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Mr. Andrew Turner: The hon. Gentleman made that point extensively in Committee. I was not convinced then and I am not convinced nowand so far as I can tell, neither is any other Opposition Member. He has not established why it is impossible for the returning officer to go back to those who may have made a mistake and ask them to check. Will he explain precisely why that is so impossible?
Mr. Barnes: If 1 or 2 per cent. of the electorate are involved, the electoral registration officer would be involved in quite a task. He would have to contact people directly himself, or he would have to send canvassers or other people around to discover information about the small number of people who have been missed. Those people are likely to be among those who are also expected to choose identity cards. We would be in danger of
We should not make the system too complicated. I wanted to make it universal, so that everyone would be involved and have to get a card to vote, but that could be achieved without the problems that the amendment would involve. I am simply saying that it is not beyond peradventure and absolutely clear that that system would work in the way that some of us, with our naive nature, and having listened to Mr. Bradley addressing the Committee, believe that it could.
Lembit Öpik: First, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the system will involve a big job just oncethe first time that everyone has to fill in the formand that that is a small price to pay to reduce fraud? Secondly, will he note that the amendments states, "if they have one", so we do not want to change the national insurance system? We would merely create a data collection expectation, and the task would diminish massively when we had completed it once.
Mr. Barnes: Fresh people will appear on the registers, so they will have to go through the system themselves. Perhaps it would be easier to work with young people who come into contact with their national insurance numbers and their electoral registration rights for the first time, and perhaps few difficulties would occur. People move in and out of Northern Ireland from the Republic and are entitled to voteand from Great Britain as well. So such a system would not be automatically ready and easy.
I am in favour of modernised electoral registration systems that use all types of new technology. That is why I advocate the rolling register, and we have something like a stopping, standing still and crawling register, which has improved things. However, there is still a tremendous amount to be done, but much of that has to be done on a United Kingdom basis, and I believe that it should be tied in with identity cards, so that we could operate a nice clear system. I am worried that we may spatchcock some ideas on to the existing arrangements and that that will not work well.
Mr. Trimble: I wish to put a couple of things on record. First, my colleagues and I fully support the amendment, and if it is pressed to a Division, we will support it. It is a sensible measure, and we note the strength of support for it on both sides of the House. I shall return to that point later.
In Committee, the Minister pleaded that one reason for not accepting the proposal was that some people do not have national insurance numbers. However, I draw Members' attention to the question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs), who asked
I express my disappointment at the way in which the Government are conducting business. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) focused his comments on the Minister and on the inconsistency between his past and present positions. However, the Minister is a member of the Government and he is now adopting their position. I am disappointed at their approach because when the measure was first suggested, we strongly expressed the view that although particular provisions were good in themselves, the Bill needed to be strengthened.
The Government assured us that they would give us a sympathetic response if we came forward with proposals that were, in particular, supported by both sides of the House and the main parties in Northern Ireland. If arguments against the amendment had carried any weight in Committee or in this debate, I could have understood the Government's reasons for rejecting it. However, we are faced with their stock response. They have published the Bill and decided to put up the shutters by fighting any amendment tooth and nail, irrespective of the merits of the argument.
The merits of the argument are clear. I greatly respect the hon. Member for NorthEast Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) and I know that he has done much good work. He made a valiant attempt to defend the Government's position, but I am afraid that although we give him credit for doing so, he was not convincing.
Mr. Trimble: Indeed, and I notice that, at the end of his comments, the hon. Gentleman came towards what will be the eventual solution, namely, an identity card system. I am sure that, in time, we will come to that, but how long will the luddites in the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office prevent us from moving towards that solution?
It is ironic that the current national insurance number system developed out of compulsory wartime identity cards. As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) suggested, over the years that system may have fallen into confusion and may need to be overhauled completely. That overhaul will come when we move to a nationwide system of compulsory identity cardsthe issue can be resolved then.
I do not wish to delay our proceedings, because I know that other Members wish to speak. I simply wish to put on the record the fact that we support the amendment. I have read the Committee debates and I have not seen any reason why we should not. The House has had a little fun at the Minister's expense, but he could put an end to that and do himself and the Government much credit by undertaking seriously to consider our proposal.
Mr. Andrew Turner: The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) spoke eloquently in Committee about the nature of elections in Northern Ireland. It is well worth repeating some of his sentiments, to explainparticularly to those outside the Housethe widespread support for the amendment.
For some political parties, elections in Northern Ireland have for many years been an extension of the armed struggle. They are now a substitute for the armed struggle. They are militarised and they are conducted by men with guns who will fight, intimidate, bully, kneecap and sometimes murder to make sure that people turn out to vote in the way that those men wantnot once, not twice, but as many times as they can get them to the polling station in whatever guise they can be bullied into adopting. That is the nature of an election in Northern Ireland, so it is no surprise that the turnout in elections there is continually high: it is the result of widespread militarised fraud conducted by paramilitaries.
It is splendid that the Government have introduced a Bill which at last attempts to tackle the problem of fraud in Northern Ireland elections. One party in particular undertakes such fraud. It is trying to squeeze out the party of the hon. Member for South Down, and it is in danger of doing so.
The amendment would prevent people as far as possible from registering twice when they were not entitled to do so. For example, they might register two different versions of the same name, or the same name in two or three different locations. They might even register in the same name at the same address, in the expectation that the returning officer or his assistants could be persuaded that there was an older and a younger manor an older or younger womanof the same name at the same address.
The amendment would require that when people registered to vote, they not only furnished their signature, date of birth and name and address but provided their national insurance number. A national insurance number is a unique identifier. There may not be many Lembit Öpiks in Montgomeryshire; there may be more Harry Barneses in North-East Derbyshire; there is certainly more than one Andrew Turner on the Isle of Wight; and I wager that there are many Peter Robinsons in Northern Ireland. However, the national insurance number is a unique identifier that the returning officer can use to check against the name.
If there were no unique identifier or the name did not match the national insurance number, the returning officer could undertake further inquiries. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) objected to that because he felt it might prevent people from registering in time for an election. However, in these days of a rolling register, it takes just 30 days between filling in the form and appearing on the register. Except in the most extraordinary circumstances, that should be time enough to allow any returning officer furnished with the right resources to check whether the applicant for registration does or does not exist.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) ably related the proposal's history. The Select Committee on which the Minister sat agreed that such a provision was necessary. The hon. Gentleman changed his mind at some point before the Bill was drafted, and he explained his reasons in the Committee that considered it. They were feeble. He said that the difficulties involved in recalling a national insurance number at the time of registration might make it more difficult for people to register. He said that, on balance, it was unwise to proceed with the proposal.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate said, the Committee was so unconvincedand more important, I suspect the Minister was so unconvincedthat the Minister went away and, between lunchtime and the beginning of the afternoon sitting, came up with new reasons. But they were not reasons to exclude the national insurance numbers proposal from the Bill. He had already given those reasons which, as I have said, he recognised were feeble. All the Northern Ireland parties supported an amendment similar to this in Committee, as did the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats, and although it was defeated, I do not believe that the arguments were defeated.
The only mildly constitutional partyif I can use that phrasefrom Northern Ireland that opposes the inclusion of national insurance numbers chooses not to be represented in the House, and it is the greatest beneficiary of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. It is a scandal that its wish is being pushed through by the Government in the Bill against the advice of all the constitutional parties of Northern Ireland and the people whom they represent, who have suffered so long at the hands of the bullies, gunmen and terrorists whom Sinn Fein represent.
A date of birth can be duplicated, a signature may be inconsistent and names are frequently repeated, but a national insurance number cannot usually be duplicated. The amendment makes provision even for that tiny minority who do not possess a national insurance number. It would also enable greater scrutiny of postal votes. As we know, many people apply fraudulently for postal votes in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire repeated the assertion of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) that the national insurance system is in chaos. The Government have not relied on that argument yet, and unless they are prepared to do so, I see no reason why the House should reject the amendment.