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Chris Ruane: I have made constructive proposals. In Committee, I gave specific examples of funding by the 22 local authorities in Wales and produced a league table of those that funded well and those that did not. Of the 11 in the lower half of the table, seven had poor registration rates. Funding is a key point. It needs to be increased and monitored carefully. If a county council does not put proper funding in place, its registration should be hived off to a neighbouring county council with a better success rate.

Mr. Heald: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there has not been active canvassing and data matching and other methods that are needed if we want to capture the true electorate on the register? We should be able to make common cause about that. He will remember that, last time we discussed this, I gave the House all sorts of examples of people with the most unlikely names on the electoral register, including anagrams of "a bogus voter". Surely he cannot want that to continue. Does he recognise that the only way to tackle this properly is to have an objective register against which one tests the names as they come in, and that the national insurance numbers register is the best thing that we have for that purpose? People know their national insurance numbers. In Northern Ireland, 92 per cent. of people know them. The people who know their national insurance numbers best are often those who are the most vulnerable, because they are in need of the state's help to access health care and claim benefits. Their national insurance numbers are a passport to those benefits.

Chris Ruane: There are examples of consensus between the hon. Gentleman and me. He mentioned the importance of data sharing in local authorities. I entirely concur. I have written to 360 Labour Members with a letter from the Lord Chancellor saying that local authorities now have the right to consult databases. I have received replies from about 150. Many electoral registration officers are not implementing the new rules whereby they can cross-reference data. This is a key area on which we can agree and make progress. EROs must consult all the databases that they are responsible for to ensure that we have a full register.

Is putting further blocks on registration a politically inspired position? How many Conservative MPs would like people in council houses, black and ethnic minorities, or low-paid and minimum wage people to be on the register—
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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. This is very lengthy for an intervention.

Mr. Heald: If the hon. Gentleman did me credit, he would accept that, throughout these proceedings, I have made it clear that all that we are interested in is ensuring that the people who are entitled to be on the register are on it. As a party, we have campaigned for that for some years now. Our former hon. Friend, Marion Roe, had a well-informed debate about it in Westminster Hall in May 2004, in which she set out the information that she had gained about just how inaccurate registers were. She gave examples of cases where literally thousands of people who should not have been on the register were on it and of EROs who had undertaken clean-up exercises and had to remove 6,000 people from the register who were not entitled to be on it. Judges have said that our system is wide open to fraud like that of a banana republic and that the Government have their head in the sand. In those circumstances, Parliament cannot ignore the problem, especially as we have always taken great pride in our democracy.

Mr. Forth: Perhaps my hon. Friend will explain the matter later in his remarks, but I am puzzled by amendment No. 17, which he tabled. It would provide for the application to include

What assurance can we have of the system's safety if someone could provide a signature, presumably without much verification, a date of birth—I do not know how we verify that—and then had the gall to say, "I don't have a national insurance number"? What kind of assurance does that give me as a citizen that that person is entitled to vote?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): Holed below the water line.

Mr. Heald: No. My right hon. Friend makes the fair point that we must have arrangements to deal with individuals without national insurance numbers, because there are some in our society. We propose that, in those circumstances, a statement should be made that the person does not have a national insurance number—that is what happens in Northern Ireland—but we also support clauses and amendments that give the electoral registration officer an active duty to ensure that the people on the register are those who are entitled to vote. I would therefore expect further checks to be made. To be fair to the Minister, some of the provisions that are already in the Bill strengthen the electoral registration officer's powers to make such inquiries. My right hon. Friend, as usual, makes a fair point, but I believe that it is addressed by a combination of the Bill, our amendments and the new clauses, which we shall consider later.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the arguments that Labour Members have presented against using a national insurance number are largely unfounded? There is no stigma when one gives one's national insurance number. It is not like, for example, being asked to give fingerprints, which is normally associated with criminal activity.
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Will my hon. Friend address my anxiety about a point that a Labour Member raised earlier? Some electoral registration officers behave in an autocratic and high-handed manner. If an officer decides that it has always been done his way in the past and will always be done his way in the future, what sanctions will apply if he does not follow the guidance in the Bill?

Mr. Heald: On the second issue, the Government have tabled amendments to require EROs to provide the necessary information to the proposed central online register of electors. That was previously only a discretionary power in the Bill, so the measure has been strengthened. My right hon. Friend is right that EROs need proper performance standards and to behave according to the highest standards that can be achieved. Again, the Bill overall will improve the position, but we should not be complacent.

Government is supposed to be joined up and seamless and we hear endless remarks to that effect. Yet the Northern Ireland Office has said that the use of national insurance numbers is essential to enhancing the accuracy of and confidence in the electoral register. Would a Minister care to reflect on that? Is it successful government for one Department to say, "Oh no. National insurance numbers—surely not", when another Department claims that they are central to enhancing the accuracy of and confidence in the electoral register? The two viewpoints are opposed.

2.45 pm

The Government should join themselves up and the Department should reach the same conclusion as the Northern Ireland Office because it began with the same ill-conceived argument as the Minister. It claimed that national insurance numbers would be a barrier to registration and that such a system would not work. Only constant pressing and probing and the persuasive powers of my noble Friend Lord Glentoran meant that the proposals were accepted. Lord Glentoran persuaded Lord Williams of Mostyn, who was then the relevant Minister, that national insurance numbers were the only practical way of providing an objective database against which one could check the names. That is now law and it has worked. Ministers should learn from that experience rather than reinventing the wheel.

Angela Watkinson: Does my hon. Friend agree that using national insurance numbers and data sharing between local authorities would help to overcome not only the problem of people who are entitled to vote not being on the electoral register but of those who live in more than one place voting twice in general elections? The latter is especially applicable to students who are registered in their university town where they live temporarily and in their home town where they have been brought up. There is an opportunity to vote twice in general elections and no easy way of tracking that and ensuring that it does not happen.

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We support the central online register of electors. It will make it much easier to ensure that there is no duplication or the possibility or risk of it, and enable checking to occur.
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Both dates of birth and signatures have flaws as personal identifiers. There is no central electronic database against which one can check a person's date of birth. Perhaps the Minister will say that one is planned or imminent but, as far as I know, it is not possible to check a date of birth and it is difficult to check the accuracy of signatures. In Northern Ireland, people are trying to check signatures by electronic means. However, the national insurance number has an objective, separate database against which information can be checked.

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