Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lembit Ipik: We all agree with the sentiments and intent of the Bill, and most of the amendments are intended to make the Bill more specific and give it robustness—to use the word of the hon. Member for Reigate—so that it achieves its declared aim. It is interesting to note that the Government try endlessly to create cross-community support, but when they have a means of achieving it, as they have in the amendment, they seek to ignore it. It is ironic that when there is such commonality of view on the inclusion of the national insurance number as an additional safeguard against electoral fraud, the Government try to disregard that advice.

To clarify a small point, I hope that the hon. Member for Reigate was not suggesting that the Liberal Democrats and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland are in exactly the same party—although I congratulate David Ford on his wonderful election as leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.

The intention of the amendments seems clear. As has been said, many of us support the inclusion of the national insurance number, believing that although it does not provide certainty, it provides more security, as another means of trying to ensure that individuals are who they say they are. Everyone aged 16 or over has a distinguishing national insurance number, and for all the reasons already outlined, which do not need repeating, there is a compelling logic for including that coding, which is unique to each of us, as another means of insurance.

Amendment No. 34, in my name and that of the hon. Member for North Down, would allow the presiding officer in a polling station to ask someone for his or her national insurance number before giving them a ballot paper. That would give substance to the earlier amendments as it would allow us to do something with the information collected. The hon. Member for Belfast, East has made several comments on that, and amendment No. 2 in his name, which the hon. Member for North Down and I support, is entirely consistent with the intent of amendment No. 34.

Amendment No. 35 refers to the election rule that allows for the delivery of a ballot paper to a voter except in cases of doubt. That would have the effect that if a voter failed to state their national insurance number correctly when asked, it could raise—these are the crucial words—reasonable doubt as to whether they were the voter or proxy whom they claimed to be. However, that should not on its own be enough to deny a voter a ballot paper. It seems unlikely that, as has already been said, everyone will know their national insurance number by heart or carry the card at all times.

Similar techniques are used, to some effect, to check the activities of individuals in Northern Ireland. On one occasion there, I was riding my motor bike and was stopped at a police checkpoint. As was often the case, I was asked to inform the officer of my motor cycle registration. I got it completely wrong because I had forgotten that I was riding my mate's bike. There was a rather long inquiry into why the bike I was riding had a different number from the one I had given. I managed to convince them that I was a law-abiding citizen and after about 10 or 15 minutes I was allowed to go. I hope that those hon. Members who are smirking are not implying that I stole my mate's bike, because I did not.

My example highlights the fact that a reasonable doubt had been raised in the police officer's mind and he used the means at his disposal to ensure that I was who I said I was and had not stolen the bike. The same applies in this case: using a national insurance number does not provide certainty but, for the reasons given, it provides extra checks that can lead towards certainty.

11.30 am

I support amendments Nos. 20 to 22, tabled by the hon. Member for South Down, which tidy up the provisions on national insurance numbers. The hon. Gentleman said that we should attempt, by every means possible, to limit the risk of fraudulent voting. I qualify that by saying ``every practicable means possible''. Using the national insurance number is an eminently practical means that could reasonably be included.

In my many years as Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Northern Ireland I have seen Ministers come and go, each more impressive than the last. However impressive is the individual before us today, it is important that there is a consistency and a cohesion between what succeeding Ministers do and the recommendations of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. That Committee spent much time deliberating these issues, taking evidence and putting forward a cohesive recommendation for the Government to consider. I look forward to the Minister's defence of the Government's choosing to disregard the Committee's recommendations and advice about electoral fraud. Given the consensus of the other parties in this Committee, unless the Minister can rustle up a proof worthy of Fermat's last theorem, I ask him to think again about including national insurance numbers.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Like four other members of this Committee, I was a member of the Select Committee that drew up the report on electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland. It is a good report, and it prodded the Northern Ireland Office into action to produce the Bill, so it was a worthwhile exercise.

However, opinions may change according to debate. The debate on the amendments raises some questions to which I should like someone to respond, especially if they want me to support the proposals. The hon. Member for Reigate made a couple of points that worry me. He said that the national insurance number system was not perfect; if it is not perfect, it may create problems with registration, because it means that some legitimate claims for registration may be questioned. People who are entitled to be on a register might not be included because of delays while the system of national insurance numbers is sorted out. There is now a rolling electoral register, which means that as people move around Northern Ireland their names can be moved on to new registers. Time will be required to check out the details. In many cases, the switch will be automatic, because the national insurance number will tie in with the records that the electoral registration officer receives. However, if the information does not fit, there will be a danger that some people will not be placed on registers despite being entitled. I find that disturbing. I accept that fraudulent registration is a problem and that we need methods to counter it, but we should consider the other side of the coin.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Will the hon. Gentleman hazard a guess as to whether the delay in putting someone on to a register because of a national insurance number check would be greater than the normal delay in getting on to the rolling register, which is between 30 and 35 days? Does he believe that the danger of people being omitted from the register for a brief time is greater than that of people fraudulently registering?

Mr. Barnes: There is a considerable problem that people who are entitled to be registered are not being placed on registers. There is always the danger that some people are on the register fraudulently. I was a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and am concerned that there should not be fraudulent registration, but I am also concerned that we should have full and proper registration. We do not have that in the United Kingdom, despite the fact that we have moved to a rolling register, which I call a crawling register. Both concerns are important, and I would not want to have to balance the numbers.

Mr. Blunt: The hon. Gentleman says that there may be a considerable problem of people being unable to register, who are otherwise legally entitled to do so, on account of their national insurance number. That is entirely in the hands of the chief electoral officer. The hon. Gentleman is raising a problem that does not exist. Placing the national insurance number on the registration form would allow a check to be undertaken later. Everyone has a national insurance number. Some people perhaps have more than one, usually illegally but occasionally properly—they may have a temporary number for one reason or another. As everyone has a number, it is unlikely that the measure would prevent registration. The purpose is to throw up cases where people appear to be double-registered and to prompt investigations. It would then be up to the chief electoral officer to decide whether such people should be taken off the register. I assume that they would not be removed unless it were established that they were improperly there in the first place.

Mr. Barnes: The point was raised earlier about whether there would be a delay in the electoral registration officer placing people on registers. Now the argument is that people will be put on registers and checked out later. I am not sure whether that would be the procedure. I would have thought that the measure gave the returning officer sufficient authority to prevent someone being placed on the register if he or she thought that the application were fraudulent. It would be a worthwhile exercise if each case were guaranteed to be fraudulent. However, it was suggested that, if the system were not perfect, that might not function in some cases, and it might delay someone appearing on a register and being able to exercise their enfranchisement entitlement.

Mr. Browne: I intervene only to say that I share my hon. Friend's understanding of the effect of the provision. It will either delay or prevent people from getting on to the register. It will not allow people to get on to the register temporarily until such time as matters are checked.

Mr. Barnes: That may be a minor problem but it is serious that some people who are entitled to be on an electoral register do not get on to it. I may have a bit of an obsession about the matter, but the basic building block of democracy is that everyone who is entitled to vote should be on the register.

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