Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I join in the earlier felicitations to you, Mr. Hood, and good wishes for your chairmanship, which I know from reputation, will be exemplary. I also welcome the Minister to his first tryst at such an occasion. We have met many other times, but not in this arena.

I endorse entirely the comments of the hon. Member for Belfast, East and lend whatever support I can to his amendment and the consequential amendments. Hon. Members must be clear about the importance of the Bill to Northern Ireland. The old system was a bit of a joke: people impersonating family members who could not get out to vote were tolerated and had no great impact on the results. However, we see now organised and militarised fraud of the electoral system, which produces results against the wishes of the electorate. Those results have been significant enough to change perhaps the political direction of Northern Ireland, which is why the Bill is so important. The legislation will attempt by every means possible to clamp down on fraudulent voting, which is under a systematic, paramilitary dictatorship. It is essential that we address all aspects of fraud, however cumbersome and difficult that may be.

I had a brief conversation with the Minister about introducing national insurance numbers as a means of identification. I did not receive any encouragement, but I am determined to press forward with other hon. Members to implement this provision. As has been said already, the national insurance number is unique to each individual in Northern Ireland. It has a built-in age bracketing, and is easily available on many official letters and tax forms. People identify with it and, as a unique number, it is ascribed to one person and one address only.

A national insurance number is much more traceable than a signature or date of birth, the use of which I also support. A database is readily available. The technology is already there. A number quoted can immediately be checked via a central database and the person confirmed yea or nay. Certainly there will be some loopholes with people using fictitious national insurance numbers, or even duplicate ones, although that would be rather stupid. But such loopholes would be miniscule in the scheme of things and would be no more rampant than fictitious dates of birth or forged signatures, which are much harder to identify.

The universality of the information, the common use it has in everyday life and its particular allocation to the elector mean that the national insurance number should be required in all aspects of voting. It should be required on registration and on all absent voter applications. On polling day, the name and national insurance number should be presented to the presiding officer. It is simple to refer to the central database to verify the information. It will cut out an enormous amount of fraud. Hopefully, it will be included in the new electoral ID card that is proposed only in part in the Bill. The clause dealing with that is simply permissive and not mandatory, which is disappointing.

I shall be guided by you, Mr. Hood, about speaking to the other amendments in my name about national insurance number information. Suffice it to say they deal with various matters such as registration, absent voter application or polling day questions, and would amend the data or the questions to provide for national insurance numbers to be required or requested. Amendment No. 10 would add ``National Insurance numbers'' to the title of the Bill.

The Chairman: Most of the amendments are consequential on the lead amendment.

Mr. McGrady: Thank you, Mr. Hood. In that context, I simply refer the Committee to the fact that amendments Nos. 2, 13 to 17, 20 to 22 and 10 all concern the logical implementation of having national insurance numbers in all aspects of voting such as registration, absent voting and polling day questions to be put to the elector. I hope that hon. Members will not feel short-changed if I do not go into each of them in detail, but they relate simply to the necessity of carrying through the proposals on national insurance numbers.

I support the lead amendment and the consequential amendments and encourage the Committee and the Government to consider this serious submission, which clearly has cross-party support in Northern Ireland. That in itself is unique. The Government should listen to this because it is better and simpler than some of the proposals in the Bill.

Mr. Blunt: It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). We should take his remarks seriously when he talks about systematic militarised fraud and an organised paramilitary dictatorship abusing the electoral system. We all know who we are talking about here. We are talking about Sinn Fein, which has yet to decide whether it will be fully integrated into the democratic process. Our concern is its capacity to abuse the democratic system if it behaves as an organised paramilitary movement.

We must remember the scale of the potential organisational ability of Sinn Fein-IRA in Northern Ireland. It has many full-time officials of one sort or another funded by a wide variety of sources, which gives it a grotesquely unfair advantage over other parties in Northern Ireland. The organisation of elections must reinforce the people who are supporting democracy whole-heartedly so that the system is beyond reproach. That is why we are debating the Bill in the context of Northern Ireland electoral fraud. That is why measures taken over the past 20 years have changed how elections are organised in Northern Ireland in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom and why Parliament will take appropriate measures when the Bill becomes law.

All five opposition parties view the key issue of national insurance numbers as critical. Coincidentally, those parties all have Members in Northern Ireland. The one party that does not allow itself Members there is the Government party. All who take part in the electoral process in Northern Ireland are of one mind about what should be done on this issue and the one party that does not allow itself to take part is of another mind. I hope that Government Members will think carefully as we proceed with our debates.

I whole-heartedly endorse what was said by the hon. Members for South Down and for Belfast, East, who drew attention to the Minister's past as a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, which voted in favour of the report of 11 March 1998—the first part of the parliamentary considerations of this issue. The hon. Member for Belfast, East also drew attention to paragraph 58 of the report. It bears repetition because the Minister must deal with the problem in his reply. He endorsed the conclusion:

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

How could a parliamentarian serving on a Select Committee reach that conclusion after mature reflection and, within a few short months as a Minister, come to a different conclusion?

Mr. Browne: I should take this opportunity to welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Opposition Front Bench. I am sure that we shall work closely together in times to come.

In the first instance, it is hardly a few short months since the report was published. As the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Belfast, East rightly pointed out, the report's conclusion was arrived at on the basis of the evidence. I shall make clear in my reply that I have had time for further mature reflection on the basis of other evidence. As the Secretary of State recently said, quoting someone else, ``When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?''

I shall not embarrass the hon. Gentleman by asking him whether he knows his national insurance number, but I will embarrass him by saying that when he spoke to the chief electoral officer yesterday and was asked the same question, he did not know his national insurance number.

Mr. Blunt: That brings us to the point about whether electors should be asked for their national insurance number when they go to the polling station. On the basis of the evidence, I differ from the hon. Members for South Down and for Belfast, East, because it is probably not reasonable to expect voters to recall their national insurance number immediately. However, that is not material to what is on the registration form. Electors have enough time to consult their personal records and complete the registration form with the national insurance number.

11.15 am

We look forward to hearing the Minister's further mature consideration now that he has had the privilege of advice from his officials in the Northern Ireland Office. The previous Secretary of State said in her evidence to the Committee when that question was put to her—I have lost the reference and shall paraphrase—that she expected MPs to weigh the evidence and come to a conclusion themselves, and that their opinions as parliamentarians would have some weight in the decision by the Northern Ireland Office on the matter.

Let us deal with the importance of the register and how vital it is that, as far as possible, that document is beyond reproach. The hon. Member for South Down spoke about the effect of elections in Northern Ireland. He said that the systematic fraud—he called it militarised fraud—that had taken place was changing the direction of Northern Ireland politics. If a referendum on the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland were held again, plainly, the decision should be based on a register that is as absolutely accurate as possible. The issue is likely to be put to the people of Northern Ireland at some stage—if not at frequent stages—in the future, as it has been in the past. That is why it is vital that the register be as beyond reproach as we can reasonably make it. The discussion that we are now having is about the test of reasonableness.

Perhaps it is not reasonable to expect voters to be able to recall their national insurance number in answer to a straightforward question, but it is certainly reasonable to ask voters to obtain their national insurance number from records that they almost certainly hold at home. The issue at stake is whether the other information that will be required on registration makes the inclusion of the national insurance number unnecessary.

In my conversation with the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, to which the Minister referred, I addressed the issue of whether signatures could be checked against each other. He told me that early advice from consultants was that it was not yet possible to do that. Therefore, the only reliable way to compare one with another through a computerised check is to compare data with data, which means comparing national insurance numbers or dates of birth with records that are already held.

The national insurance number is important because it would enable a cross-check to be made against other records and not simply the records formally held by the chief electoral officer. That is vital because people in Northern Ireland can register in both their Irish name and their English name, which immediately raises the question of how to check two names that appear to be different but are in fact one name that is registered twice. If someone who registers in both names had also to provide their national insurance number, that check would throw up the fact that they were registered twice.

I expect the Minister to point out that national insurance numbers are not beyond reproach, which is true. Of course the Department of Social Security is constantly trying to ensure that its database of national insurance numbers is as accurate as possible, but the fact that that system is not perfect is not an argument for doing without that cross-check on registration. It would place another serious barrier in the way of people who want deliberately to register twice, to have twice or three times the weight in our democracy of people who follow the proper and legal course of action.

The work by the party of the hon. Member for South Down before the 1997 election is instructive. Its research found that in one constituency in Northern Ireland there were 18,000 people with the same name as someone else as compared to 6,000 in a London constituency. In 1996, it tried to determine whether people were correctly registered and was able to make 204 challenges, of which 101 were allowed. That exercise was carried out by a political party that is not funded in the same way as the main opponents in its community—if I can put it like that. The SDLP operates under a significant disadvantage in that it is funded wholly by legal means and does not have success in fund-raising abroad owing to the misrepresentation of the activities of other parties, including its main opponents in seats such as Belfast, West. That shows the necessity of making a register as accurate as possible.

I want to go further in dealing with the office of the chief electoral officer and whether it will be able to carry out checks on the basis of signatures on the registration form. The chief electoral officer cannot carry out a signature check on the basis of a computer check against an application for an absent vote; it must be done manually. I asked him whether he was systematically checking, for example, all the absent vote applications that were received at the last minute during the last general election, and the best description of his reaction was a hollow laugh.

The office of the chief electoral officer is engaged in the current registration exercise, and he simply does not have the staff to check systematically all 5,000 or 10,000 absent vote applications in constituencies where elections were most closely contested to establish their validity. We shall discuss the absent vote form under another clause, but that is an example of the need to be able to cross-reference against a register that contains as much information as it is reasonable to request.

I assume that when the Minister replies he will give us the basis of the advice that it is not possible, on pragmatic grounds, to include national insurance numbers. I hope that we will have the opportunity to find out whether it is possible to test that. If the register in Northern Ireland is not as robust as we can make it, the whole basis of democracy in Northern Ireland is undermined. If people cannot have confidence in decisions taken using the ballot box, what we are all about in this place is negated. If the basis of the register is undermined by, in the words of the hon. Member for South Down, a systematic, organised paramilitary dictatorship, we will have profoundly failed in our duty to the electors of Northern Ireland.

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Prepared 16 October 2001