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Mr. Beith: An answer to the Minister's first question is that if people do not provide a signature, they will not get a postal vote. As the greatest concern about fraud relates to postal voting, the proposal would address that specific problem, although it would not deal with wider security problems that must be addressed in other ways.
We are examining fraud in postal vote applications. I accept that one has to sign for a postal vote application. However, at the time at which people filled in the form to go on to the electoral register, they might not want a postal vote. They might decide later that they want such a vote. We would be introducing a further hurdle at a late stage if we said to people, "Sorry, you can't get a postal vote because you didn't sign the form when you filled it in because that was optional." I understand the logic behind the suggestion as a default position in opposition to pilots, but it would send a slightly mixed message. I have already mentioned the excellent contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley, who said that we were right to be cautious. She used the experience of her own electoral registration officer, just as I used the experience of my ERO, to demonstrate that there is no consensus.
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My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) spoke about the problem of using national insurance numbers as well as serious practical issues. If individual forms are sent to houses in multiple occupation on the basis of how many people lived at the address in previous years, the number of forms delivered could far exceed the number of residents, which opens the door to more fraud.
As our debate has demonstrated, there is no consensus about the way in which we should proceed. Some people are highly sceptical about individual registration, predicting catastrophic drops, but others are in favour of it. However, there are differences among its supporters. The Liberal Democrats want individual registration to be rolled out across the country in one go, but they do not want national insurance numbers to be used. The Conservatives want individual registration, but they insist on the use of national insurance numbers. In the absence of consensus, the Government's approach is pragmatic and practical. On Second Reading, I said that the measure includes
"three interlocking principles: access to voting for all who are entitled, participation by all who wish to participate and fairness for all through zero tolerance of fraud and intimidation. None of those principles is optional.[Official Report, 25 October 2005; Vol. 438, c. 268.]
My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State referred to those principles as the three legs of a stool. Our concerns about individual registration and national insurance numbers stem from the negative impact that could have on the first of those three legs.
Mr. Heath: I fear that the Minister may inadvertently have misrepresented our position. We have not said that we want individual registration to be rolled out across the country in one go. We want the Government's own personal identifier scheme to be rolled out across the country in one go, because that is a sine qua non for ensuring that postal voting at the next election is fraud-free.
As has been said, the Electoral Commission found that up to 3.5 million people in England and Wales and an unknown number in Scotland cannot vote in elections because they are not registered. Individual registration and the use of national insurance numbers could make that situation worse. There has been disagreement about the position in Northern Ireland, but when individual registration was introduced there, registration levels dropped. In one Belfast ward, registration dropped from an already low 41 per cent. to just 23 per cent. Some hon. Members argued that registration levels were 150 per cent. across the Province and dropped to 90 per cent., but that Belfast ward, albeit an extreme example, shows that there was a catastrophic drop from an already low starting base. However, individual registration has benefits for the security of postal voting, particularly through the collection of personal identifiers such as a signature and date of birth. We have therefore provided in the Bill for the collection of personal identifiers, but to test and evaluate their impact on registration levels we intend to proceed
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through a programme of pilots that we shall discuss in relation to a later group of amendments. Proceeding in that way will ensure that our approach is evidence-based and will prevent us from introducing policies that serve one leg of the stool to the detriment of another.
Amendments Nos. 18 and 20 seek to extend the full Northern Ireland individual registration system to Great Britain, including inter alia the use of national insurance numbers. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) drew the attention of the Committee to the Northern Ireland provision for three-month residency. That provision was introduced because it was feared that once an election was announced, residents of the Republic of Ireland might cross the border and register in constituencies in the north. Because Northern Ireland citizens can vote in UK elections they could then take part in such elections. There is probably consensus that that is unlikely to happen.[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire is shrugging his shoulders, but it would be far-fetched to believe that there were hordes of people in the Republic of Ireland waiting to come over here so that they can take part in our elections. That scenario, however, is dealt with in the amendment.
A controversial provision in amendment No. 18 deals with national insurance numbers. In Northern Ireland, national insurance numbers are used to share data with the Department for Work and Pensions. That process allows external confirmation of a person's identity and is useful in relation to security. It is possible, however, because Northern Ireland is relatively small1.1 million electorsand has a centrally held register.
By contrast, Great Britain has around 43 million electors and more than 400 locally held registers. The infrastructure is therefore simply not in place for the Northern Ireland-style use of national insurance numbers to be extended to Great Britain at this time. In that context, we believe that the collection of national insurance numbers would add nothing to security and simply deter people from registering to vote. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has pointed out, many people do not know their national insurance number, and we believe that they would not take the extra step of discovering it in order to register.
When we have the co-ordinated online record of electors, which we will discuss later in Committee, we could use a national insurance system in Great Britain as in Northern Ireland. The Bill allows for such a system to be added both in pilots and at roll-out at a later date via an affirmative order, and the provision is included in clause 14.
In short, amendments Nos. 18 and 20 would introduce a policy which, although it is not currently appropriate, could be of use in the future. However, since the Bill already provides for that possibility, and since the time is not right for its implementation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
I congratulate the Minister's civil servants on the lines of argument that they have managed to construct for him, because the case is shilly-shallying and pathetic, so constructing any argument at all was a major achievement. I shall give Ministers longer to consider the matter, because the issue is important. It is
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urgent that we tackle postal-voting fraud, and what has been suggested so far is not adequate. The pilots are completely unacceptable, and it is time Ministers came up with something betterthe Electoral Commission has come up with some ideas.
It is all well and good for the Minister to say, "Give way on important points", but what movement have we seen so far? The problem is urgent, and all Ministers have come up with are pathetic, potty, little pilots, which have already been tried out in a countryNorthern Ireland. It will not do, and we need something better from Ministers. We shall return to the subject, when we hope that Ministers will do better. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
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