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Mr. Nicholas Winterton: I have immense respect for the Minister, who is, from time to time, very amusing. Will he state how an individual can legitimately have two national insurance numbers? I might have misheard him, but I think that that is what he just said. Will he explain?
Lembit Öpik: The Minister gave the same explanation in Committee, and I have no reason to doubt its accuracy. However, is he going to list a series of practical problems as the Government's justification for not accepting national insurance numbers as a form of identification? If he is, does he not accept that those are points of detail and that we are in fact discussing an extremely important strategic opportunity to identify each potential voter using what is, for the overwhelming majority of people, a unique identifying number?
Mr. Browne: My concern, which I expressed repeatedly in Committee, is that we may inadvertently disfranchise people because of changes in the rules that we make. We had to strike a balance between interdicting fraud and not placing unnecessary obstacles in the way of legitimate voters, and identify where in the use of national insurance numbers such difficulties might be found. However, I am consciousthis was forcefully pointed out to me in Committee and on more than one occasion todaythat all the Northern Ireland political parties represented in the Committee and in the Chamber today are as one on the issue. Mindful of that pressure and consistent with my approach throughout proceedings on the Bill, I have put a number of options to the test again, including data protection aspects, which are not minor, to see if the national insurance number can be used for electoral purposes in a way that does not disfranchise legitimate voters. However, as presently advised, I am not satisfied that they can; until I am, I have no alternative but to resist the amendments.
First, I want to take up the Minister's point that the previous Government did nothing for 18 years. If that had been the case, there would not be a need for consolidation of the legislation now. There are so many different pieces of legislation floating round the system, which, from memory, were introduced in 1983, 1985 and 1989 to try to address the issue of identification in polling stations and elsewhere in piecemeal stages, that there is now a desperate need to consolidate them. The Minister knows well that that is the position of the chief electoral officer.
Of course, the Bill is welcome, but it only goes so far; on that issue, it could go much further to ensure that the register is, as far as possible, and given the limitations on the current national insurance system, beyond reproach. The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) amused the House with an account of attempting to find a person who qualified as someone who does not have a national insurance number. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) made it clear that there was no more reliable way of establishing an individual's identity. It was a joy to see the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) put the Minister through his paces and make him relive his past as a free-thinking member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Indeed, in attempting to reject the amendments, the
The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) made a noble effort to defend the Minister. He confessed that, in 1998, when he was a Committee member, he was naive to accept evidence given to the Committee. I have never thought of the hon. Gentleman as naive, and he was certainly not naive when he agreed with every other Committee member, from every party, in reaching his conclusion in 1998. That conclusion is still shared by all the other parties that have taken part in consultations on the process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) properly drew attention to the level of intimidation and the issue of a unique identifier. He said that if the chief electoral officer were furnished with the right resources, there is no reason why national insurance numbers cannot be introduced. I wonder what advice the Minister has received from the Treasury. When he concluded his contribution, he said that he had received advice that led to his not being satisfied. He left it at that, leaving the House in the dark about the detail of advice that was so overwhelming that he could not accept the proposals.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) asked just how serious the Government are about the proposals. I must tell him that I take what the Minister is trying to achieve in the Bill at face value. It would be wrong of the House to impugn his general motives. However, why are the Government resisting the amendment? They should consider just who their allies are. There are none in the House, but my hon. Friend will see that, in its evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in 1998, Sinn Fein said:
Mr. McGrady: The hon. Gentleman and others have impugned the Government's intention as being in some way an appeasement of Sinn Fein and other groups. Has he any evidence whatever that that is the case? I, who reside in Northern Ireland, have no such evidence. It would be wrong to make such assertion if there was not a reasonable certainty of its validity.
Mr. Blunt: I hope that the hon. Gentleman listened carefully to what I said. I did not say that. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford used those terms, but I have taken some trouble to dissociate those on the Conservative Front Bench from that suggestion, and to make it clear that we take the Minister's intentions at face value. I am not suggesting that he is in league with Sinn Fein in his proposals. I am merely pointing out to the House that it so happens that on this issue he finds himself at one with Sinn Fein, which would no doubt resist the proposal. It is
Mr. Frank Field: Is not the truth of the matter that the Government are in league not with Sinn Fein, but with the Treasury, and that the Treasury has told the Government that the proposal is unworkable because the national insurance system is a shambles?
Mr. Blunt: Having listened to the Minister's arguments in Committee and on Report, it is almost impossible to resist agreeing with the right hon. Gentleman. The Treasury has been behind many inexplicable decisions, when Ministers have been forced to explain the unexplainable to the House and put the case to protect the Treasury. Given the weakness of the Minister's arguments in Committee and on Report, the right hon. Gentleman's explanation is the one that most appeals to me.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton: My hon. Friend is making an extremely good case. If the Government seek to justify the introduction of identity cards for the security of the state, and such an identity card could well include a national insurance number, why should not a national insurance number serve to safeguard the country's democracy?
Mr. Blunt: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's general point. We have yet to see the Government's proposals for identity cards for the security of the nation. My hon. Friend's point about the security of democracy is extremely important.
Lembit Öpik: On the suspicions directed at the Treasury, does the hon. Gentleman accept that however much of a mess the national insurance system might be, it is not a factor in the debate, because as long as someone could find his number, it could be entered and used in a database in Northern Ireland? The state of the national insurance system is probably not the explanation, but that makes the Minister's seeming intransigence on an eminently sensible idea even more confusing.
Mr. Blunt: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I am still attracted by the explanation from the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). The Government would have to admit that the entire national insurance system was in chaos. If it is in chaos, it is imperative that the Government sort it out. That is no argument against a cross-reference system to help protect against electoral fraud.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) suggested that the Government were putting the shutters up; that they had produced the Bill and were too inflexible to consider change during the proceedings. That is one explanation, which we have encountered too often in the House, when the Government have been defeated on the detail of the argument. In this case the Government have been defeated strategically and