Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne: I have alluded to some general issues in my opening remarks to which I shall return. If the hon. Gentleman thinks it is appropriate at this time, I am happy to give way to him.

Mr. Blunt: The Minister referred to my conversation with the chief electoral officer, whom he now quotes in support of the Government's position. The chief electoral officer said that what was desperately needed was a consolidation of legislation on the conduct of elections—the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, East—because the matter is hideously complicated. I hope that the Minister can give me a commitment that that will be attended to swiftly and that it will not take as long as it did for the Bill to be introduced once the Select Committee had produced its report. I found the objections to the national insurance number raised in our conversation as unconvincing as the arguments that the Minister adduced. Simply to say that the chief electoral officer supports his position is not good enough; we must hear the practical arguments against including national insurance numbers on the register.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; I hope he did not think that I was about to conclude my remarks. I intended to go into the matter in more detail and to address the points raised by hon. Members during the debate.

I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman found my explanation of the necessary balloting exercise to be unconvincing; I regret the passing of his predecessor as Opposition spokesman, who supported what I say. Other hon. Members who have an interest in the issue and to whom I have spoken express their support for my general approach. If the hon. Member for Reigate finds it unconvincing and is not persuaded, then he is on his own. I can do nothing about that.

Mr. Blunt: I would not want the Minister to be under the illusion that I have difficulty with his approach; of course he is trying to strike a balance, but our discussion is about where that balance should lie. So far, we are awaiting evidence that will show why national insurance numbers create such difficulty and why the Minister is convinced that the balance should be different from that proposed by Opposition Members and, indeed, his hon. Friend the Member for South Down.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's clarification; his position now seems to be that he agrees with me. I am content with the fact that if he agrees that it is a balancing exercise and the issue is where we strike the balance we can proceed. We could have saved ourselves a few minutes there but we can proceed.

My second point is that in the interests of accuracy, the Committee should not proceed on the basis that the electoral register for Northern Ireland is substantially inaccurate. People make sweeping generalisations about Northern Ireland that are no doubt informed by their experience and by numerous anecdotes and the folklore that the hon. Member for South Down described. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that the electoral register in Northern Ireland is significantly less accurate than the electoral register in the rest of the United Kingdom.

12.15 pm

Indeed in the White Paper, ``Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland'', which was published in March 2001, the present chief electoral officer was quoted as being

    ``of the belief that his register is 91 per cent. complete and at least 94 per cent. accurate.''

[Interruption.] Hon. Members must understand that 100 per cent. accuracy is impossible in those circumstances. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire continually points out, the register is inaccurate because people who are entitled to be on it are not. The inaccuracy is not accounted for in the main by evidence of illegal multiple registration. It is the caution of chief electoral officers and the barriers that they already put in place of registration that cause people not to be registered and the fact that people move and registers become outdated. That is why the register cannot be said to be completely accurate in the main.

My hon. Friend's concern about the accuracy of registers is one that, as democrats, we should share in relation to our constituencies, never mind Northern Ireland. Significant numbers of people who are entitled to vote are not on the register. That is why the whole thrust of the changes to electoral law in Great Britain has been towards making it easier to get on to the register so as to ensure that the maximum number of people have the right to exercise their vote. That should be another factor that is taken into account in striking the balance.

Mr. Andrew Turner: The Minister quoted the figures of 91 per cent. complete and 94 per cent. accurate and went on to explain why it is inaccurate. It sounded to me more like an explanation of why it was not complete than why it was not accurate. Could he explain further?

Mr. Browne: I will try to spell this out simply. The register will be incomplete if people do not get on to it. It will be inaccurate if people who are on it are not registered at the right place because they have moved. It is part of the same process. People may well be on the register but not where they should be. The information from the chief electoral officer confirms that the electoral register in Northern Ireland compares well with other registers in the UK. It is the most comprehensive personal database in Northern Ireland, but we can improve it. We must understand that we can never achieve 100 per cent. accuracy, particularly because of the movement of the population, but also because for one reason or other people cannot overcome some of the current impediments to getting on to the electoral register.

If there are to be quotations from the Select Committee report or from the evidence given to the Select Committee, it is important that they are put in context or accurately recorded. The previous chief electoral officer, Mr. Bradley, mentioned NI numbers in his evidence to the Select Committee. He said,

    ``If we establish a methodology by identifying electors then you can cross check, cross refer and keep better records.''

That is exactly what the Bill is intended to do. He continued:

    ``My two key areas are identification of individual electors by date of birth, national insurance, whatever.''

He did not even express a preference between date of birth and national insurance. He went on to speak about finance, better registration and cross-checking of abuse of postal votes and personation. The Government have given the chief electoral officer the finance for a new IT system, which is in the process of being contracted.

Mr. Peter Robinson: In deference to Mr. Bradley, I am sure that he would want to be quoted fully and accurately in the report of these proceedings. Mr Bradley was asked:

    ``Would the inclusion of national insurance numbers, which are individual to everyone, not help the situation for your records?''

His response was:

    ``I would welcome either a National Insurance Number or date of birth, and that is common in many countries. If one has the two parameters, ie. the date of birth and National Insurance, it is a very easy matter to run a search through the computer database and that would solve the problem and I would welcome that very much. It would make life much easier and reduce the scope for abuse considerably''.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, as between us we have accurately reported the dichotomy that even Mr. Bradley presented to the Select Committee.

As I was saying, the Government have given finance to the chief electoral officer for a new IT system. In his view, the provisions in the Bill to use dates of birth and signatures give him the ability to identify electors more easily. Those are some circumstances that have changed since the consideration of the Select Committee. The chief electoral officer now believes that, if he has the computer equipment and necessary software, which he will have some time in the future, he will be able to carry out checks to identify fraudulent multiple registration and to pursue it.

Lady Hermon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Browne: I will just finish this point. Hon. Members, in particular the hon. Member for Reigate, raised this issue. There is cross-checking with other organisations. Regulations under the Representation of the People Act 1983, which were introduced in February 2001, already give the chief electoral officer the powers to examine the records of certain public bodies. He is allowed access to the records of public authorities such as the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the district councils, the Valuation and Lands Agency, the Rate Collection Agency and the register of births, deaths and marriages. Although the evidence of other databases cannot be used to correct the electoral register, they can reveal possible inaccuracies and allow the chief electoral officer to investigate them. That is as it should be.

The chief electoral officer's role is not to decide that one database or set of information is better than what he has or better than what is provided by electors, but to give him the opportunity to check information that has been given to him, allowing electors to satisfy him that they should be on the register.

Lady Hermon: Simply as a point of information, will the Minister specify when the IT will become available to the chief electoral officer? I am delighted that it will be available; I would just love to know that it will be soon.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the question as it allows me to clarify. We are in a rolling contract process. Anyone who has observed Governments' experience of contracts in the past would welcome the rolling out and constant testing of them. The system will be rolled out from next year and the contractual intention is that the system will be capable of carrying out the necessary checks on store signatures and dates of birth that are obtained from individual canvass forms. The canvass will begin this time next year.

In conjunction with voluntary electoral ID cards and other photographic identification that will replace the existing group of specified documents, the system explained in the Bill will be in place for the election of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2003. The acceptability of the process to ordinary decent voters in Northern Ireland is important. Apart from those whom we ask to administer the practical effects of the legislation, those voters—the decent people who want to exercise a legitimate vote—matter most in the process. It must be acceptable to them, and the Government must retain the right to consider how the people of Northern Ireland are taking to the process, particularly the requirement for photographic identification. That has all-party support in Northern Ireland. We all want people to use photographic identification when they turn up to vote at polling stations.

We must be mindful that, although we have consulted widely, we do not know how acceptable it will prove across the board, to all the people of Northern Ireland. That will have to be factored into our plans. We cannot allow the system to disfranchise a large number of people. If it is my responsibility as Minister at the time, I shall not allow that to happen. We must take it forward at a pace acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland to ensure that, in trying to achieve our objectives, we do not cause further damage.

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