Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt: I rise to reply to the Minister's contribution, having waited in anticipation for the detailed reasons that he was to adduce as to why national insurance numbers would present such a burden to the electorate so as to prevent numbers of them from registering. I waited and waited, but no evidence was presented.

The Minister suggested that the elderly might not be able to remember their numbers. There is no need for anyone to carry around in their mind their national insurance number in order to register. I understand that representatives of the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland will call on people's homes up to three times in order to complete the register. Only after that will people have to register on their own. They will be able to consult documents that they use every day, particularly if they are elderly and drawing a pension, on which their national insurance number will be present as an easy point of reference; and that is only if they are unable to receive the assistance of the representatives of the chief electoral officer.

Lembit Ipik: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, for the Minister's defence to hold water, it would be necessary to believe that the overwhelming majority of people canvassed would not be able to find a single piece of paper with their national insurance number on it? That seems unlikely, to say the least.

Mr. Blunt: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Actually, I find the debate extraordinary. I do not understand how the Minister has been able to come to his conclusion about where the balance lies. It is in contravention of all the available evidence.

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many people in our constituencies are not as adequate as those of us in this Room at dealing with electoral processes? A constituent who came to see me on Saturday failed to claim his pension because he had forgotten his date of birth. Any extra requirement will by its nature affect people who register to vote, and the balance is between that effect and having a clear register.

Mr. Blunt: It is a balance. However, let us remember that we are trying to draw it in Northern Ireland, where there is, in the words of the hon. Member for South Down, an organised, paramilitary process of systematic abuse. Therefore, the balance to be drawn in the constituencies in Northern Ireland is different from that which would be drawn in his constituency and in mine. That is why we are considering the matter.

The Minister's comments seemed slightly confused. When he was adducing evidence from the chief electoral officer about the quality of the register, he said that it compares well with other registers in Great Britain. Later in his remarks, he said, ``Of course, there is a problem in Northern Ireland, which is why we are bringing forward the measures.'' Which is it?

Mr. Browne: What is inconsistent about those two remarks? The information in relation to completeness and accuracy provided by the officer who is responsible for it is that it compares well with the rest of the United Kingdom but, equally, the Government recognise that there is a problem that must be addressed. Governments have recognised for many years that there is a problem in Northern Ireland, which is why we make different requirements of people in Northern Ireland when they come to vote. What is inconsistent about saying that we have an accurate register that is assessed by the chief electoral register, but that there are problems?

Mr. Blunt: I happily accept that there are problems. However, if the register were as accurate as other registers in Britain and if everything were hunky dory in Northern Ireland and we were not dealing with all issues—

Mr. Barnes: The indications are that the registers in Northern Ireland are more accurate than those in Britain. We are discussing the problem of fraud but because of canvassing, more people get themselves on to registers in Northern Ireland as a percentage of the eligible population than in Britain. The information on that is readily available.

Mr. Blunt: That is a separate issue to the one that we are considering of people who illegitimately get themselves on to registers, effectively stealing votes from people who are legally exercising their rights. That is the concern to which the Committee must address itself. It is a different issue to that of whether the number of people registered in Northern Ireland equates to the number registered in my or another Member's constituency. We are talking about the potential for illegal or additional registration in Northern Ireland. The trouble is that when one conducts tests on a register, illegal registration is detected and those people do not then appear on it. Therefore, the figures should be treated with some scepticism. There is at present in Northern Ireland a paramilitary force that is determined, through systematic organisation, to gain as much advantage as it can, through legal and illegal means.

Mr. Barnes: I rather object to the view that Labour Members are not trying to tackle the problem of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. The Bill is a Government Bill. It is based largely on the Select Committee report. Many people have been dedicated in trying to change the measure. The electoral returning officer who gave evidence to the Select Committee pointed out that illegal registration is not the major area of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. The principal problem is that of people who do not normally vote, but who are legitimately on the register having their vote pinched by others.

Mr. Blunt: That attends to issues that we will discuss later about absent votes and the ability to cross-check information such as dates of birth and national insurance numbers. I am grateful for the Minister's indication that he is prepared to move at least one stage further in terms of absent votes. However, while absent votes may be the area of greatest abuse of the Northern Ireland electoral system, we must come back to our duty to have a register that is as accurate as possible. The Minister was unable to produce even remotely convincing arguments that if people had to put their national insurance number on the registration form, several people who should be registered would cease to be so. How the Minister is able to draw the balance that he did therefore escapes me.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman is labouring the point. He surely would not wish to enact any measure to combat fraud that denied people their legitimate right to vote. He says that the Minister has not produced any evidence, but the Minister has at least produced some doubt and if there is doubt then the measure should not proceed.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is extremely odd to draw the balance in that way, saying that if the least element of doubt or the slightest difficulty were put in the way of electors, such as having to remember their name or to write their name on a form, they would not be registered.

There is a duty on voters to register. In Great Britain the householder has a duty to complete the form and to do so accurately. If it is not accurate he has committed an offence. Filling in the form is therefore something of a burden on the householder. Is the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) seriously suggesting that because it is a tiny burden it should not be done? In that case, the hon. Gentleman and I part company. In order to protect the interests of the honest, legally registered voters in Northern Ireland, there needs to be a duty on them to ensure that they register properly and that their vote is not stolen or devalued by others who seek illegally to abuse the process.

The Minister is right: we are trying to decide where to draw the line and what information it is appropriate to ask electors to provide in order to compile an accurate register. He adduced Mr. Bradley's evidence

to the Select Committee. The hon. Member for Belfast, East produced the evidence quicker than I did to make it clear why Opposition Members are convinced that the balance lies with including national insurance numbers. It is, as Mr. Bradley said in his evidence, ``a very easy matter'' to run a search through the computer database and to check a national insurance number and date of birth against the name of a registered elector. That would solve the problem.

It is easy to run a search. It cannot be done on the signature that has to appear on the new registration forms. If we want to make it easy to check, as far as we can ascertain, that the register is accurate and in order, and if the Minister has not convinced the Committee, as he has not convinced me, that sufficient burdens are placed on electors already without their having to provide national insurance numbers, surely he should accept the amendment.

Mr. McGrady: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the primary purpose of including national insurance numbers in registration is not to help or hinder registration but to have a counter check when postal votes are applied for and people apply to vote in person at polling stations?

Mr. Blunt: My first point of departure about the register is that it must be as accurate as possible. To require the national insurance number on the registration document as a form of identification would allow the chief electoral officer to check it against another national database. As the Minister pointed out, there are already provisions for him to check the name against Housing Corporation records and the records of other state bodies. Everyone has a national insurance number and some of the records currently being checked are not comprehensive. Undertaking checks would be much easier.

The other amendments in the group would require the additional question, ``What is your national insurance number?'' to be asked in the polling station. I came into the Committee with an open mind about whether that was a reasonable question to ask electors in the polling station. In the light of the debate, I now believe that it is fair for the Government to point out that it will not be possible for people to remember their national insurance number in the polling station. However, if photographic identification is required, it will go a long way towards addressing the problem of personation. Other amendments in the group take account of hon. Members' remaining concerns about national insurance numbers.

Under new clause 5, people would have to sign when they received a ballot paper and there would thus be a cross-check between the signature on the registration form and the person who claims the ballot paper. That would address the personation issue because people would know that the person turning up at the polling station to claim the ballot paper could be cross-checked against the person on the registration form. That would be 100 per cent. comprehensive. Therefore, I do not think that subsequent questions about national insurance numbers, if people have satisfactorily produced photographic identification, are necessary—

It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Hood, Mr Jimmy (Chairman)
Barnes, Mr.
Browne, Mr.
Blunt, Mr.
Farrelly, Paul
Hayes, Mr.
Hermon, Lady
McGrady, Mr.
McIsaac, Shona
Merron, Gillian
Munn, Ms
Öpik, Lembit
Purnell, James
Robertson, Hugh
Robinson, Mr. Peter
Salter, Mr.
Stringer, Mr.
Turner, Mr. Andrew

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Prepared 16 October 2001