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Consideration of Lords Amendments

1. Proceedings on Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Bill shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at Seven o'clock on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.

Subsequent stages

2. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.

15 Apr 2002 : Column 380

Orders of the Day

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Clause 1

Registration: Provision of signature and date of birth

Lords amendment: No. 1.

4.37 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 6, 9, 11 and 13 to 16.

Mr. Browne: During the Bill's passage through both Houses, all the Northern Ireland parties, the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats pressed hard for the inclusion of national insurance numbers as one of the items of personal information required, alongside the signature and date of birth of each individual, on electoral registration for the purposes of cross-checking and verifying identity.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): The Minister would not want to omit from the list of those seeking the inclusion of national insurance numbers the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, whose report of 11 March 1998 led to the Bill—a Committee of which, of course, the Minister was a part in calling for the inclusion of national insurance numbers.

Mr. Browne: That will teach me to pause for breath. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out the contribution that I made to the provisions before the House. He will recollect that in my opening remarks I was referring to the Bill's passage through both Houses, and he will realise why that august body, the Select Committee, was not included in the list in my opening paragraph.

Throughout the Bill's passage through this House I repeatedly explained the difficulties involved in using national insurance numbers for electoral purposes and resisted the amendments tabled by hon. Members. However, as I said on Second Reading, this is not a great issue of principle. I had at the time made a judgment based on the information available to me that the Bill as originally drafted was sufficient to tackle the problem of electoral fraud, and that it struck a workable balance between preventing fraud and not placing unnecessary obstacles in the way of honest voters.

I have sought to maintain that balance throughout the debates on all the provisions of the Bill. For hon. Members who were not members of the Committee, I say, and I am sure that I will be supported by those who were, that throughout the debates I have tried to listen to any reasonable, practical suggestions in relation to the Bill which were consistent with that balance. Those who know the history of the Bill will be aware that national insurance

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numbers are not the only issue on which I have agreed that alternative suggestions would benefit the legislation. The proposal is not alone in that regard.

Lady Hermon (North Down): I appreciate the Minister's giving way so early in the debate, although as he appears to be in such sparkling good form I am sure that he is delighted to be intervened on. I remind him that on 5 December 2001, at column 320 of the Official Report, in response to a question asked by the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), who is not now present, although he was here earlier—

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): I am here.

Lady Hermon: I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. That will teach me to hold my breath while I look around the Chamber.

In reply to a question asked by the hon. Gentleman—I am absolutely delighted to see him in his place—the Minister said that he was opposed to proposals on national insurance numbers because he

We know that he now supports the inclusion of national insurance numbers, but will he explain why and how the chief electoral officer has changed his view and no longer opposes their inclusion?

Mr. Browne: It would be fairer to allow the chief electoral officer to speak for himself on this issue, just as I am speaking for myself in dealing head on with those observations—

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): He has done it before.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman suggests that I have quoted the chief electoral officer before, but let me explain the position. I am sure that hon. Members will point in the Official Report to the position that I took earlier, which is there for all to see. I took what I thought to be a reasoned position on the basis of particular problems that I identified in earlier debates; the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) quoted my remarks on some of them. I identified some issues as genuine problems that needed to be overcome, but I made it clear to hon. Members that I would listen to and consider what they had to say.

Of course, I was conscious that all the Northern Ireland political parties, including that which the hon. Member for North Down represents, as well as the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats and also the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, were as one on the issue in the previous Parliament. As I was mindful of that pressure, it would have been remiss of me—and inconsistent with the approach that I had adopted throughout the Bill's passage—if I had not put the option to a further test to see whether I could find a way in which national insurance numbers could be used for electoral

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purposes that would not be disproportionate or disadvantage legitimate voters. That is the test that I set myself for all the provisions.

At this stage, it is important to address a point made earlier about the time that it has taken for the current provisions to come before this House and for the legislation to be brought before Parliament.

Discussion has been going on for decades about addressing electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. Indeed, many provisions have been introduced on voting in Northern Ireland in that time. If one were to hear only this afternoon's debates on the matter, one might think that the issue had arisen only when the Labour Government came to power in 1997, but nothing could be further from the truth. For decades, successive Governments have sought to address the issue either by introducing arrangements brought before the House or through other measures that do not require legislation. The fact that one of the first things that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee did after the 1997 general election was to reconsider the issue, urged on by Members who represented Northern Ireland constituencies, is a measure of the success that previous Governments have had in interdicting such behaviour.

4.45 pm

This has been an intractable problem, but I am happy to say that when the Bill left the other place, official Opposition spokesmen and others suggested that it is the best possible attempt to address the issues that have bedevilled Northern Ireland's electoral affairs for decades. The problem has concentrated the minds of politicians in Opposition and in government for a long time, and it does not lend itself to the quick fix. The Government and Opposition parties are indebted to the Select Committee's work on electoral fraud. We are also indebted to other committees and to hon. Members who are present for the contributions that they have made to the debate. I am sure that that debate will continue.

All Governments face particular constraints in dealing with electoral matters with the widest possible consultation and the greatest possible care, and that is especially true of a Government with the sort of majority that we enjoy. We should deal with such matters only in a way that secures the greatest possible support among the parts of the electorate that they will affect. I make no apology for the fact that we took a long time in formulating these restrictions, because it was right to consider them with the greatest of care and subject them to the widest possible consultation. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) is nodding, so I take it that he agrees. The Bill has the degree of support that I am sure that it will enjoy this afternoon only because such care was taken to proceed at a pace that did not offend that principle, which informed everything that I have done as the Minister responsible.

Mr. Blunt: My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) was nodding to applaud the dexterity of the Minister's arguments, not necessarily their validity. If the Government had not taken such an inordinately long time over the proposals, we would now have legislation that would enable an identity card scheme to be up and running in time for the Assembly elections. On the basis of the information that we have received,

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it will take 18 months from the passing of the Bill for such a scheme to be put in place. As there is considerably less time than that between now and the Assembly elections, the dilatory manner in which the provisions were dealt with means that that opportunity has been missed.

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