 Oct 2001 : Column 942

Committee, even those of his colleagues who are also in denial tonight—that the right thing to do was to include the national insurance number on the registration form.

The Select Committee was not alone in reaching that conclusion. Others held the same view. The Northern Ireland Forum set up a committee to consider the issue and made the same recommendation, realising that the proposal made good sense. The Northern Ireland Office published a review paper which noted that it was worth investigating the inclusion of the number on the form. The paper went even further, by proposing not only that the number should be on the registration form but that people could be asked to give it at the polling station. That is a step beyond my proposal in the Standing Committee and that in the amendment. The proposal is much more moderate than that which the Minister and others have been prepared to align themselves with in the past.

In the past, people have considered and judged the proposal and found it worthy of merit, but on this occasion it has found the fulsome support of every Opposition party in the House. It managed to unite all the Northern Ireland parties in Committee, and I presume in the House as well. I thought that it was Government policy to achieve cross-community support. If such a consensus were achieved on any other issue, the Minister would almost die for it, yet here he has the Northern Ireland parties jumping up and down in front of him and he waves the proposal away; he does not want it. Why is it that when the Minister has, on a Northern Ireland issue, the Northern Ireland parties all saying, "Go in this direction!" he decides to turn his back and go another way?

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): The hon. Gentleman is posing a puzzle to the House. He suggests that the Minister, when he was a Back Bencher, was a seeker after truth and that the burdens of office have borne down on him and he has changed his mind. Might it not be that he is still a seeker after truth and that, as a Minister, he sought the advice of his colleagues in the Government and they said, "Above all you must not concede this amendment; the national insurance scheme is in chaos, but you cannot admit that in the House because some English Members also hold that view, and would like to hear it expressed from the Treasury Bench so that they may use it in campaigning to secure the national insurance system so that it is a safeguard of people's identity and can be used in a way that people on both sides of the House tonight wish it to be used in Northern Ireland"?

Next Section

IndexHome Page