Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.15 pm

Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 6 will require a person who applies to register in respect of an address in Northern Ireland to give his or her national insurance number or to make a statement that he or she does not have one. That deals with the point about numbers raised by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling).

Lady Hermon: An inconsistency has been thrown up by the Lords amendments. The Minister will recall that in Committee we had a lengthy debate about the fact that the chief electoral officer may dispense with a person's signature that will be required on the register of voters if that person is incapacitated or is unable to read. Will the Minister explain how a person who is incapacitated or is unable to read is expected to make the statement that he does not have a national insurance number?

Mr. Browne: The provisions in the registration process that take account of a person's disability will apply across the board. They are not restricted to the provision of any particular information.

In response to a point that the hon. Lady raised earlier, I am able to tell her that when people complete the electoral registration form, they will be invited to indicate their sex by using a prefix to their name. They can use Mr., Mrs., Miss or whatever, and that will also assist the chief electoral officer and the Department for Work and Pensions to establish the sex of a person who has had a national insurance number allocated to them. It may be

15 Apr 2002 : Column 390

possible administratively to check the veracity of a national insurance number without actually seeing the person using it.

Lady Hermon: I am grateful to the Minister for being so patient. Will he refer me specifically to the provision in the new clause that applies across the board and allows a person, on the basis of incapacity or being unable to read, to dispense with the requirement to make a statement that he or she does not have a national insurance number?

Mr. Browne: I am not suggesting to the hon. Lady that she will find such a provision in the Bill. My understanding is that people who cannot make such a statement will be able to have a statement made on their behalf. The form accommodates such a situation. The general provision will apply to anything that is asked for by the registration form. The registration process recognises that some people cannot read or write or that some people have a disability that means they cannot fill in the form themselves. Because of that recognition, the registration process contains a provision that allows information to be communicated to the chief electoral officer on behalf of such people; otherwise they would not get on to the electoral register in the first place. I am saying that the provision applies to any information that we seek to obtain, and that includes whether people have a national insurance number.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry): Will the Minister elaborate on what will happen if an inordinately high number of applicants claim that they do not have a national insurance number? What provisions are there to deal with such circumstances?

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman anticipates circumstances with which the Bill, as amended in the other place, already deals. The chief electoral officer has the power to check with the Department for Work and Pensions whether the information that people give is correct. Obviously if there is a disproportionate response from people suggesting that they do not have a national insurance number—we do not have a figure for those who might do that, but we do not think it will be that many—alarm bells will ring with the chief electoral officer. The necessary checks will therefore be made. If there are clusters of such claims, the chief electoral officer's attention will be drawn to the geographical areas where they occur.

Mr. Swire: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way once more on the thorny subject of national insurance numbers. Will he confirm whether more national insurance numbers are in circulation than there are people on the electoral roll in the United Kingdom? If that is the case, would not this be an ideal time to revisit—to use his own word—all those who hold national insurance numbers to find out whether they are the right people in the first place?

Mr. Browne: Thankfully, I do not have ministerial responsibility for revisiting all those who hold national insurance numbers. That would not be an appropriate use of Government money or a priority for us in the circumstances. I am unable to confirm the hon. Gentleman's assertion—I do not know whether he is

15 Apr 2002 : Column 391

correct—but my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions work assiduously to check such information. I do not suggest that they do so weekly, but I understand that computerised trawls are carried out weekly to check that the national insurance numbers in existence relate properly to the people to whom they appear to relate. I understand that the Department for Work and Pensions undertakes significant work on that issue and that the position is improving.

I do not seek to blame the pre-1997 Government, but the hon. Gentleman will know—he seems to know something of the background—that the Government inherited a complex system of national insurance numbers, not to mention one of some difficulty. A significant number of national insurance numbers were then in circulation that ought not to have been. He will know that this is a UK-wide database and that it has not been easy to address that challenge because of the numbers involved. I am sure he will want to pay tribute to the work that my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions are doing in that regard, but I am not sure that suggesting at the Dispatch Box that it is time to address everyone who holds a national insurance number would necessarily help. I have significant faith in my colleagues in that Department to say that they will sort out the problems that they inherited, which have built up over decades.

Lady Hermon rose

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) rose

Mr. Browne: I shall give way to the hon. Lady in a moment, but I first give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is the only hon. Member present who has not yet intervened.

Mr. Dodds: I am grateful to the Minister for his patience in taking so many interventions. I should like to raise the issue of the officials in the Department for Work and Pensions. I note that provision is made in the amendments to authorise the relevant authority to charge fees to the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland. Clearly, a deal of extra work will be involved. What is the extent of the extra costs that might be involved? Where will the money come from to allow the chief electoral officer to cover those extra costs?

Mr. Browne: The answer to the second question is, of course, that the money will come from the Government. It will come from the taxpayer, through the Government, to the chief electoral officer. I am sure that no hon. Member will oppose that expenditure if it improves the honesty and accuracy of the democratic process in Northern Ireland. Given that the provision is a natural consequence of proposals that all parties have urged on the Government, I am certain that no one will complain about money having to be spent in this area of public expenditure, but at this stage I am unable to give the hon. Gentleman details about how much the proposal is likely to cost.

I seek to do two things in relation to planning and logistics for implementing the Bill. One of them is to meet the deadline of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 2003. Things will have to progress in parallel because of that, so I cannot wait until all the details are known

15 Apr 2002 : Column 392

exactly. However, the details are being worked out with the Department for Work and Pensions at present. My officials will be meeting DWP officials in Leeds tomorrow to discuss the issues.

Estimates will have to be made and I undertake to get in touch with the hon. Gentleman's party—if not the hon. Gentleman himself—about the progress of the implementation of the provisions. There will be further opportunities for him to raise the issues, and I shall be happy to give him up-to-date briefings on not only the implementation of the Bill but also its costs and logistical consequences.

I was referring to amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 6, which require a person applying to register in respect of an address in Northern Ireland to give his or her national insurance number, or to make a statement that they do not have one.

I think that the point made by the hon. Member for North Down arose from the fact that the Bill includes a provision to excuse people who cannot read or write from giving a signature. That was necessary because we realise that the Bill would require people to exercise a skill that not everyone has. However, that is not related to the completion of the form. As the hon. Lady knows, most such forms are completed by householders. They can also be completed by canvass. Canvassers from the chief electoral officer go to every house in Northern Ireland, so it is in order for another person to fill in the information for someone who wants to register.

As well as requiring national insurance numbers, the amendments will require an applicant to make a statement that he or she has been resident in Northern Ireland for the requisite three-month period before the date of their application. That provision reflects existing law in Northern Ireland, which requires the collection of such information. I shall return to that point later, but I should like to make some progress lest the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) suggest that I orchestrated interventions in order to keep the debate going.

Hon. Members will no doubt recall that I wrote to inform them that we intended to give the chief electoral officer the power by regulation to ask applicants to the register whether they were registered at another address in the UK. When drafting the amendments to allow for the use of national insurance numbers, I decided to include in primary legislation a requirement to declare multiple registration on applications for registration. The amendments thus require anyone applying to the register in respect of an address in Northern Ireland to state any other address in the United Kingdom in respect of which he or she is, or has applied to be, registered. Amendment No. 14, which I will discuss in more detail later, makes it an offence to provide false information pursuant to that requirement.

Next Section

IndexHome Page