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Mr. Robinson: The House has heard what the right hon. Gentleman said. Given the right hon. Gentleman's history, I am sure that the Minister will want to be not only a seeker but a teller of the truth, and will want to respond to what has been said. The question is more for the Minister than for me, so I will pass it back to him and listen eagerly to his reply.
As the hon. Member for South Down said, the national insurance number is a unique identifier. Unlike the signature, unlike the name, unlike the date of birth, it is one for which there is a database, and it is something that can be extracted by the chief electoral officer to identify instances of multiple registration. If the chief electoral officer sees the name of John Murphy in the register half a dozen times in a street or an area, he has no real way of determining whether it is the same John Murphy, but
Re-reading the report of our debate in Committee, I was led to believe that the Minister's response did not amount to much more than what in Northern Ireland we refer to as waffle. There was no real substance to the argument that he attempted to marshal against ours. After he had had lunch and a regroupingno doubt of those civil servants who give him advice, of whatever varietythe Minister came up with two points. One was that not everyone has a national insurance number, but he did not say how small was the group that did not have one, and he did not quite overcome the problem that we had posed by suggesting that the question on the form could end with the words "(if any)". It seems to me that no one will be punished if they do not have a national insurance number and do not write it on the form. The words "(if any)" appear elsewhere on the registration form, and it would not be inappropriate to insert them in this instance if there was any problem with people not having a national insurance number.
The second defence that the Minister put up was that not everyone can remember, or find, their national insurance number. The answer to that was simple. Potential electors will not be asked to fill out a form on the doorstep. A matter of weeks will pass between receipt of the form and the date by which it must be submitted, and that will allow people plenty of time to discover their national insurance number.
The defences put up by the Minister in Committee did not have much substance, so I hoped that he would reflect on the position and be prepared to meet the whole of the Opposition on the matter on Report. I hoped that he would be able to concede to the wish of the parties in Northern Ireland, and I regret it if, as his earlier remarks suggest, he intends to continue to resist it.
I hope that the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) will press the amendment to a Division. I believe that in future the Minister will look back at that Division and be saddened that he allowed himself to be whipped by his civil servants into taking the stand that he is taking. I know that it is not his own inclination. I know his true inclination because I shared with him those amendments in the Select Committee when, in comradeship, we went down the same road together, and I hope that once again, when he has the opportunity to be freer in the way that he acts and speaks in the House, he might return to his former principled position.
Mr. Barnes: The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has had some good fun at the expense of my hon. Friend the Minister, because my hon. Friend now adopts a different position from that which he signed up
I am keen on the argument that there should be an identifier, such as a national insurance number. It might be the case that the smaller the nation, the easier it is to sort things out. In Malta, which has identity cards, the identity card number appears on the electoral register. Moreover, a card is issued to an elector, through the police, at each election, and is handed in when people vote. A fresh card is issued afterwards. Therefore, it is possible to develop techniques that make use of good organisation in order to tackle some of these problems.
In Committee I expressed concernand was taken to task by the hon. Member for Belfast, Eastwhen the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) accepted that the national insurance system was less than perfect. How much less than perfect is it? If some people give their national insurance numbers and their numbers are not confirmed within the system or are not seen to be those that are supposed to relate to them, those people can be disfranchised, or temporarily disfranchised, until the problem is sorted out.
Mr. Blunt: The national insurance system might be in chaos, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said, but the suggestion is not that people have no national insurance number, but that they have more than one. That is what needs to be sorted out. Any check of the cross-reference, such as that suggested by the hon. Gentleman, in which the correct national insurance number was included, would almost certainly involve a cross-check to that person.
Mr. Barnes: My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) suggested that the national insurance system was in chaos. If that were correct, there would be many serious problems in using the system as a check. If the chaos merely involves people having more than one number, it might be possible to sort out the problem if records are kept showing all the different numbers. Something that lies between being less than perfect and being chaos may be the type of problem we have to consider. If problems exist with national insurance numbers, there is a difficulty with the amendment. In Committee, the hon. Member for Reigate alerted me to that.
Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): All the Opposition parties view the date of birth system proposed by the Government as inadequate. We have a better systemthe national insurance system. Surely it is better to use that system, even though it is flawed to an extent, than to rely on a date of birth system, which most Opposition Members believe to be inadequate?
People would have to complete forms and provide their national insurance numbers, signatures and dates of birth, and the one that they would be liable to get wrong is their national insurance number, so the electoral returning officer would have to return to the constituents to check whether an error had been made. When looking at national insurance forms and details and writing them down, how many people would get them wrong, especially in households where several people have to do that? Even if only 1 or 2 per cent. of the population get those numbers wrong, those people would be disfranchised, or they would have serious problems.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East was eloquent in saying that he did not want a system that actually disfranchised people who were entitled to be on registers, and I am keen not to introduce a measure that would remove people from the franchise.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): The hon. Gentleman is skating on such thin ice that he could drown at any moment. The logical extension of his argument is that the Government should never produce any sort of form in case people fill it in wrongly. His argument is nonsense on stilts.
Mr. Barnes: The Bill deals with voting arrangements, not the others things in which Governments engage. If people apply to the Benefits Agency for benefits and fill in their national insurance numbers wrongly, it is possible to go back to them to get the correct numbers, and it may also be possible to use other records to find the right numbers. That will not be so readily and easily the case with electoral registration. Under electoral registration law, people have a right to be on the registers, and they are technically subject to a £1,000 fine if they are not. That is a fundamental building block of our democracy, and we must ensure that, whatever system we use, we do not disfranchise people even though we are doing other beneficial things. Much in the Bill will get rid of fraud but, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East said, we cannot get rid of fraud at the expense of removing people who are on registers legitimately.