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Mr. Blunt: I certainly would not criticise the hon. Lady for intervening on the Minister, who chose to accept her interventions. She is in no way responsible for the length of his speech. As for the detail of the data protection legislation, the position has not changed during the four years in which the Government have been considering the measure. The Government faced the same problem when they received the report as they do now when proposing their solution.

Mr. Swire: Does my hon. Friend agree that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) was probably closer to the truth in an article in The Daily Telegraph last year entitled "Sinn Fein is accused of massive vote fraud". He said:

He went on to say that Sinn Fein

Mr. Blunt: I agree. That criticism has been made consistently, particularly by the Opposition, since Second Reading on 10 July last year. The one criticism that could be made of the Government is their lack of speed in introducing legislation. I hope that the Minister accepts that argument.

Mr. Browne: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that before 1997 it did not occur to the previous Government that such provisions could have helped?

Mr. Blunt: The Government are responding to a Select Committee report published on 11 March 1998; that Committee was formed under the Labour Government, in a Parliament when the Minister first served as an MP, as did I. The Government are to be commended for introducing legislation in response to a Select Committee

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report to deal with a particular problem in Northern Ireland. However, the Minister cannot get away with suggesting that no attempt was made to deal with electoral fraud during the previous 18 years; he knows that a significant number of pieces of legislation attempted to address different areas of electoral fraud. The battle will not be fought and won with the Bill; it may well be that further problems arise if people who wish to defraud the system can find a way round the legislation that we pass. It will then be up to us, either in this Parliament or in future Parliaments, to attempt to address that electoral fraud; the situation is not static.

I should like to draw the attention of the House to two issues in light of the Select Committee report. In introducing the Lords amendments, the Minister suggested that the use of national insurance numbers was mainly to address absent votes. I disagree; we need to go back to first principles. I agree with paragraph 23 of the Select Committee report, to which he signed up, which states:

That is why the inclusion of national insurance numbers and multiple registration were at the centre of what the Opposition were seeking to achieve if the proposed legislation were to be satisfactory to take on electoral fraud in the most effective way. It would be churlish of us not to welcome the fact that in another place our objectives have been achieved.

6 pm

The Minister has attempted to present to the House that facing the Government was the agonising question of appraisal of the use of national insurance numbers. A nice and simple solution, as it appeared, has been discovered to have flaws that the Minister and the Government have gradually been able to address. The fact that NI numbers were not fool-proof was known by the Committee when it wrote the report in 1998. Paragraph 56 reads:

It is—[Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that that is a different point. It is not. It is vital that the register is as clean and reliable as it can be. If there are two numeric identifiers—for example, date of birth and the national insurance number—to be set against the name of a registered voter, there would be a geometrically increased reliability provided by the computer checking that could be made of the register.

Mr. Browne: With respect, the hon. Gentleman is making a different point. There is no argument that using

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different pieces of information about individuals improves the prospect of being able to identify them accurately. Equally, there is no question that the limitations imposed by the state of the national insurance database posed problems. The question is how those problems can be addressed in a way that allows that database to be used as one of the identifiers. That is the point that I was making. If the hon. Gentleman did not understand it then, perhaps he might understand it now.

Mr. Blunt: The Minister is splitting hairs. He made it clear in his introductory remarks that there appeared to be a nice and simple solution and that it seemed that there were no problems with it. He failed to say that there was awareness of the problems in 1998. National insurance numbers are not entirely fool-proof but, in conjunction with date of birth, they provide an opportunity to cross-reference and cross-check data against the elector. The Bill will give the chief electoral officer the opportunity to ensure that the register will be as robust as it reasonably can be in current circumstances.

Perhaps the Minister's claims disguise the reality. Parliament owes a debt to my noble Friend Lord Glentoran, who leads for the Conservative party in another place, and to the Minister's noble Friend, Lord Williams of Mostyn, for the way in which they considered the Bill. I believe that there was joint determination that the other Departments that hold national insurance numbers should not be allowed to throw bureaucratic hurdles in the way of the proper objective to make the register as robust as possible, and that absent vote fraud should be made as difficult as possible.

I recognise Lord Williams's efforts and the contribution that presumably the Minister will have made within the Department. He failed to succeed during earlier consideration in this place but we know that at the last gasp, perhaps with there being the opportunity of having the measure imposed upon the Government in another place, it has been possible to convince others in the government machine outside the Northern Ireland Office of the necessity of giving access to national insurance numbers so that they might be checked.

It is rather a pity that the bureaucratic battle was not won rather earlier. If that had been achieved, it would not be necessary for this debate to take place, given the Minister's rather inelegant rotation of position. Better late than never. The Opposition thoroughly welcome the amendments.

As for multiple registration, the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) should be cautioned on accepting the Minister's undertaking that he will be in touch, and if not with him, with a member of his party. The Minister gave a similar undertaking about consultation in Committee on multiple registration. He was gracious enough to accept that the consultation was not entirely flawless when we came to Report. [Interruption.] The Minister is grumbling in his place. I remind the House that he promised to consult all the parties involved in multiple registration. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and I heard nothing from him about that consultation. He was gracious enough to apologise to me at an earlier stage of our proceedings—I am grateful that he is nodding in agreement.

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In Committee, we discussed whether multiple registration should be included in primary legislation. I introduced new clause 8 in Committee, which would have included the provision in the Bill. There would have been a requirement for multiple registrations to be recorded. The Minister said in Committee that there were attempts to outlaw multiple registration. That was the position in the amendments set out in the name of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). However, they were not supported by the official Opposition. That might have been the implication behind the introduction of the proposed legislation that we are considering. It was in response to the assurances that we would achieve the objectives that we sought that I withdrew new clause 8 in Committee.

I was delighted that we would achieve the objective by regulation. That would have been satisfactory to an extent, but we would have much preferred the provision to appear in the Bill. However, the requirement has been introduced in another place to register multiple addresses in the Bill. That is enormously to be welcomed.

We have achieved all but limited aspects of the substantive amendments tabled in Committee. One of them was a timetable to ensure that photographic identification would be in place for the Assembly elections in 2003. I understand from the Minister when he introduced the amendments that it is still the Government's intention to have that system up and running for the elections. In Committee I wanted to place that as a duty on the Government by having it written into the Bill, to ensure that there was no element of discretion. A little more than a year away from the Assembly elections, the Minister is telling the House that it is still his intention to have the system in place. If that is achieved, it will be a source of satisfaction.

The Bill, as amended by the House of Lords, significantly advances the battle against electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. The Lords amendments are essential to make the Bill as robust as possible and have hugely added to its strength. Her Majesty's Opposition therefore welcome them and will, of course, support them.

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