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7.15 pm

The Minister also argued that people who did not pay tax or receive benefits might not have a national insurance number. He gave the example of a student who had come back from South Africa. The fact that the Minister was having to grub around for such examples showed a degree of desperation in his attempts to convince the Committee of the merits of his argument. My amendments and those in the name of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) address the matter by saying that the very few people who do not have a national insurance number cannot be required to give it. They hardly represent an overwhelming number of electors.

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The Minister argued that a chief electoral officer had to check records held at the Treasury, where all the national insurance numbers for the United Kingdom are held. He said that members of the Committee might say that that could be resolved and that no doubt, in terms of computer technology, it could be. We all say that, and as the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said, sifting Northern Ireland national insurance numbers would hardly be at the cutting edge of technology. To find a software programme that would distinguish between the national insurance numbers of people registered in Northern Ireland and those of the rest of the United Kingdom would not be terribly difficult.

Mr. Barnes: It would not solve the problem entirely, because people are entitled to move from Britain to Northern Ireland. Presumably it would be difficult to find their registration numbers during that period.

Mr. Blunt: That was one argument. The Minister was adducing arguments under data protection legislation that it would be inappropriate for the chief electoral officer of Northern Ireland to search the whole United Kingdom database. I do not see why it is remotely inappropriate for the chief electoral officer to search the whole United Kingdom database to check that a national insurance number belongs to the person who has claimed it. In the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes, that would indeed be appropriate. I was trying to address the arguments that the Minister put forward later. The last refuge of a Minister in trouble when proposals are being made to simplify and clarify the system is the argument that there are problems under the data protection legislation.

Mr. Barnes: It may well be reasonable to argue that all the United Kingdom national insurance registration numbers can be investigated and discovered, but it shifts the ground. The hon. Gentleman argued earlier that all one would need to do would be to look at the Northern Ireland numbers.

Mr. Blunt: Both arguments hold good. If the Minister says that it is inappropriate to check the whole register of national insurance numbers—that is his argument, not mine—it is perfectly possible to separate them. However, I do not see why it should be a problem to check the national insurance numbers of the whole of the United Kingdom.

The Minister's next argument concerned practicality. He said that whether the issue could be resolved against the deadlines the Government and others had set for the changes was a different matter. The deadline is of the Minister's own making. We have just had a debate about deadlines and he has so far refused to be bound by them. He has not been prepared to put one in the Bill. Had he done so, there might be a modicum of merit in his argument. Even then, I do not think that there would be when it comes to deadlines.

Checking national insurance numbers is simply a question of passing the necessary legislation, complying with the Data Protection Acts if necessary, and having the computer capacity to enable the chief electoral officer to undertake the checks. There is no reason why national insurance numbers cannot be put on the return that people have to complete.

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The Minister's argument about data protection is the final refuge of people who oppose simplifying any of our bureaucracy. I do not accept that the data protection legislation would necessarily apply if the software program were written so as to include only national insurance numbers in Northern Ireland. If, as he suggested, primary legislation were necessary to effect that change and include the numbers as part of the process, that should be enacted.

I assure the Minister that he would have the wholehearted support of the Opposition to achieve that objective. There is no reason why such legislation could not be put in place to make the register as reliable as it must be. If the register is unreliable and we do not get it right, there will be a question mark over the conduct of democracy in Northern Ireland. We attended to those arguments in Committee, where the hon. Member for South Down made it clear that the future of Northern Ireland and the development of politics there were being affected by electoral fraud. At some stage, there may be referendums on the future status of Northern Ireland. Under the present arrangements, an individual vote can carry huge weight in local elections and can decide which parties will represent people on councils.

In Committee, the Minister did not even convince himself with his own rhetoric. There is cross-community support for this proposal. The hon. Member for Belfast, East was in alliance with the hon. Member for South Down and united with the Ulster Unionist party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.

The amendments can only further the aims of the legislation. They are aims that the Minister and everyone in the House shares—tackling electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. In the main, the Minister has conducted himself with grace during the passage of the Bill. If he wishes to spare himself embarrassment in another place, I hope that he will have the grace to accept these amendments.

Mr. McGrady: As the mover of the amendment, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), said, my party and I have supported the inclusion of national insurance numbers as a form of identification for all electoral purposes—registration, postal voting and, in the appropriate circumstances, casting votes. The reason is simple. We understood the national insurance number to be unique to each individual and to be universal. Including that identification number on a registration form would enable other counter-checking measures to be used in the fulness of time. We would have three telling personal identification details—the date of birth, the signature and the national insurance number—all or some of which could be a means of identifying a fraudster.

The difficulty is that national insurance numbers are not universal, as the Minister explained well in Committee, which was an instruction to me. He gave some strange examples, one of which has been referred to—the teenage girl returning for education from South Africa. I confess that in the short time since our debate in Committee, I have searched my constituency for a childless French woman who has never worked or received benefit. I am not unoptimistic that I will achieve my objective, with all sorts of consequences perhaps in due course, but to date I have failed to identify such people.

The difference between the debates in Committee and this evening is that the amendment states that national insurance numbers should be used when they are

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available. I will not go into the cause and effect, but that is a reasonable proposition. In some genuine cases, they may not be available to people—by that I mean that they do not have such a number, not that they do not know it.

In my simplicity, I understood that every boy and girl was issued with a number at the age of 16. I may be wrong. I do not know how long the system has been in vogue, but it must be some considerable time—at least a decade. People who do not have a number must not have a pension and must never have worked, paid tax or filled in a tax return. That narrows the gap considerably.

The proposals in the amendments would seem to allow an exception for people who genuinely do not have a national insurance number—be they returning expatriates or European or Asian men or women who have not worked but have come to reside and at times to vote in Northern Ireland, where they are most welcome. It would not be an onerous task for the electoral officer, when he receives such an application, to see that the person seeking registration has not got a national insurance number and to telephone to find out why. One could ascertain the validity or the invalidity of the reason.

The important thing is that the majority of people—perhaps 97 per cent. or 98 per cent., although that is pure guesswork—have a national insurance number. It is an individual identifier, it is held on a common database and it is readily available to everyone on all sorts of documents that are carried daily—a tax form, a pension book and, I think, the Translink card, although I am not sure yet.

Using national insurance numbers would offer a great opportunity to create a significant database for the electoral system. At this stage, we cannot use signatures. They will not be digitised for some time. However, that does not prevent us from seeking the information. Initially, it will be used for the postal vote comparisons, which will presumably be manual until computers have the necessary sophistication.

We would be building a database. The national insurance database is enormous and can be checked, and I think that it would throw up any irregularities, which is all that we are concerned about. I am sure that we could cope with that with relative ease using computer technology. For that reason, I support the inclusion of national insurance numbers in the information given at registration, which can then be deployed for other purposes. The amendments propose a pardon for people who do not, for good reason, have a national insurance number. A simple inquiry would resolve that problem, which wipes out most of the arguments for not including the numbers as a personal identifier.

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