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Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): Pursuant to the point regarding a disagreement between the registration officer and the person applying for a vote, be it physical or postal, may I draw the Minister's attention to amendment No. 4? It provides that someone's name be removed from the register if
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. As I stand before him, I do not have the specific answer, although my instincts suggest that a provision in other legislation allows a person who has been denied to register an appeal. Relying on my professional experienceas a solicitor, not as a politicianI suspect that in Scotland the application is made to the sheriff court, but I am not sure. I hope to be able to give him the answer to that question before the debate is out, although I think that what he seeks is in other legislation, if not in the Bill.
Mr. McGrady: I thank the Minister and I understand his position, but will he confirm that the electoral court tradition, which comes into play when a new register is established, will continue and that such a court will be the forum in which disputes are ironed out or concluded?
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall write to him on the detail of the provisions, but I assure him that if someone is denied registration for any reason, not just those relevant to the Bill, they will be able to appeal to the courts, rather than an electoral court, to be included. There is a right to apply to the court, and obviously the judge would exercise the function in relation to electoral law. I assure my hon. Friend that people will not be denied the right to register without the right of appeal.
Had we not addressed the issues identified as problems in relation to including national insurance numbers, the provisions would have had a number of unhelpful and inappropriate consequences. For example, it would not be possible for the small number of people who do not have a national insurance number for national insurance or benefit purposes to be allocated one so that they may register to vote. That had to be accommodated.
When I met the Information Commissioner, she made it clear that the employment of the national insurance number in the electoral registration process in Northern Ireland must be put on a clear statutory basis in order for it not to breach the requirements of the Data Protection Act 1998. That is another potential consequence of using national insurance numbers, about which I was concerned.
Mr. Browne: I do not have any such estimate, but, given the way in which the Bill is drafted, it is not necessary for my Department to make an estimate. In years to come, once these provisions are in force, there will be a database of those who are of voting age, but at the moment there is no such database that one can refer to for the information that the hon. Gentleman seeks.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): Surely one of the fundamental ways to make this legislation work will be to know how many national insurance numbers there are now, so that if any attempt is made to use the new system fraudulently we will get a sense of whether something is amiss.
Mr. Browne: When the hon. Gentleman considers how the system will work in detail, he will appreciate that it is designed to work in the context of other provisions in other parts of the Bill. A database will be built up over the years under the control of the chief electoral officer, which will allow him to check whether anything is amiss as the years go on. These provisions are not intended to cause everyone's national insurance number to be checked with the Department for Work and Pensions.
Those who understand the construct and the architecture of the Bill will realise that the principal purpose of checking national insurance numbers is to prevent fraud in the exercise of absent voting. The principal way in which the Bill will prevent impersonation will be by photographic identification. Although national insurance numbers will have some merit in relation to all those who register, they will be of most use as a further check on the identity of those people who want to exercise an absent vote.
It is not of great importance to the working of the system as a whole to know how many national insurance numbers there are in Northern Ireland as a proportion of those who qualify to have a national insurance number. I do not think that that would be a particularly helpful check. Attention will be concentrated on the national insurance numbers of a comparatively small number of people, and that will greatly help the chief electoral officer to check their identity. Everyone could have a national insurance number, but not everyone in Northern Ireland qualifies for an absent vote. The provisions on absent votes in Northern Ireland are different from those that apply in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Lady Hermon: Will the Minister clarify an issue that has been raised in the amendments from the other place but is not self-explanatory? The new clause in amendment No. 13 would allow the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland to request from the relevant authority
Mr. Browne: The hon. Lady asks a question that could be asked about any aspect of these provisions. Why is it relevant to ask the date of birth of a voter? Why is it relevant to ask voters to say whether they are registered at another place? Why is it relevant to ask a voter to apply his or her signature to the forms so that it can be checked? Why is relevant to ask for a voter's national insurance number?
We are seeking to obtain information on voters that allows the chief electoral officer, on a proportionate basis, to be as sure as he can ever be that the person who chooses to exercise an absent vote is the person who is entitled to that absent vote. Part of that process is to allow the chief electoral officer the power to check with the Department for Work and Pensions that the person who seeks to use that national insurance number to register under that name at that address is the person who is entitled to use that national insurance number.
What are the distinguishing features of an individual other than being able to tie a number to their personal appearance? They are the person's address, sex and date of birth. Those are the distinguishing features that the chief electoral officer is able to check. Some names can be spelled differently, and parents are increasingly imaginative in their adoption of names for their children. Recently in my constituency a child was named after a Spanish Harlem black rap singer. I could not tell whether that name, which was imported from north America, was associated with a man or woman or with a male or female child. Many children's names can be used for males and femalesKerry, for example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) says from a sedentary position. I am sure that there will be many such names. It is helpful to establish those three or four items of identificationnot in a discriminatory wayto check that the particular national insurance number is being used by the right person.
Lady Hermon: I am impatient by nature, so I apologise for trying to intervene on the Minister earlier. My point was that we are talking about the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill which, for the first time, introduces new identifiers to the electoral registera signature and a date of birth; obviously, the name of the voter was required by previous legislation. In terms of consistency with the personal identifiers to which new clause 6 refers, it seems extraordinary that, having referred to the signature, national insurance number, date of birth and address, the sex of a person should also suddenly be required from the relevant authority.
Mr. Browne: I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. Her contributions have often been helpful, and occasionally in her interventions she has pointed out areas in which changes have needed to be made. I am grateful to her for that, and I treat her contributions seriously. Her intervention requires a response, but that
The Information Commissioner, for whose assistance and help I am very grateful, pointed out to me and the Government that there was a need to keep the use of national insurance numbers in this new context under review. I suggested that the Government would do that, for no other reason than that developments in electronic voting may, in future, offer an alternative solution to the problem of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland, which will allow us to reduce some of the provisions in the Bill and make them more manageable. It is in all our interests, and in the interests of the Northern Ireland electorate, that we keep pace with these developments and consider their potential in the Northern Ireland context.
I explicitly acknowledge that the first group of Lords amendments enabling national insurance numbers to be used in the electoral process in Northern Ireland reflects a change in Government policy, but I hope that hon. Members will welcome the amendments as a positive response to their concerns and requests. Hon. Members will realise from the length of the amendments that there is no quick-fix solution that will allow for the use of national insurance numbers.