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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

Standing Committee D

Tuesday 16 October 2001


[Mr. Jimmy Hood in the Chair]

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

Clause 1

Registration: provision of signature anddate of birth

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 2, in page 1, line 10, after `completed', insert—

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

4.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments:

No. 13, in page 2, line 6, at end insert


    (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


    (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, clause 2, in 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 26, 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. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I should mention the fact that I associated the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) with the amendments in the name of the official Unionists, the Liberal Democrats and the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). Those amendments deal with the question that should be asked at the polling station about national insurance numbers. The hon. Member for Belfast, East has, quite properly, pointed out to me that his name does not appear on those amendments. Amendments Nos. 2 and 10 apply to the issue of the national insurance number going on the register. That is one issue; the other is the question that should then be asked at the polling station.

On the major issue of national insurance numbers being required in order to be placed on the register, I should say that we know that the Government want to improve the position on electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. That is why we are considering the Bill. We also know that the Select Committee that investigated this in 1998, which included the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) and the Minister, came to the conclusion that national insurance numbers should be required. We know, too, that Pat Bradley, the then chief electoral officer, said that that would ``solve the problem''.

We have heard that the practical arguments against including national insurance numbers have been thin and have not convinced Opposition Members. We know that all parties that allow people in Northern Ireland to belong to them want national insurance numbers included as a requirement for registration. The Government have told us that resources are not an issue. If one takes that at face value—as we should, because the Minister made the statement in Committee earlier today—there is no explanation why the Government are resisting the measure. I understand that the Minister may have more to say on the matter before we decide whether we should press the amendment to a Division but, as things stand, I believe that we should press it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I am grateful for the opportunity to share with the Committee various facts that I have had checked, taking advantage of the Committee's adjournment. I hope not to prolong the debate significantly but to provide those who return to the debate with some practical information that may inform their contributions.

It is true that everybody has the right to vote, but not everybody has the right to a national insurance number. That may come as a surprise to some people. I have listened to hon. Members saying confidently—presumably they researched it—that people who do not know their national insurance number can find it out for the purpose of electoral registration. That is simply untrue. To obtain a national insurance number, people must meet one of two criteria: they must either claim benefit or pay tax. National insurance numbers will not be given to those who do not fulfil those criteria. Those people would be disenfranchised as a consequence of the amendments.

I can give the Committee a recent example of someone who would be entitled to vote but was not entitled to a national insurance number—indeed the Inland Revenue refused to give her one. A British family moved to South Africa some years ago when their daughter was very young; at the age of 18 she returned to Britain to study at university. She wanted to apply for a student loan but was unable to do so because she did not have a national insurance number and, moreover, was not entitled to one. Normally, children of 16 or over receive a national insurance number, but only if they are receiving child benefit, as that satisfies one of the criteria. The student was not receiving any benefit and was not entitled to a national insurance number, but she was entitled to vote. She was a British citizen who applied to the Inland Revenue and was rightly denied a national insurance number on the grounds that she was not intending to claim benefit or to work while studying at university.

I admit that that is an unusual case, but I use it to illustrate a serious point. A grave flaw in the argument is that we should just require national insurance numbers to be used for qualification for being on the electoral register. We do not, presumably, expect people to start claiming benefit or having to work so that they are entitled to a national insurance number in order to get a vote. That would be ludicrous, and that argument is not being made.

A further example is a childless French woman who is married to a Northern Ireland resident. That is not beyond the bounds of possibility. If the woman did not work or claim benefit, she would not be entitled to a national insurance number. However, she would be entitled to register to vote so that she could exercise her democratic right to vote in the European, parliamentary, local government and Assembly elections. She could not go on the electoral register if the amendments were accepted.

I acknowledge that the number of people living in Northern Ireland who meet such a description is likely to be relatively small but, as a Minister, I cannot accept the amendments if they mean that one person in Northern Ireland would be denied their right to vote. That would undoubtably be the case for at least those two examples.

Mr. Blunt rose—

Mr. Browne: I shall finish these points, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.

Theoretically, while it would be possible for the chief electoral officer to check national insurance numbers that were provided to him on registration, he would have to do that by accessing the departmental central index, which is part of the Inland Revenue's computer system and is the database containing all national insurance numbers. For the chief electoral officer to check all 1 million or so individuals on the electoral register in Northern Ireland, he would need direct access to the DCI. However, the national insurance details of Northern Ireland and Great Britain are kept together on the DCI. The chief electoral officer could not be granted access to only the Northern Ireland data. Therefore, he would have direct access to vast amounts of irrelevant but sensitive data, which is contrary to the principles of data protection. Hon. Members may say that that could be resolved and no doubt technologically and in terms of computers it can be. However, whether it could be resolved against the deadlines that we, and others, have set for the changes is a different matter.

We cannot dismiss the principles of data protection because one of its basic principles is that a general identifier can be used only for the purpose for which it was issued. In the case of a national insurance number that is the administration of national insurance. It seems unreasonable to amend the Data Protection Act 1984 in the time scale set, which we would have to do but is probably unachievable, to allow the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland to have access to the national insurance numbers of electors while every elector in Northern Ireland is not entitled to, or does not have, a national insurance number. Even if we were to proceed down that route, it is unlikely that we would complete all necessary legislative and administrative changes by the target date of spring 2003, at least not at the expense of other measures. Specific legislation would be needed to amend the Data Protection Act to allow the chief electoral officer to make use of electors' national insurance numbers. In the light of those additional factors, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn, and that hon. Members will be satisfied that it would not be sensible for national insurance numbers to be used for electoral purposes.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I was going to intervene on the Minister, but if I ask him a question, maybe he can respond.

Once, I was told that a person with two good reasons often has none. I now hear a completely different set of justifications for why the use of national insurance numbers is not acceptable from the ones that we heard this morning.


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