Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt: Will the Minister simply explain why the collection of the national insurance number will disfranchise a large number of people?

Mr. Browne: If the hon. Gentleman were patient, he would realise that I have tried to structure my speech in a manner that is responsive to the issues raised by members of the Committee. If he wanted me simply to stand up, give two or three reasons and then sit down, he could have made that clear in his contribution. I shall proceed to structure my speech in a manner that is comfortable to me. If hon. Members wish to intervene, I shall endeavour to answer their questions. I am endeavouring now to answer the hon. Gentleman's question.

The hon. Gentleman appeared to be critical of the inaction of the chief electoral officer in failing to check those who had applied for absent votes. At this time of year, chief electoral officers throughout the country are preparing the information to produce a new electoral register. That is their main job at this time of year. A canvass may be going on in Northern Ireland at the moment, but the compilation of the new register is the primary objective now. If it is to be 91 per cent. complete and 94 per cent. accurate, that hard work must be carried out now.

The chief electoral officer is also continuing to work with us on one of the most important aspects of the legislation—the contracting for and design of the IT system and its relevant software. If that does not work, nothing will work. He has his priorities right at this stage and I reject any implicit criticism of the two jobs that he is undertaking now.

Lembit Ipik: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne: Subject to the further patience of the hon. Member for Reigate, yes.

Lembit Ipik: The Minister may not be able to answer immediately, but I would be grateful if he wrote to explain how the 91 per cent. complete and the 94 per cent. accurate figures were arrived at? I ask because the measurement technique is important.

12.30 pm

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question and also right that I cannot answer it immediately. I shall write to him, so he is right in three senses.

The chief electoral officer and staff must have the necessary resources to check registrations and to ensure that the accuracy of the register is improved and maintained. The Government have already made additional resources available to electoral officers—resources repeatedly asked for by the predecessor of the present electoral officer. The additional resources include staff and the IT equipment to which I referred earlier. I meet the chief electoral officer regularly to ensure that the objective of improving the system is carried out as accurately and effectively as possible.

I have constantly made it clear to the chief electoral officer, as I do to the Committee, that requests for additional resources to support the vital work of the electoral office will be considered in a positive light. Additional resources have recently been made available for equipment for polling stations. There is therefore no question of a lack of Government resources standing in the way of combating fraud. I must put that canard to rest.

Before responding to the matter so exercising the hon. Member for Reigate, I must deal with the confusion about the effect of the amendments. It was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire, who was accurate and not at all confused, although other hon. Members may be.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight referred to subsection (3)(b), which relates only to those remaining on the register after the annual canvass. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire argued—and he was absolutely right—that the amendments could prevent people from getting on to the register in the first place. Some people could be denied their right to vote while various checks took place. Initial applications for registration would, if the amendments were accepted, need to include the national insurance number. A person who is already registered would need to include their national insurance number on their annual canvass return in order to remain on the register.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne: In a moment, but I want to put the mind of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire at rest about the canvass. Under the Bill, it will be impossible to get on to the register after a house-to-house canvass alone. Every individual elector will have to return a completed form, which will be the key to getting on to the register. I shall discuss the requisite information in detail later, although most hon. Members probably know what is required.

Mr. McGrady: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight.

Mr. Andrew Turner: If someone sends in a form that includes what appears to be his date of birth, signature and national insurance number, will the action of the registration officer subsequently be to place that name on the register? Under the Government's proposals, he would have no way of checking the dates of birth or signatures, so he would presumably place the names on the register. If the amendment were passed, he would have a way of checking the national insurance numbers. However, I am still unsure. Would he place such people on the register subject to a later check that may follow from a challenge, or would he not place them on the register until he had checked every national insurance number?

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman supports the amendment but is asking me its effect, which is an interesting situation. My understanding is that the amendment would deny people their right to registration until their national insurance numbers were checked. If that check could not be done as simply as the hon. Gentleman believes they could—I will come to some reasons for that later—the person would not get on to the register.The question arises whether it is appropriate to deny people the right to be registered while checks take place, or indeed the right to be registered at all if they cannot provide the information, as a necessary impediment to fraud. The Government believe that the Bill plus existing law provide sufficient impediment to fraud and opportunity for people to check. That position is supported by the chief electoral officer who said that, with the information that the Bill will provide for him and the new computer system and software, he is confident that he will be able to check, identify and investigate multiple registrations and reveal those that are attempts at fraud.

Mr. McGrady: I am anxious that, before the Minister concludes his remarks, he gives some cognisance to the fact that I and other Committee members intend not to deny people their vote but to ensure that voting is preserved for those who are entitled to vote. None of the propositions is intended to make that more difficult. Does the Minister agree that the percentage of accuracy of the electoral register, to which he referred, includes illegal and erroneous registration? He could take a few per cent. off it for people who are illegally registered. I presume that the comparison is made between those registered and the population eligible for registration.

Does he agree that the Bill, which I welcome entirely but am trying to improve, means that the only way that the electoral officer will be able to use a signature and a date of birth as cross-checks will be manually for absent voter applications? There is no readily available comprehensive database of dates of birth from the past 90 years from housing executives or local council departments, but there is one primary available database, which is used for a plethora of circumstances from health to tax. That is the national insurance number database. As the electoral application form arrives in a household at least four to eight weeks before it is collected or posted, there is ample time for any person to find their national insurance number, notwithstanding the fact that they use it every day of the week anyway. We could then have a post-registration check by computer, not by hand—

The Chairman: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman is making a contribution, not an intervention.

Mr. McGrady: I apologise.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention, which I suspect extended for longer than he had planned. He does not need to reassure me on behalf of Committee members that their motives are pure. No one intends to devise a system that denies people their vote, although the unintended consequences of some amendments might be an unnecessary impediment.

On my hon. Friend's second point, we would not be considering the Bill if it were not the Government's view that fraud was taking place. Immeasurable though it is, there must be some fraud. There are provisions to deal with the mischief of illegal multiple registration, and recognition that it is part of the problem is implicit in those provisions, so that reassurance is not needed either.

I hope that the final part of my speech will satisfy my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Reigate and others on national insurance numbers, although I suspect that the issue will not go away and we shall debate it again in future.

Clause 1 enables the chief electoral officer to collect additional identifying information from registered voters. Electors and those applying for registration will be required to state their date of birth and sign the form for the annual canvass as well as stating their name and address, which is current practice. In certain circumstances, such as incapacity, the chief electoral officer will be able to dispense with the requirement for a voter to supply a signature. We shall come to that later in our deliberations.

The Government do not support the amendments to add new requirements in respect of national insurance numbers at registration and polling stations. I appreciate that the intention behind them is to provide another weapon in the battle to prevent electoral fraud, but they would not succeed in doing that. Furthermore, such a step could deny legitimate voters their right to vote.

As I said on Second Reading, it would not be right to impose unreasonable burdens on the majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland, who merely want to exercise their franchise as they are entitled. We shall take all reasonable steps to prevent fraud, but they must be measured and proportionate. We need to strike a careful balance between preventing fraud and deterring ordinary voters.

Many people do not know their national insurance number. Indeed, the hon. Member for North Down graphically drew my attention to the difficulty that faced one of her constituents in trying to establish her national insurance number to access benefits. Faced with what seems to some—I stress that—a cumbersome and complex process for finding out their national insurance number, ordinary voters may simply return their canvass form without including it. If the amendments were accepted, those people would then have to be removed from the register. Clearly, that would be unfair and disproportionate.

The amendments would be likely to have a disproportionately harsh effect on the elderly, who may be unable to remember their number or not know how to find it out. By contrast, few of us forget our date of birth, although some of us find it painful to remember it.

Using national insurance numbers in that way would not be as effective in combating fraud as those who support the amendments think. As has been pointed out, it is possible, whether legitimately or not, to have more than one number. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) drew our attention to his experience in prosecuting people who were using national insurance numbers for fraudulent purposes in significant numbers.

I shall deal with the amendments that propose the use of national insurance numbers at the poll. I know that they are not universally supported by those who proposed the other amendments. Clause 2 already provides for an additional statutory question about date of birth, which may be put by the presiding officer at an election in certain circumstances to verify identity. That new power, combined with the move to photographic identity documents only, will be extremely effective in preventing fraud at polling stations.

Asking for confirmation of the national insurance number would not add value to the steps that we propose to take. As I and others have said, many people will not recall their national insurance number. Are they to be denied a vote, even if their identity document is correct or if they have confirmed their date of birth to the satisfaction of the presiding officer? That would surely be unfair.

By introducing such a requirement, we would be putting in place a system whose integrity cannot be guaranteed. It would not necessarily be effective. Furthermore, there is a real risk that it would disadvantage and discourage genuine voters. We could introduce any number of checks on identity, as I said previously, but we must ensure that what we do will cause minimum disruption to voters. We must strike the right balance between preventing fraud and not putting obstacles in the way of the public.

For those reasons, and with the assurances that I have given to hon. Members about other developments in relation to the conduct of the poll, I hope that hon. Members will not press their amendments.

12.45 pm

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Prepared 16 October 2001