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Mr. Hoban: The amendments would allow the use of national insurance numbers. That would add a great deal more protection to the integrity of the electoral system in Northern Ireland than the measures set out in the Bill. The vast majority of people have national insurance numbers. They are a prerequisite for paying tax and obtaining benefits. National insurance numbers are probably the most complete and easily accessible record of adults in the United Kingdom that we have, and we should not dismiss them lightly. I look forward to hearing the Minister's arguments on why he opposes the amendment because the arguments of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) did not persuade many hon. Members.

It is right to collect the numbers at the time of the canvass and cross-check them against the national insurance database prior to publication of the draft

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electoral roll. It is an important check on the validity of the voter's identification. I believe that there is sufficient time between the canvass and the publication of the register to undertake a proper check.

We should consider three questions in connection with the registration phase: will people know their national insurance number or have access to it; what happens if an elector does not have a national insurance number; and how will we manage access by the chief electoral officer to the national insurance database? Most people either know their national number or have access to it. I cannot say offhand what mine is, but I know that it is on my P60 and my payslip. People who receive benefits will know their national insurance number from their records. The argument that people do not know their number is neither watertight nor valid.

8.15 pm

What happens in the rare instances when people do not have a national insurance number? I have seen the examples that the Minister gave in Committee. Some people may not have a national insurance number, but we will have enough time to go back to them to establish why. I appreciate that, in the first year of the register, additional time may be spent checking out people's arguments, but once the register is in place—it will have a relatively small turnover from year to year, and relatively few people will lack national insurance numbers—the practical long-term arguments against checking them out make that concern invalid.

On how we manage access by the chief electoral officer to the national insurance database, we have heard about the restrictions that the Data Protection Act 1998 places on access, and about the swathe of data to which he will have access and whether or not that will be irrelevant. Notwithstanding the myriad problems that seem to affect information technology projects commissioned by Governments, it is not beyond the wit of man to cross-check national insurance numbers against a database. It would be helpful if the database of national insurance numbers could cross-refer to the computerised records of tax and benefits. That would allow us to check not just the national insurance number and its uniqueness and validity, but the address that is given on the electoral registration form, so we can ascertain that it is the same.

I do not accept the argument that the Minister used in Committee. He said the law would have to be changed, which would not be feasible in the time scale. In response to the events of 11 September, Departments have moved quickly in recent weeks to the pressing need to change legislation.

The amendments offer a powerful way to improve the integrity of the electoral voting system in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister will not simply say no and employ flimsy arguments, because so far the arguments have lacked validity and do not stand him in good stead.

Mr. Rosindell: Having listened to the debate, I wonder how serious the Government are about cracking down on electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. Much could be done to improve the Bill, including the use of national insurance numbers, as set out in the amendment. It is astonishing that, despite the broad agreement of all

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constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, the Government oppose that. Having read the Committee proceedings, I know that the Minister's arguments were weak.

Of course, not everyone can say off the top of their head what their national insurance number is; I certainly could not. However, to suggest that it is not possible within a 30-day period for someone to produce their number is pathetic. Either the Government are serious about tackling electoral fraud or they are not. There is an opportunity to improve the Bill, and I should like the Government to take that on board.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I have followed the Bill's progress from some distance, but my interest in Northern Ireland is well known, as the Minister is aware. Following the excellent speeches made by some of my hon. Friends, will my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) speculate in greater detail about why the Government are resisting what are clearly sensible amendments? My hon. Friend makes it amply clear that the proposals are supported by all the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, so why are the Government resisting good sense and good policy?

Mr. Rosindell: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Government have yet again shown that in certain instances when dealing with issues relating to a part of our kingdom, Northern Ireland, they appease rather than take the action necessary to get a grip on the situation and ensure that democracy prevails against those who have turned to, and continue to employ, solutions that are outwith the democratic arena.

Although it is important that sensitive information is not disclosed unnecessarily, it is a typically public sector approach to admit that the technology to prevent that is achievable but to discount its use because of artificially imposed deadlines. I have read that in other reports. If something is likely to strengthen a measure, it is worth ensuring that it is included and delivered on time. It is typical of the Government's haphazard approach that they dismiss potentially useful ideas because they would be difficult or inconvenient to implement.

It has taken some time to produce the Bill. I am astonished that it has taken the Government so long, but judging by comments made earlier in the debate, it appears likely that it will take even longer to be implemented—yet another example of the Government's appeasement. The Government are being hypocritical: it is hardly credible to use as an excuse lack of time or the fact that people might not know their own social security or national insurance number. Few complain of not knowing their national insurance number when claiming benefits, so I do not understand why it should be such a problem when they want to vote.

There is no question but that the Bill will enable significant headway to be made. That is welcome. However, I urge the House to support the Opposition amendment to include national insurance numbers as additional identification markers for electors registering in Northern Ireland. I see no good reason why any of the obstacles that the Government claim exist should prevent the use of national insurance numbers in the electoral registration process.

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Of course it will take time to construct a workable system, but in the long term the ability to cross-check national insurance numbers against those registering to vote—and later, if necessary, those voting—will provide an extra layer of security against electoral fraud. Simply giving dates of birth and signatures may prove to be insufficient to stop those who are determined to get around the system. National insurance numbers might not make the system foolproof, but they are unique pieces of information, specific to individuals, that are too valuable to ignore. I commend the amendment to the House.

Mr. Browne: If the few years that the Government took to consult widely on our proposals and to draft and introduce the Bill can be described as appeasement, I wonder what 18 years of refusal to address the problem can be called. Perhaps the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) can provide a suitable description before the end of the debate.

Amendment No. 1 requires electors to state their national insurance number, if they have one, on their annual canvass return. Amendment No. 2 terminates an elector's right to remain on the electoral register if they have a national insurance number but fail to provide it. We established in Committee that not everyone has a national insurance number, nor is everyone entitled to one. I acknowledge that the amendments are worded to get around that difficulty, but I remain concerned that they would disadvantage legitimate voters who simply do not know their national insurance number. Faced with the problem of finding out, people—especially the more vulnerable members of the community—might simply return their annual canvass form without including their number. Moreover, the amendments would impose an unnecessary administrative burden on the chief electoral officer, who would be required to check all those cases in which an annual canvass form was returned without a national insurance number to determine whether the elector actually had a number or was entitled to one.

Amendment No. 5 would require people to state their national insurance number, if they have one, when applying for an absent vote for either an indefinite period or a specific parliamentary election. It is possible, whether legitimately or not, to have more than one number. If someone gave a different national insurance number on their application for an absent vote from that which they had provided on registration, that would be a reason to deny them their vote, even if they held the two numbers legitimately. As I have said before, the chief electoral officer should be given as much useful information as possible to enable him to check absent vote applications against the information that an elector will be required to provide on registration, but the chief electoral officer does not consider that a requirement for electors to state their national insurance number on registration or on their application for an absent vote would be of any additional value to him if he is already able to check the signature and date of birth of electors against his records.

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