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Mr. Blunt: I am partly grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will not have my own honesty impugned, and neither will I allow the efficiency of those who have served this process faithfully and well to be impugned in this House. Those people have worked very efficiently up to now, and that includes the way in which they have serviced requests from other parties on this matter. In fact, all letters were all faxed and posted on 25 October, and in my hand I have a copy of a reply, dated 29 October, that I have received from the leader of one of the parties.

An error was made in regard to the Conservative party. I have accepted responsibility for that, and apologised for it, but that error does not affect my view. The two parties affected by the error are represented in the House and have expressed their opinion on the matter.

Mr. Quentin Davies indicated dissent.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) appears irritated that I am replying to his intervention. I have apologised for the error, but that does not change the fact that I have written to a number of people for their views on this matter. Common courtesy requires that I give them a reasonable time to reply.

I anticipate that in a fortnight from today I shall have had a reasonable time in which to reach an informed decision based on the views of the Northern Ireland political parties. I shall then write to all the parties to which I have written previously—and to the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats—confirming what I intend to do. At the moment, I am minded to introduce the question by regulation. No one has yet advanced an argument as to why I should not do that, and I do not anticipate that such an argument will be advanced.

I am minded to act as I have described, but I have embarked on a process of consultation by letter, and common courtesy requires that I give the people to whom I have written the opportunity to reply.

Mr. Blunt: Clearly, this has not been a shining moment in the way that the matter has been handled by the Minister or his Department. I tabled a new clause in Standing Committee on the matter, and withdrew it when the Minister gave me an undertaking that he would consult me. I regarded that undertaking as an obligation, but I have accepted the Minister's apology in that regard.

However, the Minister also gave the Committee an undertaking that he would be able to clarify the position on Report, yet the letters were not signed out by the Minister's officials—or by the Minister himself—until a week after he gave that undertaking. It is therefore impossible for him to be able to say that his position, following consultation, is now clear. That is not acceptable.

Mr. Browne: My position is clear.

Mr. Blunt: The Minister, from a sedentary position, says that his position is clear. However, it is clear that he

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has yet to consult and come to a conclusion. That is certainly not the implication to be drawn from what the Minister told Standing Committee D, when he said:

I thought that the words "if that is appropriate" applied to the Minister's auxiliaries on the Liberal Democrat Benches, rather than to anyone else, but they now seem to apply to everyone.

I wish the debate to return to the co-operative and good humoured mood that has characterised most of our deliberations so far. I hope that the Minister will undertake to ensure that the regulation that he has promised will be formulated and proposed before the Bill is considered in another place. However, if by that time there is no sign that the Government are proposing a regulation that resolves the problem of multiple registration—the Minister has accepted the chief electoral officer's recommendation that there must be registration—we will revisit the matter in another place. I am certain that the support for the measure evident in all parties means that the necessary provision will appear in the Bill. If the Minister wanted to reverse that, he would have to return to this House to do so.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1

Registration: provision of signature and date of birth

Mr. Blunt: I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 10, after "completed", insert—

'(aa) the National Insurance number of each such person, if they have one'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 7, in page 1, line 11, at end insert—

(c) the national insurance number of each such person, if they have one.'.

No. 8, in page 2, line 9, at end insert—

(c) the national insurance number of each such person, if they have one.'.

No. 2, in page 2, line 23, leave out—

'both his date of birth'

and insert—

'his date of birth, his national insurance number if applicable,'.

No. 9, in page 2, line 33, at end insert—

(c) the national insurance number of each such person, if they have one.'.

No. 5, in clause 3, page 4, line 15, at end insert—

'(3A) In section 6 (absent vote at elections for an indefinite period) and in section 7 (absent vote at a particular election), there is inserted at the end of paragraph (1)(c) the words—
", which shall include the date of birth and the national insurance number of the applicants, if applicable".'.

31 Oct 2001 : Column 935

No. 6, in Title, line 2, after "signatures", insert ", national insurance numbers.".

Mr. Blunt: Amendment No. 1 is designed to assist the Minister to return to the conclusion that he and his colleagues on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee reached in 1997. He was not at that time burdened by the cares of office, nor by the need to negotiate with the Treasury to ensure that the necessary resources are available for the actions that he has promised.

This group of amendments is the most important to be debated this evening. In relation to the previous group of amendments, I hope that we shall in the end learn the considered position of five of the six parties involved in the Standing Committee. The Minister will know, however, that all the Northern Ireland parties support the proposal that people should supply their national insurance numbers when they apply to join the electoral register in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Barnes: Some members of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs adopted a position that was not a knock-down argument in favour of this amendment. Had they not done so, I assume that the amendments that I tabled earlier would have been supported by the Opposition spokesman.

Mr. Blunt: Of course, unlike the Minister, I was not a member of that Select Committee and did not take part in its proceedings. I am perhaps therefore not entirely bound by the terms adopted by that Committee and do not feel a loyalty to them. But in connection with the first group of amendments—which would have required that everyone in Northern Ireland had an electoral identity card—I paid tribute to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) for his clarity, and for his consistency in sticking to the Select Committee's conclusions. I am therefore puzzled that the hon. Gentleman appears now to be inconsistent in his stance on national insurance numbers. He may of course have been influenced by the debates. The Government widened the membership of the Committee to include representatives from the SDLP and the DUP, which was extremely welcome. However, it meant that the Committee was, unusually in this Parliament, on a knife edge. On that occasion, every party except the Labour party supported making national insurance numbers a requirement to register. The majority in Committee was only nine to eight. The hon. Gentleman's vote was clearly of immense significance to the Government.

Paragraph 58 of the 1998 Select Committee says:

The Select Committee was heavily influenced by the evidence of Mr. Pat Bradley, who had been a chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland for nearly 17 years when he came before the Committee and who was clearly an expert. I should like to quote his responses to questions from the hon. Members for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs). When asked by the hon.

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Member for South Down about his canvassers collecting and confirming information for putting the register together, Mr. Bradley replied:

The hon. Member for East Antrim then asked Mr. Bradley:

Mr. Bradley replied:

His next point was crucial:

We had a lengthy debate about this in Committee. Indeed, the subject took up the whole of the Committee's first sitting, at the end of which the Minister replied to the Committee. I do not think that he convinced himself. Indeed, he was so unconvinced by his own arguments that he returned in the afternoon to put forward further objections to including national insurance numbers. I will deal with these in turn, and if I am being unfair about the arguments I am attributing to the Minister I hope he will correct me.

The Minister's first argument was that people do not know their national insurance number or how to find it out. That argument does not stand up to analysis. The Minister was particularly concerned about the elderly. Elderly people receive pensions and therefore have their national insurance number immediately to hand in their pension book.

In the process of registration, canvassers call at people's houses up to three times to get the information. The Minister shakes his head, but I received that information directly from the chief electoral officer. People have up to three weeks, if not longer, to complete the forms. To argue that people are unable to obtain their national insurance number in that period does not stand up. There are any number of forms of assistance open to them if they are unable to do so.

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