Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt: The Minister is right. In tabling the amendment, it was not my intention to secure extra time, but as the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) made clear, the amendment would make that time available. However, that is very much a secondary consideration. I thought that it would be much more convenient for hon. Members to finish, hopefully at 5 pm, if the guess by the Members who put together the timetable motion was correct.

It is slightly odd that some Members will be inconvenienced by having to be in the House between 2.30 and 4.30 pm. They would find that less inconvenient than being here between 5 and 7 pm. If Members are not required here for the normal course of business until 7 pm, that seems a rather peculiar argument, on the basis of normal parliamentary practice. The Committee should not accept the argument, because in the normal course of their duties Members should be available in the House to take part in Committees and do other work here, and nothing else happens between 2.30 and 4.30 pm except business on the Floor of the House, which would continue after 5 pm anyway.

Lady Hermon (North Down): Before the general election, I committed myself to speaking at a prize-giving at home in Northern Ireland on Thursday. It is a long-standing commitment that I gave before I joined the Committee or the House. I do not want the business of the House to be shifted just because it would inconvenience me, but I would endeavour to contribute as much as I could to the Committee.

The Chairman: Order. I must inform the hon. Lady that that is not an intervention on the hon. Gentleman's speech, although it may be a point that she wants to make.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful for the intervention, because I presume that my hon. Friend has to get back to Northern Ireland for that engagement in the evening, so finishing at 5 pm would be immensely more convenient for her and other Committee members who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland. Ending at 5 pm would mean that any inconvenience was suffered by hon. Members who are fortunate enough to represent mainland seats and therefore have a much easier journey to their constituencies, and allow all Members to be represented. I hope that the Minister will reconsider. I shall press the amendment to a Division, because it is in the interests of us all.

The Chairman: If the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) wants to make her point before I put the amendment to a vote, she is welcome to do so.

Lady Hermon: I certainly support the proposal of the hon. Member for Reigate that the business commence earlier on Thursday. I would appreciate it if that were also the wish of other Members.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Division No. 1]

Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Hermon, Lady
Öpik, Lembit
Robertson, Hugh
Robinson, Mr. Peter
Turner, Mr. Andrew

Barnes, Mr. Harry
Browne, Mr. Desmond
Farrelly, Paul
McGrady, Mr. Eddie
McIsaac, Shona
Merron, Gillian
Munn, Ms Meg
Purnell, James
Salter, Mr. Martin
Stringer, Mr. Graham

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that copies of the money resolution applicable to the Bill are available in the Room. I also remind hon. Members that, as a general rule, I do not intend to call starred amendments. I have had representations from the Opposition to take amendment No. 19 with new clause 5 separately from the amendments in clause 1; I will take them with clause 2.

Clause 1

Registration: provision of signature and date of birth

Mr. Peter Robinson: I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 10, after `completed', insert—

    `(aa) the National Insurance number of each such person;'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 13, in page 2, line 6, at end insert `and

    (c) the national insurance number of each such person.'.

No. 14, in page 2, line 20, leave out `both his date of birth' and insert `his date of birth, his national insurance number,'.

No. 15, in page 2, line 30, at end insert `and

    (c) the national insurance number of each such person.'.

No. 16, in clause 2, page 2, line 44, leave out `question' and insert `questions'.

No. 17, in clause 2, page 2, line 45, after `birth?', insert `and, What is your national insurance number?'.

No. 34, in clause 2, page 2, line 45, at end insert `what is your National Insurance number?'.

No. 35, in clause 2, page 3, line 3, at end insert—

    `(aa) his failure to state correctly his National Insurance number pursuant to rule 35(1A); or'.

No. 20, in clause 6, page 5, line 12, leave out `or date of birth' and insert `, date of birth or national insurance number'.

No. 21, in clause 6, page 5, line 25, after first `birth', insert `or national insurance number'.

No. 22, in clause 6, page 5, line 26, after second `birth', insert `or national insurance number'.

No. 10, in Title, line 5, after `signatures', insert `, National Insurance numbers'.

Mr. Robinson: In the short debate on the programme motion, I indicated that the general principle of the Bill had been accepted by hon. Members on both sides of the House and I expect, therefore, of the Committee. For each of us, the balance is between taking steps to ensure that there is a greater curb on those who would perpetrate fraud while, at the same time, causing the least discouragement to people who desire to register and to vote validly. I suspect that the only disagreements in the Committee will be about how one strikes that balance.

A wide body of opinion believes that it would be helpful to include the national insurance number on the registration form. It would then be available to the chief electoral officer and his staff for postal vote purposes and, as indicated by other amendments, it would be on the electoral register in the polling station and could be used as an identifier when a person came forward to claim a ballot paper. The wide support is demonstrated by those who have appended their signatures to the amendment and by the historical debate about electoral fraud and the review of legislation.

The recent debate began with a session of the Northern Ireland Forum. After an election, the chief electoral officer identified electoral fraud at a high level, and a committee was set up in the forum to look at what changes could be made to reduce, if not halt, electoral fraud. One of the key issues it identified was the inclusion of the person's national insurance number. When the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee considered the matter—we were delighted to have the Minister among our membership, and he supported the report—it also identified that as an important issue. The Committee report said that

    ``Registration forms should contain more identifying details to overcome the problem of illicit multiple registration and to make fraudulent applications in another's name harder. These should include date of birth, a signature and the national insurance number of the voter.''

In evidence to the Committee, the then chief electoral officer, Mr. Bradley, referred again to the issue. He said:

    ``To prevent multiple/false registration the registration form could also require the individual's national insurance number and/or date of birth to be given. Computerised cross-checking of similar names with a view to prevent improper registration would be greatly assisted by that additional data.''

Under cross-examination in the Committee, Mr. Bradley further confirmed that that would greatly assist the electoral office. A former deputy electoral officer was an expert witness to the Committee and he too identified inclusion of the national insurance number as a vital issue that the Government should take into account.

Several other representations were made to the Committee, including some from political parties, arguing that case. The national insurance number is unique to the individual. It is open to fraud, but it makes the life of the would-be fraudster more difficult and gives him more hoops to jump through. It makes it much more difficult to attempt to take someone else's vote. Use of the national insurance number can cut out that fraud. If someone wants to provide for themselves a second or multiple vote, they can undoubtedly take steps illegally to obtain an additional national insurance number, but the possibility of a legitimately registered voter's card being stolen is reduced or even removed.

As well as providing a further indicator, the inclusion of the voter's national insurance number would enable the electoral office to identify multiple registrations. That is important, obviously in relation to amendments on multiple registration and multiple voting, which I will move later, but also in that it is a safeguard for the system. Even the amendment on registration tabled by Conservative Members recognises the assistance that it would give in tracking those who have registered at more than one address. There are plenty of John Murphys in Northern Ireland—there are probably plenty of Peter Robinsons as well. [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. I remind hon. Members to switch off mobile phones or pagers. It is also very rude to read pagers while the Chairman is on his feet. I ask hon. Members to be a bit more considerate to the Committee.

Mr. Robinson: There is only one John Murphy or Peter Robinson with the national insurance number that has been legally provided to him. The national insurance number therefore helps to reduce the problems facing the electoral office and presiding officers.

When the question of using national insurance numbers was raised by the Select Committee, the Secretary of State at that time, Mo Mowlam, had only one argument against it, which was that such a move would provide a restriction that was not in existence in other parts of the United Kingdom. However, the Bill includes other measures that are unavailable in other parts of the UK.

11 am

I have not heard a persuasive argument against the inclusion of the national insurance number. Obviously, not every citizen has committed it to memory, but it should not be difficult for anyone to provide themselves with it. Used with a signature, it would be of great help in reducing fraudulent claims for postal votes and ballot papers. I trust that the Committee will favourably consider the proposal. It was the only issue that I forgot to raise with the Minister in discussions with him, so I will listen with genuine surprise and expectation to what he has to say. However, as he told me about the Government's overall thought, it is not with tremendous hope that I wait to hear his comments.

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Prepared 16 October 2001