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Mr. Browne: I normally enjoy the hon. Gentleman's interventions because they take the debate forward, but they do so only if he is properly informed. I do not know where he got 18 months from; perhaps he made it up while he was on his feet. I have a timetable—

Mr. Swire: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne: If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself, I shall first deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Reigate. The estimate to which he referred may have been applicable at one time, but I am satisfied that there is now a timetable for the introduction of identity cards that can meet the deadline that the Government have set themselves—assuming that that change has the acceptance of the Northern Ireland electorate as expressed in consultation with the parties, among others.

Mr. Swire: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I just want to point out that the figure of 18 months came from the House of Commons Library research paper on the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill, which clearly states in reference to the introduction of identity cards:

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I might have an opportunity at some stage, when I am not on my feet addressing the House, to have a look at that paper and to check that the full context of that quotation refers to 18 months from the date that the hon. Member for Reigate said was the starting date, rather than from another date. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept my assurance, as the Minister responsible, that I have been privy to a timetable for the introduction that can meet the date for the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. If the hon. Gentleman will accept that, perhaps we can move on.

It was particularly important, when seeking to make the changes to the Bill, to determine how we would deal with those individuals who do not have a national insurance number, and how the electoral office would check the authenticity of the national insurance numbers that it received for registration purposes. Allowing for the use of national insurance numbers in the electoral process—as the amendments do—I have placed a high priority on identifying a solution that avoids the placing of a heavy burden on the electorate or on the Department for Work and Pensions, and that avoids difficult data protection issues.

Lady Hermon: I appreciate the Minister giving way. Although he is unable to explain why the opposition of the chief electoral officer has now been removed, will he confirm, as the inclusion of national insurance numbers—

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which we welcome—will place a huge administrative burden on the electoral office, that there is no opposition within that office to the use of these numbers?

Mr. Browne: I can speak on the basis of my contacts with the chief electoral officer, who represents the office in its dealings with me as the Minister, and I can assure the hon. Lady that he supports this change. I did not specifically ask him why that should be his position, but I am sure that his position will be the same as mine, in that I identified difficulties, which I am seeking to address in this speech, of which he was aware, and which I now believe can be overcome. The overcoming of those difficulties was not easy, but now that we have done so, I am sure that the chief electoral officer—and his staff, who support him faithfully as always—will do everything in his power to deliver and operate the policy in this legislation.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): May I ask the Minister to rack his brains? He has just said that the chief electoral officer told him that he was now happy with the proposals. I assume that he would have said something like, "I am now content because . . . ". Will the Minister think back and try to remember what the chief electoral officer's reasons were for saying that he was now happy with the measure?

Mr. Browne: I will say to the hon. Gentleman what I said to the hon. Member for North Down, who asked me the same question. For many of the reasons that I put before the Standing Committee, the chief electoral officer—whose advice I value on these matters, as he is the person who has practically to operate the measures—was of the same view as I was when the Bill was previously before the House. Having listened to the arguments put forward by hon. Members, however, and having recognised the breadth of support for the introduction of national insurance numbers as an identity check, I undertook to go away and look again at whether that policy could be delivered in a practical way that did not offend the principles that I had set out. I am now satisfied, for reasons that I am seeking to articulate in this speech, that it can be introduced in a fashion—that set out in the amendments passed in the other place—which does not offend those principles.

I am not in a position, following my conversations with the chief electoral officer, to give the hon. Gentleman what he seeks. I can say, however, that during that dynamic process, I am sure that the chief electoral officer—who was party to what was going on in the sense that he was aware of what I was seeking to do, and who was in close contact and discussion with my officials—would have been satisfied for the same reasons that I am satisfied that this can be done without causing the offence that I seek to avoid.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): What happens if there is a dispute about a national insurance number? I fully support the thrust of the amendments, but I want to be satisfied that, where a dispute arises about ownership of a national insurance number, the applicant for inclusion on the franchise can fast track, or can satisfy the chief electoral officer. Perhaps the Minister saw Saturday's edition of The Daily Telegraph, which ran an article on Andrew Palmer, a constituent of mine whose national

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insurance number is also being used by somebody in one of Her Majesty's prisons. If I catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker, perhaps I might elaborate on the matter, but it is clear that the national insurance number system is not foolproof, as witnessed by the irritating problems experienced by my constituent. If he lived in Northern Ireland and wanted to vote, he might experience problems in relation to his identity.

Mr. Browne: My hon. Friend makes a timely intervention. Through the experience of one his constituents, he identifies a problem with national insurance numbers that I, too, identified, and which caused me to have second thoughts and to oppose at the outset their use as identifiers in electoral law. However, I am now satisfied—this debate will show whether my appreciation is correct—that all parties in the House understand that the system can be made to work, that it can accommodate possible flaws in the national insurance number system, and that checks can be used to ensure that people are not disadvantaged and denied their vote. That is why the provisions before the House are so detailed and complex; indeed, they are considerably more complex than any amendment that I resisted in Committee, or than any proposal put forward on Second Reading or during the Bill's remaining stages.

The complexity of the provisions—particularly that relating to the chief electoral officer's power to check with the Department for Work and Pensions that, in a given circumstance, the national insurance number used is the one that ought to be attributed to the person in question—is designed for the very circumstances that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) identifies, among others. His constituent's experience—I cannot comment on it because it is not part of my ministerial responsibility, but I understand that the matter is in hand—is another good example of why it is important to proceed with some caution. When we think that we have found a simple solution to a problem, such simplicity often brings its own difficulties.

Mr. Wilshire: The Minister keeps telling us—I am pleased to hear it—that the proposals now have the support of all parties in the House, but does that include the party that has not taken up its seats, the members of which, disgracefully, have been let into this building by his Government? Has he had any discussions with them and does he know their views? They are among the most serious perpetrators of the fraud in question.

Mr. Browne: If the chief electoral officer can speak for himself, Sinn Fein Members elected to represent their constituents can certainly speak for themselves, although they choose not to in this House. [Interruption.] Their position on the Bill's proposals is no secret. To my knowledge, they have made no specific comments on the provisions relating to national insurance numbers—they may have made such comments to officials—but they did not support the legislation's general thrust when it was put out for consultation. As I have had no specific response from them on that issue, I am unable to help the hon. Gentleman further.

However, I shall check. If a response does not reach me, which would surprise me, I shall write to the hon.

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Gentleman with that information. I would not hold my breath for support for the provisions from that particular source.

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