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Mr. Redwood: I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) who has correctly drawn attention to the growing worries about the integrity of our electoral system. Like him, I was proud to grow up in a democratic country, with the mother of Parliaments, which in those days was sovereign over all matters relating to government in Britain and was elected on a universal franchise that had the confidence of the British people. It is a great sadness that we witness in election after election, to local and national government, growing fear and concernfrom those who run the electoral system, the independent people, as well as from some politicians and political partiesabout how accurate and complete the electoral register is.
Like the Government, I want everyone eligible to vote in my constituency to have the opportunity to register and when registered to have the opportunity to vote. No one on the Conservative Benches wants to deny bona fide British citizens their right to vote. We hold it as a great treasure and we want a system that allows us to continue to do so.
We do not think that our constituents are incapable of providing basic information to register to vote. We know that the Government expect them to provide an astonishing array of information to do practically everything else in our society, often under duress from the force of laws recently enacted by the Government. To comply with tax regulations, my constituents are expected to marshal huge amounts of information to return to the authorities on all their financial and savings transactions and their income. If I want to deposit a modest sum from my modest taxed income in a bank or building society, I have to take along my passport or driving licence, both of which contain a photograph of me, and a utility bill showing both who I am and where I live. If I do not have those bits of information, the bank or building society, under Government and European rules, can refuse to take my modest sum of money or can even say that I might be guilty of some offence because I may have come by the money through improper means. That is grossly over the top, but the Government who say that we must do that to deposit a small sum of money in a bank account that was legally set up with all the right information now tell the House that people need provide no additional information, apart from their name, to gain the extremely important privilege of voting.
That is another extremely good example, because the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), who has been running down the Welsh education system under both Governments, seems to imply that a large minority of his constituents
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are quite incapable of reading or filling in any form at all. They must therefore need all sorts of additional help to get any of the basic benefits that are available under this and previous Governments, or to comply with any of the tax and other rules that the Government have laid down.
Presumably, the hon. Gentleman largely supports the Government and believes that they have found ways around that, so that people can get assistance if their literacy is stretched to fill in the tax credit or pension credit forms, their tax returns or whatever they need to do to gain benefits and to avoid paying the taxes that they do not need to pay. Yet he now says that they are incapable of getting the same assistance to do something that is much easierproviding a national insurance number.
I am sure that if my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire asks me to vote for an amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats in due course because it is slightly better than the Government's proposal, I will loyally support him, but I am glad that we had the admission from the Liberal Democrats that their amendment does not amount to very much and will do very little to prevent the fraud that we now think is all too obvious in our electoral system, particularly surrounding postal votes.
It would give me greater pleasure to support the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshirethe only serious proposal that we have before us todayas it goes some way to tightening up the system. I am sure that he would agree that it would not be perfect, but it would be a lot better than the current system or than the very modest Liberal Democrat proposal. The need to supply a national insurance number will make people think twice. They would have to commit another fraud if they wished to carry on with a fraudulent request before voting. There also would be an opportunity to check against the national insurance number records and to check that, if they were lying, they were doing so consistentlythat they had lied at both opportunities, when they first registered to vote and when they registered for a postal vote. That would be made more difficult, and making it more difficult in this connection gives us a little more security.
I hope that, if the proposal were to pass, the Government would understand that they also need to clean up their act not just on legal and illegal registration to vote, but on national insurance numbers. Many hundreds of thousands of such numbers have been issued over and above the number of legally settled workers that we believe are in the country, thus showing that the national insurance number system itself is far from perfect. To give even greater security, if the Government were to accept my hon. Friend's proposition, we would need not just to introduce it as a security device for electoral registration, but to ask the Treasury to go through the national insurance lists to try to get the number of legally issued national insurance numbers into line with the number of legally settled and working people in our country. That would give us a further precaution against fraud.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con):
Another problem with national insurance numbers is that a small number of people in the United Kingdom are not
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entitled to such numbers at all because they have never worked and never received any form of benefit. No matter how hard they try, as I have done for a number of my constituents, they cannot be issued with a national insurance number, unless they have applied for a benefit at some stage in their lives or worked. Therefore, the use of NI numbers in the way that has been described would not be easy.
Mr. Redwood: My hon. Friend is quite right, but my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire has thought of that excellent point, which is why his proposal includes provision for the very small number of people who do not have a national insurance number and cannot legally claim one: they can make a declaration to that effect. However, I hope that the Government wake up to the serious problem that the country now faces. With the mother of Parliaments and the democracy that most of us prize very highly, we have a serious problem of illegal registration and deception or fraud in our voting system. That is disfiguring our country's democracy and is beginning to be commented on by people outside this country, and one wonders whether, soon, instead of our sending people to oversee other people's elections in emerging democracies, overseas people will have to come here to oversee our democracy because it is becoming a scandal.
Mr. Redwood: There might be in some places. I began my remarks by saying that I share the concern of the hon. Gentleman's party that everyone who is eligible to vote should have the opportunity to register and vote if they choose. I do not believe in compulsory voting, but we should say to people that we think that voting is most important and something that they should treasure. Of course, we want to make it straightforward for people to get their vote if they wish to use it. However, we do not wish to have a system that is so open to abuse that those who wish to manipulate it may do so easily. We know how difficult it is for prosecutions to be mounted, even by returning officers who have let the Electoral Commission and others know that they think that there has been serious abuse, yet cannot get evidence because the system is too loose and it is difficult to pin everything down.
I hope that the Government wake up. There could be cross-party agreement on the matter. For our part, we are keen to further the Government's aim of more full registration of all who are eligible to vote. We hope that they will be equally serious about wishing to get rid of fraud and impersonation.
It is a great honour to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who touched on several points that I would like to extend by reflecting back on something that I said in an intervention on the Minister, especially regarding financial services and the lack of efficacy of signatures as personal identifiers. I realise that this is late in the day,
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given that the Minister said that the financial services industry was not consulted, but perhaps she will reflect on the debate and consider engaging some members of the industry during the pilots because they have a lot to offer.
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