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Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend reminds me that the overwhelming majority of councils in Wales are run by Labour, and they are the local education authorities. The hon. Gentleman ought to be somewhat careful. Of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will not want mehowever tempted I am, and however much I should enjoy itto be diverted from the thrust of my remarks and into a subsidiary debate about the appalling quality of education in Wales, delivered by appalling Labour councils. You would not want me to do that, and I shall not submit to the temptation.
The point I was making before the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) was so very helpful to me was that whereas it is a matter for an individual to have and to take responsibility for registering to vote, the opposite side of the coin is that it is the responsibility of the electoral registration authorities to do all they can and should do to verify that persons are who they say they are and are entitled to vote. I am not yet convinced that any of the mechanisms in the Bill, or indeed in the new clauses and amendments, go far enough in that direction. I should have thought that the national insurance number was probably the very least we could ask for. I should rather like some photographic identification to be given, such as the horrible new-style driving licences or the horrible European Community passports we are now all obliged to carry. There are a whole number of ways in which this could be pushed forward to send out the message that we want to ensure that someone who is claiming to be eligible to vote in elections in this country is who he or she says and is entitled to cast a vote. I see none of that, sadly, in the Bill.
We shall, I suppose, have to support the new clauses and amendments that take us a small way in that direction. Such is the nature of things. I did ask my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) earlier, when looking at amendment No. 17, what reassurance we have when someone applies and provides a signature and date of birth but says they do not have a national insurance number. I am not entirely sure he gave me an answer, so I shall give him the chance to have another go if he wants. Is there to be nothing else? Presumably in that case we are going simply to trust the date of birth and the signature, and not require any alternative to the national insurance number. That strikes me as taking us not very much further forward. My hon. Friend seemed to think that that provided some sort of assurance, but it almost writes a loophole into the amendment.
If my right hon. Friend looks again at amendment No. 17, he will see it appears to make it
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incumbent on the person who claims not to have a national insurance number to make a statement in those terms. Would that person not therefore be committing an offence by making a false statement with the sole purpose of securing a vote?
Mr. Forth: My right hon. Friend is an eminent lawyer, so he must be right on that point, but I am not sure about the follow-up. We have to try to provide mechanisms that at least make it relatively easy and secure for the electoral registration authorities to provide the follow-up to which my right hon. Friend refers. I cannot see that that would necessarily be the case as matters stand. The mere statement that one does not have a national insurance number is not robust enough to allow the authorities to follow up in the way that he and I would like.
John Bercow: It was common ground in our earlier exchanges that relatively few people do not have national insurance numbers, so surelyon the balance of probabilityin many cases when people say that they do not have such a number they really mean that they do not have it with them or they cannot remember it. Should it not be incumbent on that individualas opposed to being incumbent merely on the authorityto check the veracity of that statement?
Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend is correct. We need to make a distinction between the point at which an application is made to be included in the register and the point at which the voter turns up to vote at the polling station or seeks to use a postal vote, which is now all too freely and readily available. In either case, it is not asking too much for someone to provide their national insurance number. If people are employees, if they pay tax or if they claim benefits, their national insurance numbers are readily and freely available to them. I cannot believe that a significant number of people would find it difficult or impossible to produce that number.
Chris Ruane: I have no wish to know the right hon. Gentleman's national insurance number. I hope that he will get the problem in perspective. The response to a question that I tabled about the number of offences at parliamentary and local government elections in the past 10 years revealed that there had been no parliamentary election postal ballot fraud offences and only one or two in local government elections. While every case of postal ballot fraud is serious, the greater crime is the 3.5 million to 4 million people missing from the electoral register.
The hon. Gentleman gives the answer to his own question, however inadvertently. The fact that we do not have prosecutions reveals the fact that the present system is so porous, so full of loopholes, so weak and so vulnerable that the authorities do not have the
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ability, the power or the mechanisms to discover where the fraud is occurring or who is on the register who should not be.
Mr. Forth: Indeed, and one can only guess why that is the case and what the motivation is at Government or local authority level. There is now widespread recognition that postal ballot fraud is a serious problem and that it has to be gripped. Labour Members, and even Ministers, who say that we would far rather have lots of people on the register who should not be there just in case the odd person has been incapable of ensuringor too idle to ensurethat their vote is registered have got things completely the wrong way round. In my view, we should welcome those on the register who really want to vote, but we should ensure that people are not on the register if they are not entitled to vote.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I apologise for not hearing the beginning of the right hon. Gentleman's speech, but I was at another meeting in the House. I come from a part of the United Kingdom that already uses national insurance numbers as part of the identification process and we have had no problem with it. We have higher unemployment rates in Northern Ireland and probably more people trying to hide their identities, but there has been no difficulty. Not one person has ever raised the issue with me.
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was about to come on to Northern Ireland so his intervention is timely. The clue is probably that the quality of education in Northern Ireland is almost certainly much better than it is in the rest of the United Kingdom, which would go a long way to explain why the excellent citizens of Northern Ireland are not only capable of understanding what is required of them but are also willing to provide the information. They regard voting as important, and are well educated and able to use their vote responsibly.
That leads us to a simple point that has been made several times, but which bears repetition: if the safeguards envisaged in the new clauses and amendments can be implemented in Northern Ireland, as the hon. Gentleman has just verified, why on earth do we think that we are so weak and incapable in the rest of the United Kingdom that we cannot do the same thing? That leads me right back to where I came in. I cannot help getting the feeling that the Minister is trying to hide behind the pilots to ensure that the whole system is protracted and excuses can be made to demonstrate how difficult it is. The process can be delayed, ideally, beyond the next election andwho knows?beyond the one after that if Labour happens by some mischance still to be in government. We must try to move things on, demonstrate that we are taking the matter seriously and
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get something on to the statute book that challenges individuals to register and authorities to ensure that those who should be are on the register and that those who should not be are not. That should not be beyond the wit of man; it seems, sadly, to be beyond the wit of the Government.
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