HC Deb 15 April 2002 vol 383 cc380-413

Lords amendment: No. 1.

4.37 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne)

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 6, 9, 11 and 13 to 16.

Mr. Browne

During the Bill's passage through both Houses, all the Northern Ireland parties, the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats pressed hard for the inclusion of national insurance numbers as one of the items of personal information required, alongside the signature and date of birth of each individual, on electoral registration for the purposes of cross-checking and verifying identity.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The Minister would not want to omit from the list of those seeking the inclusion of national insurance numbers the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, whose report of 11 March 1998 led to the Bill—a Committee of which, of course, the Minister was a part in calling for the inclusion of national insurance numbers.

Mr. Browne

That will teach me to pause for breath. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out the contribution that I made to the provisions before the House. He will recollect that in my opening remarks I was referring to the Bill's passage through both Houses, and he will realise why that august body, the Select Committee, was not included in the list in my opening paragraph.

Throughout the Bill's passage through this House I repeatedly explained the difficulties involved in using national insurance numbers for electoral purposes and resisted the amendments tabled by hon. Members. However, as I said on Second Reading, this is not a great issue of principle. I had at the time made a judgment based on the information available to me that the Bill as originally drafted was sufficient to tackle the problem of electoral fraud, and that it struck a workable balance between preventing fraud and not placing unnecessary obstacles in the way of honest voters.

I have sought to maintain that balance throughout the debates on all the provisions of the Bill. For hon. Members who were not members of the Committee, I say, and I am sure that I will be supported by those who were, that throughout the debates I have tried to listen to any reasonable, practical suggestions in relation to the Bill which were consistent with that balance. Those who know the history of the Bill will be aware that national insurance numbers are not the only issue on which I have agreed that alternative suggestions would benefit the legislation. The proposal is not alone in that regard.

Lady Hermon (North Down)

I appreciate the Minister's giving way so early in the debate, although as he appears to be in such sparkling good form I am sure that he is delighted to be intervened on. I remind him that on 5 December 2001, at column 320 of the Official Report, in response to a question asked by the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), who is not now present, although he was here earlier—

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)

I am here.

Lady Hermon

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. That will teach me to hold my breath while I look around the Chamber.

In reply to a question asked by the hon. Gentleman—I am absolutely delighted to see him in his place—the Minister said that he was opposed to proposals on national insurance numbers because he considered that they were disproportionate, that they made unreasonable demands on voters, and that they were opposed by the chief electoral officer."—[Official Report, 5 December 2001; Vol. 376, c. 320.] We know that he now supports the inclusion of national insurance numbers, but will he explain why and how the chief electoral officer has changed his view and no longer opposes their inclusion?

Mr. Browne

It would be fairer to allow the chief electoral officer to speak for himself on this issue, just as I am speaking for myself in dealing head on with those observations—

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

He has done it before.

Mr. Browne

The hon. Gentleman suggests that I have quoted the chief electoral officer before, but let me explain the position. I am sure that hon. Members will point in the Official Report to the position that I took earlier, which is there for all to see. I took what I thought to be a reasoned position on the basis of particular problems that I identified in earlier debates; the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) quoted my remarks on some of them. I identified some issues as genuine problems that needed to be overcome, but I made it clear to hon. Members that I would listen to and consider what they had to say.

Of course, I was conscious that all the Northern Ireland political parties, including that which the hon. Member for North Down represents, as well as the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats and also the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, were as one on the issue in the previous Parliament. As I was mindful of that pressure, it would have been remiss of me—and inconsistent with the approach that I had adopted throughout the Bill's passage—if I had not put the option to a further test to see whether I could find a way in which national insurance numbers could be used for electoral purposes that would not be disproportionate or disadvantage legitimate voters. That is the test that I set myself for all the provisions.

At this stage, it is important to address a point made earlier about the time that it has taken for the current provisions to come before this House and for the legislation to be brought before Parliament.

Discussion has been going on for decades about addressing electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. Indeed, many provisions have been introduced on voting in Northern Ireland in that time. If one were to hear only this afternoon's debates on the matter, one might think that the issue had arisen only when the Labour Government came to power in 1997, but nothing could be further from the truth. For decades, successive Governments have sought to address the issue either by introducing arrangements brought before the House or through other measures that do not require legislation. The fact that one of the first things that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee did after the 1997 general election was to reconsider the issue, urged on by Members who represented Northern Ireland constituencies, is a measure of the success that previous Governments have had in interdicting such behaviour.

4.45 pm

This has been an intractable problem, but I am happy to say that when the Bill left the other place, official Opposition spokesmen and others suggested that it is the best possible attempt to address the issues that have bedevilled Northern Ireland's electoral affairs for decades. The problem has concentrated the minds of politicians in Opposition and in government for a long time, and it does not lend itself to the quick fix. The Government and Opposition parties are indebted to the Select Committee's work on electoral fraud. We are also indebted to other committees and to hon. Members who are present for the contributions that they have made to the debate. I am sure that that debate will continue.

All Governments face particular constraints in dealing with electoral matters with the widest possible consultation and the greatest possible care, and that is especially true of a Government with the sort of majority that we enjoy. We should deal with such matters only in a way that secures the greatest possible support among the parts of the electorate that they will affect. I make no apology for the fact that we took a long time in formulating these restrictions, because it was right to consider them with the greatest of care and subject them to the widest possible consultation. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) is nodding, so I take it that he agrees. The Bill has the degree of support that I am sure that it will enjoy this afternoon only because such care was taken to proceed at a pace that did not offend that principle, which informed everything that I have done as the Minister responsible.

Mr. Blunt

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) was nodding to applaud the dexterity of the Minister's arguments, not necessarily their validity. If the Government had not taken such an inordinately long time over the proposals, we would now have legislation that would enable an identity card scheme to be up and running in time for the Assembly elections. On the basis of the information that we have received, it will take 18 months from the passing of the Bill for such a scheme to be put in place. As there is considerably less time than that between now and the Assembly elections, the dilatory manner in which the provisions were dealt with means that that opportunity has been missed.

Mr. Browne

I normally enjoy the hon. Gentleman's interventions because they take the debate forward, but they do so only if he is properly informed. I do not know where he got 18 months from; perhaps he made it up while he was on his feet. I have a timetable—

Mr. Swire

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne

If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself, I shall first deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Reigate. The estimate to which he referred may have been applicable at one time, but I am satisfied that there is now a timetable for the introduction of identity cards that can meet the deadline that the Government have set themselves—assuming that that change has the acceptance of the Northern Ireland electorate as expressed in consultation with the parties, among others.

Mr. Swire

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I just want to point out that the figure of 18 months came from the House of Commons Library research paper on the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill, which clearly states in reference to the introduction of identity cards: It was envisaged that the issuing programme would take up to eighteen months to complete.

Mr. Browne

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I might have an opportunity at some stage, when I am not on my feet addressing the House, to have a look at that paper and to check that the full context of that quotation refers to 18 months from the date that the hon. Member for Reigate said was the starting date, rather than from another date. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept my assurance, as the Minister responsible, that I have been privy to a timetable for the introduction that can meet the date for the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. If the hon. Gentleman will accept that, perhaps we can move on.

It was particularly important, when seeking to make the changes to the Bill, to determine how we would deal with those individuals who do not have a national insurance number, and how the electoral office would check the authenticity of the national insurance numbers that it received for registration purposes. Allowing for the use of national insurance numbers in the electoral process—as the amendments do—I have placed a high priority on identifying a solution that avoids the placing of a heavy burden on the electorate or on the Department for Work and Pensions, and that avoids difficult data protection issues.

Lady Hermon

I appreciate the Minister giving way. Although he is unable to explain why the opposition of the chief electoral officer has now been removed, will he confirm, as the inclusion of national insurance numbers— which we welcome—will place a huge administrative burden on the electoral office, that there is no opposition within that office to the use of these numbers?

Mr. Browne

I can speak on the basis of my contacts with the chief electoral officer, who represents the office in its dealings with me as the Minister, and I can assure the hon. Lady that he supports this change. I did not specifically ask him why that should be his position, but I am sure that his position will be the same as mine, in that I identified difficulties, which I am seeking to address in this speech, of which he was aware, and which I now believe can be overcome. The overcoming of those difficulties was not easy, but now that we have done so, I am sure that the chief electoral officer—and his staff, who support him faithfully as always—will do everything in his power to deliver and operate the policy in this legislation.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

May I ask the Minister to rack his brains? He has just said that the chief electoral officer told him that he was now happy with the proposals. I assume that he would have said something like, "I am now content because…". Will the Minister think back and try to remember what the chief electoral officer's reasons were for saying that he was now happy with the measure?

Mr. Browne

I will say to the hon. Gentleman what I said to the hon. Member for North Down, who asked me the same question. For many of the reasons that I put before the Standing Committee, the chief electoral officer—whose advice I value on these matters, as he is the person who has practically to operate the measures—was of the same view as I was when the Bill was previously before the House. Having listened to the arguments put forward by hon. Members, however, and having recognised the breadth of support for the introduction of national insurance numbers as an identity check, I undertook to go away and look again at whether that policy could be delivered in a practical way that did not offend the principles that I had set out. I am now satisfied, for reasons that I am seeking to articulate in this speech, that it can be introduced in a fashion—that set out in the amendments passed in the other place—which does not offend those principles.

I am not in a position, following my conversations with the chief electoral officer, to give the hon. Gentleman what he seeks. I can say, however, that during that dynamic process, I am sure that the chief electoral officer—who was party to what was going on in the sense that he was aware of what I was seeking to do, and who was in close contact and discussion with my officials—would have been satisfied for the same reasons that I am satisfied that this can be done without causing the offence that I seek to avoid.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

What happens if there is a dispute about a national insurance number? I fully support the thrust of the amendments, but I want to be satisfied that, where a dispute arises about ownership of a national insurance number, the applicant for inclusion on the franchise can fast track, or can satisfy the chief electoral officer. Perhaps the Minister saw Saturday's edition of The Daily Telegraph, which ran an article on Andrew Palmer, a constituent of mine whose national insurance number is also being used by somebody in one of Her Majesty's prisons. If I catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker, perhaps I might elaborate on the matter, but it is clear that the national insurance number system is not foolproof, as witnessed by the irritating problems experienced by my constituent. If he lived in Northern Ireland and wanted to vote, he might experience problems in relation to his identity.

Mr. Browne

My hon. Friend makes a timely intervention. Through the experience of one his constituents, he identifies a problem with national insurance numbers that I, too, identified, and which caused me to have second thoughts and to oppose at the outset their use as identifiers in electoral law. However, I am now satisfied—this debate will show whether my appreciation is correct—that all parties in the House understand that the system can be made to work, that it can accommodate possible flaws in the national insurance number system, and that checks can be used to ensure that people are not disadvantaged and denied their vote. That is why the provisions before the House are so detailed and complex; indeed, they are considerably more complex than any amendment that I resisted in Committee, or than any proposal put forward on Second Reading or during the Bill's remaining stages.

The complexity of the provisions—particularly that relating to the chief electoral officer's power to check with the Department for Work and Pensions that, in a given circumstance, the national insurance number used is the one that ought to be attributed to the person in question—is designed for the very circumstances that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) identifies, among others. His constituent's experience—I cannot comment on it because it is not part of my ministerial responsibility, but I understand that the matter is in hand—is another good example of why it is important to proceed with some caution. When we think that we have found a simple solution to a problem, such simplicity often brings its own difficulties.

Mr. Wilshire

The Minister keeps telling us—I am pleased to hear it—that the proposals now have the support of all parties in the House, but does that include the party that has not taken up its seats, the members of which, disgracefully, have been let into this building by his Government? Has he had any discussions with them and does he know their views? They are among the most serious perpetrators of the fraud in question.

Mr. Browne

If the chief electoral officer can speak for himself, Sinn Fein Members elected to represent their constituents can certainly speak for themselves, although they choose not to in this House. [Interruption.] Their position on the Bill's proposals is no secret. To my knowledge, they have made no specific comments on the provisions relating to national insurance numbers—they may have made such comments to officials—but they did not support the legislation's general thrust when it was put out for consultation. As I have had no specific response from them on that issue, I am unable to help the hon. Gentleman further.

However, I shall check. If a response does not reach me, which would surprise me, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with that information. I would not hold my breath for support for the provisions from that particular source.

5 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

Pursuant to the point regarding a disagreement between the registration officer and the person applying for a vote, be it physical or postal, may I draw the Minister's attention to amendment No. 4? It provides that someone's name be removed from the register if the registration officer determines that he is not satisfied with the information relating to that person which was included in that form pursuant to that requirement. That suggests that there will be disputes on certain occasions, which is only to be expected in practical terms. If a dispute results in the registration officer refusing to grant registration, will there be a forum for an appeal or an electoral court, which would enable the applicant for registration to pursue his case and perhaps reach a conclusion?

Mr. Browne

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. As I stand before him, I do not have the specific answer, although my instincts suggest that a provision in other legislation allows a person who has been denied to register an appeal. Relying on my professional experience—as a solicitor, not as a politician—I suspect that in Scotland the application is made to the sheriff court, but I am not sure. I hope to be able to give him the answer to that question before the debate is out, although I think that what he seeks is in other legislation, if not in the Bill.

Mr. McGrady

I thank the Minister and I understand his position, but will he confirm that the electoral court tradition, which comes into play when a new register is established, will continue and that such a court will be the forum in which disputes are ironed out or concluded?

Mr. Browne

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall write to him on the detail of the provisions, but I assure him that if someone is denied registration for any reason, not just those relevant to the Bill, they will be able to appeal to the courts, rather than an electoral court, to be included. There is a right to apply to the court, and obviously the judge would exercise the function in relation to electoral law. I assure my hon. Friend that people will not be denied the right to register without the right of appeal.

Had we not addressed the issues identified as problems in relation to including national insurance numbers, the provisions would have had a number of unhelpful and inappropriate consequences. For example, it would not be possible for the small number of people who do not have a national insurance number for national insurance or benefit purposes to be allocated one so that they may register to vote. That had to be accommodated.

When I met the Information Commissioner, she made it clear that the employment of the national insurance number in the electoral registration process in Northern Ireland must be put on a clear statutory basis in order for it not to breach the requirements of the Data Protection Act 1998. That is another potential consequence of using national insurance numbers, about which I was concerned. She also pointed to the need to keep the use of national insurance numbers in that new context under review. The Government intend to do that.

Mr. Swire

What is the Department's estimate of the number of people in Northern Ireland without a national insurance number?

Mr. Browne

I do not have any such estimate, but, given the way in which the Bill is drafted, it is not necessary for my Department to make an estimate. In years to come, once these provisions are in force, there will be a database of those who are of voting age, but at the moment there is no such database that one can refer to for the information that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

Surely one of the fundamental ways to make this legislation work will be to know how many national insurance numbers there are now, so that if any attempt is made to use the new system fraudulently we will get a sense of whether something is amiss.

Mr. Browne

When the hon. Gentleman considers how the system will work in detail, he will appreciate that it is designed to work in the context of other provisions in other parts of the Bill. A database will be built up over the years under the control of the chief electoral officer, which will allow him to check whether anything is amiss as the years go on. These provisions are not intended to cause everyone's national insurance number to be checked with the Department for Work and Pensions.

Those who understand the construct and the architecture of the Bill will realise that the principal purpose of checking national insurance numbers is to prevent fraud in the exercise of absent voting. The principal way in which the Bill will prevent impersonation will be by photographic identification. Although national insurance numbers will have some merit in relation to all those who register, they will be of most use as a further check on the identity of those people who want to exercise an absent vote.

It is not of great importance to the working of the system as a whole to know how many national insurance numbers there are in Northern Ireland as a proportion of those who qualify to have a national insurance number. I do not think that that would be a particularly helpful check. Attention will be concentrated on the national insurance numbers of a comparatively small number of people, and that will greatly help the chief electoral officer to check their identity. Everyone could have a national insurance number, but not everyone in Northern Ireland qualifies for an absent vote. The provisions on absent votes in Northern Ireland are different from those that apply in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Lady Hermon

Will the Minister clarify an issue that has been raised in the amendments from the other place but is not self-explanatory? The new clause in amendment No. 13 would allow the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland to request from the relevant authority in the case of…an individual recorded as having a national insurance number, any name and former name, date of birth, sex and address as recorded by the relevant authority in respect of the individual in question. Why is it relevant for the sex of a voter to be disclosed by the relevant authority?

Mr. Browne

The hon. Lady asks a question that could be asked about any aspect of these provisions. Why is it relevant to ask the date of birth of a voter? Why is it relevant to ask voters to say whether they are registered at another place? Why is it relevant to ask a voter to apply his or her signature to the forms so that it can be checked? Why is relevant to ask for a voter's national insurance number?

Lady Hermon


Mr. Browne

I shall let the hon. Lady intervene again, but perhaps she will allow me to answer her first question, then I shall deal with her supplementary.

We are seeking to obtain information on voters that allows the chief electoral officer, on a proportionate basis, to be as sure as he can ever be that the person who chooses to exercise an absent vote is the person who is entitled to that absent vote. Part of that process is to allow the chief electoral officer the power to check with the Department for Work and Pensions that the person who seeks to use that national insurance number to register under that name at that address is the person who is entitled to use that national insurance number.

What are the distinguishing features of an individual other than being able to tie a number to their personal appearance? They are the person's address, sex and date of birth. Those are the distinguishing features that the chief electoral officer is able to check. Some names can be spelled differently, and parents are increasingly imaginative in their adoption of names for their children. Recently in my constituency a child was named after a Spanish Harlem black rap singer. I could not tell whether that name, which was imported from north America, was associated with a man or woman or with a male or female child. Many children's names can be used for males and females—Kerry, for example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) says from a sedentary position. I am sure that there will be many such names. It is helpful to establish those three or four items of identification—not in a discriminatory way—to check that the particular national insurance number is being used by the right person.

Lady Hermon

I am impatient by nature, so I apologise for trying to intervene on the Minister earlier. My point was that we are talking about the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill which, for the first time, introduces new identifiers to the electoral register—a signature and a date of birth; obviously, the name of the voter was required by previous legislation. In terms of consistency with the personal identifiers to which new clause 6 refers, it seems extraordinary that, having referred to the signature, national insurance number, date of birth and address, the sex of a person should also suddenly be required from the relevant authority.

Mr. Browne

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. Her contributions have often been helpful, and occasionally in her interventions she has pointed out areas in which changes have needed to be made. I am grateful to her for that, and I treat her contributions seriously. Her intervention requires a response, but that response is that the proposal will assist the chief electoral officer to reassure himself that the identity of the person who is using a particular national insurance number accords with the identity of the person whom he is likely to bring in for interview. If the hon. Lady is satisfied that that is the reason—and that there is no discriminatory reason—perhaps I may move on.

The Information Commissioner, for whose assistance and help I am very grateful, pointed out to me and the Government that there was a need to keep the use of national insurance numbers in this new context under review. I suggested that the Government would do that, for no other reason than that developments in electronic voting may, in future, offer an alternative solution to the problem of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland, which will allow us to reduce some of the provisions in the Bill and make them more manageable. It is in all our interests, and in the interests of the Northern Ireland electorate, that we keep pace with these developments and consider their potential in the Northern Ireland context.

I explicitly acknowledge that the first group of Lords amendments enabling national insurance numbers to be used in the electoral process in Northern Ireland reflects a change in Government policy, but I hope that hon. Members will welcome the amendments as a positive response to their concerns and requests. Hon. Members will realise from the length of the amendments that there is no quick-fix solution that will allow for the use of national insurance numbers.

5.15 pm

Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 6 will require a person who applies to register in respect of an address in Northern Ireland to give his or her national insurance number or to make a statement that he or she does not have one. That deals with the point about numbers raised by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling).

Lady Hermon

An inconsistency has been thrown up by the Lords amendments. The Minister will recall that in Committee we had a lengthy debate about the fact that the chief electoral officer may dispense with a person's signature that will be required on the register of voters if that person is incapacitated or is unable to read. Will the Minister explain how a person who is incapacitated or is unable to read is expected to make the statement that he does not have a national insurance number?

Mr. Browne

The provisions in the registration process that take account of a person's disability will apply across the board. They are not restricted to the provision of any particular information.

In response to a point that the hon. Lady raised earlier, I am able to tell her that when people complete the electoral registration form, they will be invited to indicate their sex by using a prefix to their name. They can use Mr., Mrs., Miss or whatever, and that will also assist the chief electoral officer and the Department for Work and Pensions to establish the sex of a person who has had a national insurance number allocated to them. It may be possible administratively to check the veracity of a national insurance number without actually seeing the person using it.

Lady Hermon

I am grateful to the Minister for being so patient. Will he refer me specifically to the provision in the new clause that applies across the board and allows a person, on the basis of incapacity or being unable to read, to dispense with the requirement to make a statement that he or she does not have a national insurance number?

Mr. Browne

I am not suggesting to the hon. Lady that she will find such a provision in the Bill. My understanding is that people who cannot make such a statement will be able to have a statement made on their behalf. The form accommodates such a situation. The general provision will apply to anything that is asked for by the registration form. The registration process recognises that some people cannot read or write or that some people have a disability that means they cannot fill in the form themselves. Because of that recognition, the registration process contains a provision that allows information to be communicated to the chief electoral officer on behalf of such people; otherwise they would not get on to the electoral register in the first place. I am saying that the provision applies to any information that we seek to obtain, and that includes whether people have a national insurance number.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry)

Will the Minister elaborate on what will happen if an inordinately high number of applicants claim that they do not have a national insurance number? What provisions are there to deal with such circumstances?

Mr. Browne

The hon. Gentleman anticipates circumstances with which the Bill, as amended in the other place, already deals. The chief electoral officer has the power to check with the Department for Work and Pensions whether the information that people give is correct. Obviously if there is a disproportionate response from people suggesting that they do not have a national insurance number—we do not have a figure for those who might do that, but we do not think it will be that many—alarm bells will ring with the chief electoral officer. The necessary checks will therefore be made. If there are clusters of such claims, the chief electoral officer's attention will be drawn to the geographical areas where they occur.

Mr. Swire

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way once more on the thorny subject of national insurance numbers. Will he confirm whether more national insurance numbers are in circulation than there are people on the electoral roll in the United Kingdom? If that is the case, would not this be an ideal time to revisit—to use his own word—all those who hold national insurance numbers to find out whether they are the right people in the first place?

Mr. Browne

Thankfully, I do not have ministerial responsibility for revisiting all those who hold national insurance numbers. That would not be an appropriate use of Government money or a priority for us in the circumstances. I am unable to confirm the hon. Gentleman's assertion—I do not know whether he is correct—but my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions work assiduously to check such information. I do not suggest that they do so weekly, but I understand that computerised trawls are carried out weekly to check that the national insurance numbers in existence relate properly to the people to whom they appear to relate. I understand that the Department for Work and Pensions undertakes significant work on that issue and that the position is improving.

I do not seek to blame the pre-1997 Government, but the hon. Gentleman will know—he seems to know something of the background—that the Government inherited a complex system of national insurance numbers, not to mention one of some difficulty. A significant number of national insurance numbers were then in circulation that ought not to have been. He will know that this is a UK-wide database and that it has not been easy to address that challenge because of the numbers involved. I am sure he will want to pay tribute to the work that my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions are doing in that regard, but I am not sure that suggesting at the Dispatch Box that it is time to address everyone who holds a national insurance number would necessarily help. I have significant faith in my colleagues in that Department to say that they will sort out the problems that they inherited, which have built up over decades.

Lady Hermon


Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)


Mr. Browne

I shall give way to the hon. Lady in a moment, but I first give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is the only hon. Member present who has not yet intervened.

Mr. Dodds

I am grateful to the Minister for his patience in taking so many interventions. I should like to raise the issue of the officials in the Department for Work and Pensions. I note that provision is made in the amendments to authorise the relevant authority to charge fees to the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland. Clearly, a deal of extra work will be involved. What is the extent of the extra costs that might be involved? Where will the money come from to allow the chief electoral officer to cover those extra costs?

Mr. Browne

The answer to the second question is, of course, that the money will come from the Government. It will come from the taxpayer, through the Government, to the chief electoral officer. I am sure that no hon. Member will oppose that expenditure if it improves the honesty and accuracy of the democratic process in Northern Ireland. Given that the provision is a natural consequence of proposals that all parties have urged on the Government, I am certain that no one will complain about money having to be spent in this area of public expenditure, but at this stage I am unable to give the hon. Gentleman details about how much the proposal is likely to cost.

I seek to do two things in relation to planning and logistics for implementing the Bill. One of them is to meet the deadline of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 2003. Things will have to progress in parallel because of that, so I cannot wait until all the details are known exactly. However, the details are being worked out with the Department for Work and Pensions at present. My officials will be meeting DWP officials in Leeds tomorrow to discuss the issues.

Estimates will have to be made and I undertake to get in touch with the hon. Gentleman's party—if not the hon. Gentleman himself—about the progress of the implementation of the provisions. There will be further opportunities for him to raise the issues, and I shall be happy to give him up-to-date briefings on not only the implementation of the Bill but also its costs and logistical consequences.

I was referring to amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 6, which require a person applying to register in respect of an address in Northern Ireland to give his or her national insurance number, or to make a statement that they do not have one.

I think that the point made by the hon. Member for North Down arose from the fact that the Bill includes a provision to excuse people who cannot read or write from giving a signature. That was necessary because we realise that the Bill would require people to exercise a skill that not everyone has. However, that is not related to the completion of the form. As the hon. Lady knows, most such forms are completed by householders. They can also be completed by canvass. Canvassers from the chief electoral officer go to every house in Northern Ireland, so it is in order for another person to fill in the information for someone who wants to register.

As well as requiring national insurance numbers, the amendments will require an applicant to make a statement that he or she has been resident in Northern Ireland for the requisite three-month period before the date of their application. That provision reflects existing law in Northern Ireland, which requires the collection of such information. I shall return to that point later, but I should like to make some progress lest the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) suggest that I orchestrated interventions in order to keep the debate going.

Hon. Members will no doubt recall that I wrote to inform them that we intended to give the chief electoral officer the power by regulation to ask applicants to the register whether they were registered at another address in the UK. When drafting the amendments to allow for the use of national insurance numbers, I decided to include in primary legislation a requirement to declare multiple registration on applications for registration. The amendments thus require anyone applying to the register in respect of an address in Northern Ireland to state any other address in the United Kingdom in respect of which he or she is, or has applied to be, registered. Amendment No. 14, which I will discuss in more detail later, makes it an offence to provide false information pursuant to that requirement.

Andrew Mackinlay

I am the rotter who accused the Government of orchestrating the timetable in respect of the 7 o'clock vote so I had some hesitation about intervening, but my point is important.

Although there is special provision for the compilation of the register in Northern Ireland, with the requirement that people have to have been resident for three months, will the Minister confirm that the law that applies throughout the kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will not be diluted in any way? The fact that a person is resident is not covered by statute—unfortunately; it is, in effect, self-defined. I hope that the Minister will not mind me using him as an example. He is a London resident, and will be voting in the London elections because he has declared himself a resident.

To some extent, that point also applies in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister confirm that the three months applies to occupancy and that people will not have to stay at the address night after night? That would be absurd and a large number of people would be disqualified.

5.30 pm
Mr. Browne

It is for the very reason that my hon. Friend is, in his own words, that rotter that I was pleased to give way to him and will give way again. No doubt he realises that our time has been properly occupied by the issues raised and my explanation of the situation. Indeed, nothing has been raised so far that did not merit discussion.

My hon. Friend wants an assurance that the Bill will not outlaw multiple registrations. The Government have consistently resisted that proposal, which attracted significant support among Opposition parties, for the reason that my hon. Friend brings to our attention. The Government do not intend to restrict those who qualify to vote in Northern Ireland in ways other than those that apply to the rest of the UK or which go beyond restrictions set out in current law, although residency in Northern Ireland is different in that it has one or two other qualifications.

My hon. Friend rightly recognises that I have exercised the opportunity to be registered as a voter in my constituency in Scotland where I live and in London. That right will also be available to Northern Ireland voters. The Bill will in no way restrict that. However, because of concern about the possible abuse of multiple registration in Northern Ireland, it will help to identify those people who have registered in more than one place. If there is evidence to suggest that that right is being abused, it can be more accurately investigated against a reduced database of people who are registered in more than one place. The requirement to provide that information is reinforced by the fact that it will be an offence to provide false information or not to provide the information requested.

Mr. Swire

Given that an increasing number of people in Northern Ireland travel to and work in the Republic, and in some cases live there for part of the time, what discussions is the Minister having with the Government of the Republic on such matters?

Mr. Browne

None. Discussions with that Government are not relevant to what we are trying to achieve. It is of no interest to me as the Minister with responsibility for electoral law in Northern Ireland whether people qualify to vote elsewhere. Indeed, some European Union residents qualify to vote in certain elections in the UK and in parliamentary elections in other parts of Europe. Citizens of the Republic will be no different. Knowing whether anyone is registered to vote there and in Northern Ireland is not relevant to what we are trying to achieve. We have our own law, which we have to ensure is observed and properly policed. That is what the Bill helps to do.

Lady Hermon

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way once again. In another place, Lord Williams of Mostyn referred to the three-month period, which has now been included in the Bill. He said: The applicant will also be required to make a statement that he or she has been resident in Northern Ireland for the requisite three-month period before the date of application."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 February 2002; Vol. 631, c. 1254.] Will the Minister confirm whether that residential requirement has now been introduced in Northern Ireland? If so, that will have implications for our European Union obligations and our human rights obligations.

Mr. Browne

I respond to that question in the certain knowledge that my answer will encourage a contribution from the hon. Lady that will illuminate the debate. This is not a new provision. It is already a requirement in order to vote in Northern Ireland and has been for some time. I am sure that before the debate has finished I will have the precise reference for the hon. Lady, although I cannot supply it off the top of my head.

In order to register to vote in Northern Ireland, a person has to have that three-month residence. That may partly address the question implied by the previous intervention. We seek not to change the law, but merely to codify it. We intend to codify it in a way and for a reason that I shall discuss in a moment—we want to make it accessible. We are not enacting a new provision.

The question whether the existing provision creates challenges and consequences in relation to compliance with European Union treaties or human rights legislation could be debated at some length. However, perhaps the hon. Lady will allow me to move on. I have been on my feet for more than an hour and it would be helpful if I were to conclude my remarks and give hon. Members the opportunity to make their contributions. At the conclusion of those contributions, I will seek to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and endeavour to respond to them.

By including in the Bill the requirements about residence for three months in Northern Ireland and about registration as an elector at a different address, together with the requirements about the national insurance number, signature and date of birth, all the distinctly Northern Ireland features of the registration process can be found in the same place.

Amendment No. 4 inserts a new subsection (5A) into section 10A of the Representation of the People Act 1983. It adds to the provisions contained in that section regarding the circumstances in which the chief electoral officer is to remove a person's name from the electoral register.

A person's name will be removed from the register in respect of any address if they return an application for registration in respect of that address without any of the information that they are required to provide by the Bill.

Therefore, a person's name will be removed if their application does not contain the signature of the person to whom the application relates—subject to the provision in the Bill for those who are unable to append their signature—or is without the date of birth of such person, or their national insurance number, or a statement that they do not have one. A person's name will also be removed if they fail to make a statement that they have been resident in Northern Ireland for the requisite three-month period before the date of their application.

Paragraph (b) provides for the removal of a person's name from the register where the chief electoral officer determines that he is not satisfied with the information provided—for example, because he believes that it is false. All of that is subject to the existing appeal procedure, which allows people to have recourse to the court.

Lady Hermon


Mr. Browne

I will give way, hopefully for the last time, to the hon. Lady.

Lady Hermon

That was said so graciously that it invites me to intervene once again. The Minister should reflect for a moment on what he has just said, which was that the applicant would have to make a statement that they have been resident for the preceding three months. Will he again confirm, because the amended Bill is not clear, that the chief electoral officer can dispense with the requirement that the voter has to make the statement in cases of incapacity or inability to read?

Mr. Browne

Yes. The three-month residence requirement has been included in legislation since at least 1949. I shall endeavour before this debate is concluded to try to find out the exact piece that introduced it. I understand that the intention behind the requirement is to prevent any distortion of a genuine poll of Northern Ireland opinion by large numbers of people from outside Northern Ireland registering in anticipation of an election.

Amendments Nos. 3 and 5 are essentially consequential.

Amendment No. 9 amends section 6(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1985, which specifies requirements where an elector applies for an absent vote at elections for an indefinite period. An application can be granted only if it states the applicant's national insurance number or that the applicant does not have one, and if the chief electoral officer is satisfied that the national insurance number or statement on the application corresponds with the number or statement which the applicant gave on application for registration, which is of course subject to the chief electoral officer's checking and may have been checked by other provisions in the Bill.

Amendment No. 11 makes a similar amendment to section 7(1) of the 1985 Act in relation to applications for an absent vote at a particular parliamentary' election. So, those two provisions deal with those who have, as it were, standing absent votes, and those who seek to get an absent vote for a particular parliamentary election.

Amendment No. 13 inserts a new clause and amends schedule 2 to the Representation of the People Act 1983, which deals with provisions that may be in regulations on registration. The amendment provides for the disclosure by the authority responsible for national insurance numbers—currently the Department for Work and Pensions—to the chief electoral officer, following a request by him, of the national insurance number recorded in respect of a specified individual, or of the fact that the specified individual is not recorded as having a national insurance number.

The chief electoral officer will also be able to cross-check other information with the Department for Work and Pensions, which will be able to disclose any name or former name of an individual, his or her date of birth, sex and address. We have already debated that in some detail in the context of an intervention. Amendment No. 13 also authorises the authority to which the chief electoral officer makes his requests to charge fees to cover the expenses of complying with such requests. Again in response to an intervention, I have expanded on that.

Amendment No. 14 makes it an offence to provide false information pursuant to any requirement imposed by the amendments to legislation made by the Bill on an application for registration as an elector in Northern Ireland. It will therefore be an offence for a person to provide a false signature, date of birth or national insurance number, or false information on whether he or she has been resident in Northern Ireland for three months prior to registration, or to fail to state any other address in the UK in respect of which he or she is, or intends to be, registered.

Quite simply, that means that false information given in response to the requirements imposed by the Bill are dealt with in an offence created by the Bill. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that, in the confusing world of electoral legislation, such clarity is to be welcomed. A person found guilty of the offence of providing false information on registration shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both. The scale of penalties occupied us periodically in Committee. I argue that these penalties are proportionate to offences that are determined by primary legislation.

Mr. Wilshire

While listening to the hon. Gentleman's comments about the penalties that will be imposed, I find myself wondering why he does not pursue the example of driving licences. One cannot only be fined or sent to prison for driving offences, but one can have one's licence taken away. Would it not be appropriate to add to the list of penalties a disqualification from voting for a decent length of time, as the person will clearly have fraudulently tried to get himself on the register?

5.45 pm
Mr. Browne

The hon. Gentleman gives an example of a disproportionate penalty. The whole purpose of the Bill is to ensure that people vote, but vote appropriately—that they do not steal the votes of others, or pretend to be other people, whether real or invented, to exercise a vote. Principally, the Bill is designed to prevent personation or vote stealing. Nothing in it is designed to prevent people from exercising their legitimate right to vote. Since the franchise in the UK was extended, Governments have consistently been careful to restrict the type of penalty that the hon. Gentleman presses on me—that is, disqualification from voting—to comparatively few people. I welcome the fact that those restrictions are reconsidered periodically: we seek a universal franchise.

I should have thought that a potential term of imprisonment for up to six months, or fine not exceeding level 5, which I think is some thousands of pounds—

Mr. Swire


Mr. Browne

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful information. I regard £5,000 as a proportionate penalty for such offences. If he checks the Committee Hansard, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) will see that that is the level of penalty for offences against electoral law that was urged on me on more than one occasion by the Opposition in Committee, and during remaining stages in the House of Commons.

Amendment No. 15 amends the long title to include a reference to national insurance numbers as one of the pieces of information that must be supplied to the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland by a person seeking registration. Amendment No. 16 amends the long title to include a reference to the fact that a person will be required to supply, on application to the register, information relating to their period of residence in Northern Ireland and addresses in respect of which they are or have applied to be registered. Those amendments are necessary to ensure that the provisions are within the scope of the Bill. The three-month period of residence is not a new provision.

I hope that the House will accept the amendments as a positive response to the arguments and concerns articulated by hon. Members of both Houses. I thank all the hon. Members who have taken part in the debates at various stages of the Bill's passage. I know that they are all as keen as I am to ensure that we tackle successfully the problem of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. They are all entitled to claim some credit for the provisions that the Government have now presented to the House, as well as for other parts of the Bill that have been produced in response to their contributions. I hope that hon. Members will not challenge each other about entitlement to claim the credit for the provisions: they urged them on me as a collective, so I suggest that they take collective credit.

The Bill will tackle electoral fraud in Northern Ireland successfully by countering electoral abuse directly and at every stage of the electoral process. I do not believe that the measures to prevent electoral fraud put unnecessary obstacles in the path of genuine voters, but the Government will require the assistance of all Opposition parties to help the electorate of Northern Ireland to understand the provisions and to make them work properly, so that obstacles are not inadvertently placed in the way of genuine voters. Because they will make the exercise of democracy more true in Northern Ireland, I trust that the provisions will be acceptable to the people there.

The Bill is the result of extensive consultation and it responds to calls from within Northern Ireland itself and from parties across the political spectrum. That consultation has continued during the Bill's passage through both Houses. We have examined all the issues raised with an open mind and given careful consideration to whether suggested amendments would assist our efforts to combat fraud and improve the electoral system in Northern Ireland. Particularly on the issues of the use of national insurance numbers in the electoral process and a requirement to declare multiple registration, we have been able to deliver appropriate changes to the Bill during its passage through the Lords. I hope that where issues and concerns have been raised we have been able to offer reassurance that they are being addressed, albeit not necessarily by legislation.

Mr. Blunt

For the convenience of the House, I will not take as long as the Minister which, of course, would be impossible because he took up more than half the time for debate; we congratulate him on his marathon effort.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

Get on with it.

Mr. Blunt

As a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we have just witnessed the Minister lengthily turning full circle. The Minister has not performed a U-turn; he has spent four years describing a circle, finally arriving this evening at the position he initially took when signing off and supporting the Select Committee report of 11 March 1998. It is pertinent to examine the Minister's role in that Committee. He was sceptical when questioning Mr. Pat Bradley, the chief electoral officer. I shall give the House a flavour of the Minister's contributions to provide a perspective on where he stood in the first place.

On page nine of Mr. Bradley's evidence on 5 November 1997, the Minister said: Good afternoon, Mr. Bradley. My questions are designed to see if you can assist us in quantifying the extent of the problem in the generality and, if you can, in relation to the different types of electoral abuse that you identify in your memorandum. Have you made any attempt to quantify the extent of this problem in the generality of your extensive experience of electoral practice in Northern Ireland? Passing over Mr. Bradley's response for the sake of time, suffice it to say that it did not satisfy the Minister, who said: With respect, Mr. Bradley, you are not answering my question. What I am interested in finding out from you is have you either yourself—since you seem to do a lot of this yourself—or your staff actually counted the instances where you have a question mark about what is going on or where there is evidence to suggest there is electoral malpractice? Mr. Bradley said: If you refer back to my report— The Minister interrupted: I will refer to your report because it is from your report that I see an absence of statistics. On page 1 of your report, paragraph 2.3, headed "Multiple registration", the second sentence says: 'There have been allegations of deliberately false multiple registrations in some constituencies as part of a planned electoral abuse campaign.' Presumably, Mr Bradley, if those allegations were made to your office you should know how many of them there were. Do you have the information to say how many such allegations were made? Mr. Bradley replied: Unfortunately, I have heard many allegations but no specific facts were given to me. The Minister said: I am sorry, Mr. Bradley, I am not trying to be difficult here. I just want to know if you have the information that would allow this Committee to get at numbers. Do you actually count the number of such allegations and could you give this Committee information about the numbers of those allegations by reference to constituencies? Mr. Bradley was unable to satisfy the Minister.

Mr. Browne

Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House the point?

Mr. Blunt

I am making a point about the Minister's attitude to the legislation and his proper scepticism about allegations of electoral abuse in Northern Ireland when a member of the Select Committee. Having sat through the taking of evidence, he agreed a report, a central requirement of which was to tidy up the register to ensure that it was clean and that the issue of absent vote fraud was addressed. We have had to go through agonising proceedings, both in Committee and on Third Reading, and it is only now that Government amendments have been introduced in the House of Lords to put into effect what the Minister as a Back-Bench Member signed up to more than four years ago; finally, we are going to get satisfactory legislation on to the statute book. The Minister took a considerable time to put the case for the amendments; perhaps he thought it would be less painful to take up half our debate with his circumlocution than have us point out that case to him.

Lady Hermon

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way. It did not go unnoticed that I delayed the Minister considerably this afternoon, but I was genuinely concerned that the Lords amendments did not tie in with the Bill or appear to be compatible with the measure which we debated both in the House and in the Committee on which the hon. Gentleman served. Does he accept that during those four years data protection legislation has been a severe impediment to the disclosure of information on, for example, national insurance numbers?

Mr. Blunt

I certainly would not criticise the hon. Lady for intervening on the Minister, who chose to accept her interventions. She is in no way responsible for the length of his speech. As for the detail of the data protection legislation, the position has not changed during the four years in which the Government have been considering the measure. The Government faced the same problem when they received the report as they do now when proposing their solution.

Mr. Swire

Does my hon. Friend agree that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) was probably closer to the truth in an article in The Daily Telegraph last year entitled "Sinn Fein is accused of massive vote fraud". He said: There is no doubt Sinn Fein is involved in electoral fraud on a massive scale. He went on to say that Sinn Fein have been working on it for years and Government have not been treating the issue seriously.

Mr. Blunt

I agree. That criticism has been made consistently, particularly by the Opposition, since Second Reading on 10 July last year. The one criticism that could be made of the Government is their lack of speed in introducing legislation. I hope that the Minister accepts that argument.

Mr. Browne

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that before 1997 it did not occur to the previous Government that such provisions could have helped?

Mr. Blunt

The Government are responding to a Select Committee report published on 11 March 1998; that Committee was formed under the Labour Government, in a Parliament when the Minister first served as an MP, as did I. The Government are to be commended for introducing legislation in response to a Select Committee report to deal with a particular problem in Northern Ireland. However, the Minister cannot get away with suggesting that no attempt was made to deal with electoral fraud during the previous 18 years; he knows that a significant number of pieces of legislation attempted to address different areas of electoral fraud. The battle will not be fought and won with the Bill; it may well be that further problems arise if people who wish to defraud the system can find a way round the legislation that we pass. It will then be up to us, either in this Parliament or in future Parliaments, to attempt to address that electoral fraud; the situation is not static.

I should like to draw the attention of the House to two issues in light of the Select Committee report. In introducing the Lords amendments, the Minister suggested that the use of national insurance numbers was mainly to address absent votes. I disagree; we need to go back to first principles. I agree with paragraph 23 of the Select Committee report, to which he signed up, which states: An accurate Register is vital. Without a trustworthy Register, there can be no secure confidence in the electoral system. At present, it is not absolutely clear how reliable the Register is. We do not share the confidence of the Interim Review Report that 'while there may be some scope for some minor adjustments in the current system for the registration of electors in Northern Ireland, in actual terms the accuracy of the Register is not seriously in question.' On the contrary, in our view the evidence indicates that there may be a serious level of multiple registration, at least in some parts of Northern Ireland. That is why the inclusion of national insurance numbers and multiple registration were at the centre of what the Opposition were seeking to achieve if the proposed legislation were to be satisfactory to take on electoral fraud in the most effective way. It would be churlish of us not to welcome the fact that in another place our objectives have been achieved.

6 pm

The Minister has attempted to present to the House that facing the Government was the agonising question of appraisal of the use of national insurance numbers. A nice and simple solution, as it appeared, has been discovered to have flaws that the Minister and the Government have gradually been able to address. The fact that NI numbers were not fool-proof was known by the Committee when it wrote the report in 1998. Paragraph 56 reads: No single piece of information is going to provide an absolute guarantee against fraud, but the harder it becomes to falsify proof of identity the more the balance of effort and gain turns away from favouring vote cheats. Useful identifiers which might be included in applications to register as a voter are the date of birth … and the voter's national insurance number. Neither of these pieces of information is completely secure, particularly against organised vote theft, but their use would deter opportunistic fraud.

It is—[Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that that is a different point. It is not. It is vital that the register is as clean and reliable as it can be. If there are two numeric identifiers—for example, date of birth and the national insurance number—to be set against the name of a registered voter, there would be a geometrically increased reliability provided by the computer checking that could be made of the register.

Mr. Browne

With respect, the hon. Gentleman is making a different point. There is no argument that using different pieces of information about individuals improves the prospect of being able to identify them accurately. Equally, there is no question that the limitations imposed by the state of the national insurance database posed problems. The question is how those problems can be addressed in a way that allows that database to be used as one of the identifiers. That is the point that I was making. If the hon. Gentleman did not understand it then, perhaps he might understand it now.

Mr. Blunt

The Minister is splitting hairs. He made it clear in his introductory remarks that there appeared to be a nice and simple solution and that it seemed that there were no problems with it. He failed to say that there was awareness of the problems in 1998. National insurance numbers are not entirely fool-proof but, in conjunction with date of birth, they provide an opportunity to cross-reference and cross-check data against the elector. The Bill will give the chief electoral officer the opportunity to ensure that the register will be as robust as it reasonably can be in current circumstances.

Perhaps the Minister's claims disguise the reality. Parliament owes a debt to my noble Friend Lord Glentoran, who leads for the Conservative party in another place, and to the Minister's noble Friend, Lord Williams of Mostyn, for the way in which they considered the Bill. I believe that there was joint determination that the other Departments that hold national insurance numbers should not be allowed to throw bureaucratic hurdles in the way of the proper objective to make the register as robust as possible, and that absent vote fraud should be made as difficult as possible.

I recognise Lord Williams's efforts and the contribution that presumably the Minister will have made within the Department. He failed to succeed during earlier consideration in this place but we know that at the last gasp, perhaps with there being the opportunity of having the measure imposed upon the Government in another place, it has been possible to convince others in the government machine outside the Northern Ireland Office of the necessity of giving access to national insurance numbers so that they might be checked.

It is rather a pity that the bureaucratic battle was not won rather earlier. If that had been achieved, it would not be necessary for this debate to take place, given the Minister's rather inelegant rotation of position. Better late than never. The Opposition thoroughly welcome the amendments.

As for multiple registration, the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) should he cautioned on accepting the Minister's undertaking that he will be in touch, and if not with him, with a member of his party. The Minister gave a similar undertaking about consultation in Committee on multiple registration. He was gracious enough to accept that the consultation was not entirely flawless when we came to Report. [Interruption.] The Minister is grumbling in his place. I remind the House that he promised to consult all the parties involved in multiple registration. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and I heard nothing from him about that consultation. He was gracious enough to apologise to me at an earlier stage of our proceedings—I am grateful that he is nodding in agreement.

In Committee, we discussed whether multiple registration should be included in primary legislation. I introduced new clause 8 in Committee, which would have included the provision in the Bill. There would have been a requirement for multiple registrations to be recorded. The Minister said in Committee that there were attempts to outlaw multiple registration. That was the position in the amendments set out in the name of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). However, they were not supported by the official Opposition. That might have been the implication behind the introduction of the proposed legislation that we are considering. It was in response to the assurances that we would achieve the objectives that we sought that I withdrew new clause 8 in Committee.

I was delighted that we would achieve the objective by regulation. That would have been satisfactory to an extent, but we would have much preferred the provision to appear in the Bill. However, the requirement has been introduced in another place to register multiple addresses in the Bill. That is enormously to be welcomed.

We have achieved all but limited aspects of the substantive amendments tabled in Committee. One of them was a timetable to ensure that photographic identification would be in place for the Assembly elections in 2003. I understand from the Minister when he introduced the amendments that it is still the Government's intention to have that system up and running for the elections. In Committee I wanted to place that as a duty on the Government by having it written into the Bill, to ensure that there was no element of discretion. A little more than a year away from the Assembly elections, the Minister is telling the House that it is still his intention to have the system in place. If that is achieved, it will be a source of satisfaction.

The Bill, as amended by the House of Lords, significantly advances the battle against electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. The Lords amendments are essential to make the Bill as robust as possible and have hugely added to its strength. Her Majesty's Opposition therefore welcome them and will, of course, support them.

Mr. McGrady

In view of the time, I shall be brief. We welcome the Bill's progress. Electoral fraud in Northern Ireland is an endemic problem. As I said on Second Reading, it is not just a casual or an individual event; it is a concerted, planned campaign in a paramilitary style, carried out by virtually paramilitary organisations.

I repeat that electoral fraud has changed some of the representation of the people to the House, and it could change the direction of politics in Northern Ireland as a whole. That is why the true voice of democracy is so important in Northern Ireland, more so than anywhere else, particularly in these times of change, transition and sensitivity. However long it has taken, we warmly welcome the fact that the Bill will shortly become law.

It bothers me not how the conversion took place—whether it was divine intervention, the road to Damascus, or the eloquence, persuasiveness and logic of members of the Committee that changed the Government's mind. I suspect that the Minister was an ardent adherent of his earlier comments and attitudes to the Select Committee, but was implementing orders to say that the introduction of national insurance numbers as a means of identification was far too complex. I do not think that he ever believed that. I certainly did not believe what he was saying, and I suspect that he did not believe it, either.

We welcome the compulsory registration of multiple registration, where someone is registered elsewhere. That is vital in the context of Northern Ireland. There is also the problem of multiple occupation. In the electoral register of Northern Ireland, there are instances of 10, 12 or 14 people being registered from a two-bedroom flat. That is an interesting concept in terms of human dynamics and it has an adverse impact on election results.

In my brief intervention, I asked about amendment No. 4 to section 5A, concerning the discretion of the registration officer and how the applicant for registration would be assisted if he disputed the registration officer's findings. I referred to electoral courts, but that is much too lofty an authority. What I meant was the hearings of the registration officer, which usually take place in December or January. That should be where the refused applicant is given an opportunity to rebut a decision. After all, it will sometimes be a subjective decision by the registration officer. That should be the setting for an appeal to take place, without prejudice to the person's legal right to a much more formal process in a court of law.

I was interested in the rather short answer that the Minister gave the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) about funding, logistics and personnel. I am deeply concerned about those matters, but the Minister touched on them only briefly. He may be able to elaborate in his winding-up speech, if time permits. If the new provisions are to be fully and properly implemented, it is essential that there should be a greater number of personnel, both in the registration offices and particularly in the polling stations on the day of the poll.

It is equally important that personnel be of the calibre and character to understand their duties and to be determined to enforce them. We can legislate all we like, and there can he rules and regulations regarding polling stations, but if the personnel in the polling stations are not confident of back-up in implementing them, all our work will come to naught. I am anxious that, by direction, rule or regulation, personnel should be properly briefed.

6.15 pm

I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) about the Minister's assurance this evening that the non-photographic identification of a voter at a polling station would be withdrawn by 1 May 2003. That is an ambitious programme for the Minister at this rather late stage of the process. I am somewhat comforted by his assurance, however. Perhaps he can indicate in his winding-up speech or in writing whether he has any further thoughts concerning the matters about which he was going to communicate with members of the Select Committee regarding driving licences—the photographic part only being available as a means of identification, quite satisfactorily—and regarding what progress has been made in respect of the photo-identity of the elderly citizen through the Translink photographic transport pass. As the process is entirely voluntary, those would help to determine how many people do not have any means of photo-identity and would greatly reduce the number who need to be serviced.

I know that many other hon. Members, especially from Northern Ireland, want to speak, and I would like to hear from them. I must tell the Minister, however, that we are disappointed—in some respects severely disappointed—by the shortfalls in the Bill and the Lords amendments.

One of the most difficult aspects of voting in Northern Ireland is intimidation on the day at the polling station. We had sought by statute or by regulation the creation of a cordon sanitaire around a polling station, so that political party activists could not act in an intimidatory fashion towards the voter. That has not been taken on board.

I am also deeply disappointed that responsibility for preventing fraud at the polling station still resides primarily with the voluntary party official known as the polling clerk, with all the legal responsibilities and liabilities that he may incur. It is probably the only instance in which a policeman can observe a crime being committed without having the power to intervene to prevent it. Again, that did not come within the compass of the Bill.

Finally, it may be a hoary old chestnut to many in the House, but much of the tension, impersonation and wrongdoing in elections in Northern Ireland could have been ameliorated considerably if the Government had had the courage to introduce that form of election which pertains in every other election in Northern Ireland except elections to the House. I refer to proportional representation. Proportional representation in Northern Ireland applies to European elections, local government elections and Assembly elections. The only elections to which it does not apply are those to the House.

I know the arguments that are used, but I find them rather light arguments, and sometimes spurious. The brutal fact is that by its nature, proportional representation would take much of the sectarian bigotry, hatred and attitudes out of the campaign and would reflect the real wishes of the electorate in Northern Ireland much better than the first-past-the-post system. That system means that if a candidate gets half a dozen votes more than their opponent as a result of fraud or personation, they can win the day. In practical terms, that could not happen under proportional representation.

None the less, I do not want to look a gift-horse in the mouth. On behalf of my party and constituents, I welcome very much this valiant attempt to correct the imperfections—to put it politely—of our electoral system, and to seek in practical terms to prevent fraud and thereby do away with a lot of the intimidation that the current system engenders.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

In a debate lasting two hours and 23 minutes, I note that the Minister took one hour and 13 minutes to make his speech and respond to the other points that were made. In other words, just over half the time was devoted to the Minister's retraction of the position that he has so assiduously argued at every stage of the Bill's passage until today.

It is understandable that the Minister wanted to take some time to explain how this 11th-hour enlightenment came upon him, although the points that he made were pretty clear to hon. Members in all parts of the House—except those whipped by the Government. I welcome his honesty in implying acceptance that the Government may have been wrong to show such a degree of inflexibility at earlier stages. Apropos of our debate on the programme motion, if time is squeezed towards the end of this debate because of the length of his speech, it will be another instance in which one is made more cautious about such motions. Fortunately, the Government did the right thing today, not least in the eyes of the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), but I am a bit cautious about programme motions, so we will see how the time goes for this group of amendments and the remaining one.

Lady Hermon

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I want to make two points. First, in fairness to the Minister, I took up a lot of his time with serious interventions. Secondly, last December, with regard to national insurance numbers, the Minister said: I am still in reflective mode".—[Official Report, 5 December 2001; Vol. 376, c. 320.] The points made in Committee preoccupied him. I know that it took an awful long time to get him out of reflective mode, but he came out of it positively.

Lembit Öpik

I agree on both points. I am not condemning the Minister for the time that he took: it is a sign of strength, not weakness, to be willing to respond to interventions across the Floor of the House. It is to his credit that he did not waffle or waste our time with his responses. Furthermore, the hon. Lady's interventions were based on sound understanding of the issues and added value to the debate. I was suggesting only that the Minister and the Government are responsible for working out how much time is required, but I am not even condemning the Minister on that point: if we finish comfortably by 7 o'clock, no damage will have been done. I seek only to put down a marker, as what happens now will guide our future behaviour. However, we have had the debate on the programme motion, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I wish to turn to more substantive points about the amendments.

In view of the debate, the Minister's comments and the proceedings of Standing Committee D on 16 October 2001, all sides now finally agree that the proposal on national insurance numbers is sensible. That position has been firmly held throughout by all parties except the one in government; indeed, it seems that the Minister himself took the same view in his earlier incarnation as a Back Bencher. To the credit of the Government, they have now come round to a commonsense position that is agreed in all other parts of the House. The amendment is welcome, but it has come at the 11th hour. I seek the Minister's explicit reassurance on when he expects all the mechanics that are required to implement it to be in place. Evidently, next year's elections have a fixed date and we want the arrangements to be in place by that time.

As a wistful footnote to the remarks of the hon. Member for Reigate, I point out the changes could have been introduced earlier. In fairness to the Minister, he made the same point. We did not have to wait until 1997 or 1998 to consider the matter, but I accept that the Conservative Government made various efforts to try to close the loopholes that allowed electoral fraud to occur on the massive scale on which it has previously occurred in the Province.

Of course, we will not get certainty even with the introduction of the provisions on national insurance numbers. If people try hard enough, they will find a way through. We are playing a probabilities game, but if the amendment tightens up electoral fraud substantially and reduces it measurably in the Province—I shall return to that wider issue—it will be worth while.

It seems ironic that the process has required the upper House to talk sense into the Government. I want to make a couple of points about that process, as in some ways the most important lesson for the future is the degree of flexibility that the Government need to ensure that they do not again miss a trick on an issue such as the inclusion of national insurance numbers. I wonder what would have happened if they had been able to whip their vote in the upper House to maintain the Bill in unamended form. I am not saying that the Minister would necessarily have ignored the amendment, but circumstantially speaking, I am aware of the extreme measures that he took to justify the absence of any proposal for change on 16 October 2001.

The hon. Member for Reigate cited the comments made by the Minister in 1998. I suspect that one could argue, perhaps slightly tenuously, that the Data Protection Act 1998 made matters very different, but those changes occurred before October last year, when the Minister was scratching around to try to give the impression that what was being proposed could not be achieved. One of the examples that he gave to show why it would be unreasonable to include the national insurance number related to a childless French woman who was married to a Northern Ireland resident, did not work or claim benefits, but would be entitled to vote. Technically, such people may exist, but I can only conclude from the Minister's volte face that he now accepts that what happens in respect of such a small number of people will be acceptable collateral damage in order to close the loophole. I understand from his comments today—I refer mainly to those made in response to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)—that such individuals would not be barred from voting by the arrangements that he outlined.

Mr. Browne

Can the hon. Gentleman work out the probability of somebody whose roots are in the Baltic states being educated in Northern Ireland and representing a Welsh constituency?

Lembit Öpik

As an aside, let me say that when I first applied for selection to represent Montgomeryshire, the Welsh Liberal Democrats held a sweepstake on who would be chosen. The odds against me were regarded as so large that they had to refund some money, because I had not been included on the list. So I accept that stranger things have happened. Perhaps I should also briefly cite the occasion when, somewhat erroneously, somebody said in a moment of rage that there were more Estonians than Etonians in the Cabinet. As the first Estonian to speak on the Floor of the House, I can claim credit for having bucked the statistics.

The Minister tried hard to justify why it would be unacceptable to introduce national insurance numbers as a kind of insurance policy against electoral fraud. All the details are there for hon. Members and the public to see in the record of the Standing Committee on 16 October, so I need not labour the point.

6.30 pm

I suggest that the benefit of being willing to listen to and accept such points at an earlier stage cannot be overstated. Two elements slowed down the process; we could have got here much faster. First, the Minister was apparently under an obligation not to give way on this point in the face of insuperable, unarguable evidence from all sides that it was a desirable change that would make a considerable difference to the amount of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. He might have saved us time if he had taken a more circumspect approach, instead of committing himself as he did, thereafter—understandably—not being able to reverse that position until the Bill went to the upper House. Of course, this time the situation has been recovered and we are able to do the right thing now. However, on previous occasions—I shall not give a long list—the Government have been able to push legislation through, to its detriment.

My second point concerns consultation. The hon. Member for Reigate rightly cited an occasion on which neither he nor I had been consulted. The Minister gracefully apologised for that at the time, and has showed some contriteness today.

Mr. Blunt


Lembit Öpik

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the grammar lesson.

Consultation is absolutely vital in dealing with technically complicated matters relating to the Province. The Government have done well in consulting on many pieces of Northern Irish legislation—for example, the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000—but this time I felt that Ministers were not necessarily listening to an appropriate degree.

Today's debate may hold lessons for the United Kingdom as a whole as regards electoral fraud. If there is a massive increase in the use of postal votes, we may want to assess what is working in the Province before considering implementing such changes on the mainland. Of course, that must be balanced by civil liberties, cost-benefit considerations and so forth. I put that down as a marker for future debates if it turns out that electoral fraud is prompted or stimulated by changes that we make to the electoral process.

Mr. Browne

indicated assent.

Lembit Öpik

I see that the Minister has some sympathy with that point.

It is to the Government's credit that they have finally listened, although it has taken a long time for us to get here. I am confident that these changes will make a difference to the opportunity for organised electoral fraud to take place in the Province, although realistically it may still be possible. As the Minister said, we have conquered the summit of the debate together, but if the Government had listened to us a little more we might have found a rather faster route.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) for telling us about the seriousness of this matter. Electoral fraud in Northern Ireland is a massive issue, and we should all be concerned about getting it right. Regardless of whether the Bill gets it absolutely right, it represents a considerable advance.

On using national insurance numbers for electoral registration, I feel a bit like Zebedee in "The Magic Roundabout". At one time I stood in one position, then I jumped to the opposite position, and now I am minded to jump back again—unless something dramatic happens in the next 20 minutes or so.

I, with my hon. Friend the Minister, was a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs that produced the report. Although the Conservative spokesman pointed out that our report said that we should be under no illusion that the national insurance system was perfect, and difficulties were bound to be involved, I and other members of the Committee felt that it offered a unique and precise, if not perfect, set of identifiers, which, despite the qualifications detailed in the report, represented a good idea that could be propounded. I willingly took that position, at which point I was clearest about the issue.

When we listened to what my hon. Friend the Minister said in Standing Committee, it began to emerge that the matter was not as straightforward and clear as we had thought in the Select Committee, and to some extent those doubts remain. The balance may have moved back in the other direction, but the earlier remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) revealed areas of difficulty. The Minister's argument about the complexity and sophistication of the measures in the amendments, and the fact that other legislation potentially offers a court avenue, seems to tip the argument in favour of the measure that we initially suggested. Nevertheless, I am not as solidly and fully convinced of that as I was when the Select Committee produced the report, because genuine doubts have been sown. I discussed them in Standing Committee, and they are still there.

We will not tackle the problem of electoral registration in Northern Ireland until we tackle it for the whole of the United Kingdom. We must do that by developing a method that is as watertight as we can achieve under a new technology—that is, by using identity cards in the process of electoral registration. We have not yet reached that stage. We cannot do it in this provision for Northern Ireland, so we are making the best guess that we can in the circumstances by finally accepting that national insurance numbers, in addition to the other measures in the Bill, will order matters as well as possible—although nothing is absolutely certain, and there may be difficulties in the courts.

Another major issue is multiple registration. I remain committed to the view that that should not take place. The only concept worthy of picking up from the poll tax is that there could be registration at one sole or main place of residence. Rolling registers should enable us to develop to a position whereby a person is mainly resident in one area, in which they exercise their franchise. Again, that cannot simply be added to this provision for Northern Ireland. Indeed, Northern Ireland raises problems as regards extending registration of a single nature throughout the rest of Britain, because it has a three-month registration period. That is probably necessary so that areas are not manipulated and flooded by people deliberately moving in from the Republic of Ireland to distort a particular electoral result. As long as there is a three-month waiting period in Northern Ireland, and we are trying to fix a system with Britain, it will not be possible to have single registration provisions. We shall have to crack that problem in future.

The rolling electoral register has exacerbated the problem because as soon as people move elsewhere in the United Kingdom, they can register in the place that should be their sole or main place of registration. If they move from Britain to Northern Ireland, they will have to wait three months before registering there. That will hold matters up. It will not be easy simply to move registration from one area to another.

Although I have some principled proposals that, I believe, would improve electoral registration for the whole United Kingdom and be especially beneficial in Northern Ireland, where there are considerable problems, the measure is welcome. I believe that we have got it about right.

Lady Hermon

I shall keep my remarks brief because I have intervened several times. I am conscious that other hon. Members, and not only those with Northern Ireland constituencies, want to contribute.

The Bill is infinitely better than the version that first saw the light of day. Including national insurance numbers as well as signatures and dates of birth will reduce the opportunities for electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. That must be welcomed. I pay tribute to those in the Northern Ireland Office and those who drafted the amendments on such a technical aspect of law. They have done an excellent job.

When I entered the Chamber this afternoon, I had two main reservations. First, hon. Members know that the original Bill made a specific dispensation for those who are incapacitated or unable to read. They are not required to provide a signature. The amendments require national insurance numbers or a statement that a person does not have one, and a statement about residence. It was unclear whether the voter had to make those statements. The Bill and the amendments do not provide a dispensation equivalent to that for providing a signature.

My anxiety deepened when I read the debate in the other place on 25 February 2002. Lord Williams of Mostyn made matters clear. He said: Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 6 will require a person applying to be registered in respect of a Northern Ireland address to give a national insurance number, or to make a statement that he does not have such a number. The applicant will also be required to make a statement that he or she has been resident in Northern Ireland for the requisite three-month period before the date of application, and to state any other address".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 February 2002; Vol. 631, c. 1254.]

Suffice it to say that I was worried about the lack of an exemption for people who are incapacitated or unable to read and had to make a statement about residence or their national insurance numbers. The Minister's comments were designed to be useful and helpful, and he clarified the matter. He said that the statement does not necessarily have to be made by the elector. The amendments do not make that clear, and I greatly appreciate the Minister's clarification.

That leaves the three-month residence requirement. The Minister provided some insight and said that the requirement has existed since 1949. If he has been able to find the relevant legislation, it is doubtless an old Stormont measure.

Mr. Barnes

The provision is contained in Representation of the People Acts that are passed by Parliament, not Stormont.

6.45 pm
Lady Hermon

I appreciate that intervention. It is helpful to know that: it is not Stormont, but United Kingdom legislation. That makes matters more interesting because 1949 pre-dates our obligations under the European convention on human rights and the 1957 EEC treaty. I want to consider both measures because the Minister should tackle both if possible.

The first protocol and article 3 of the convention on human rights have been incorporated into the Human Rights Act 1998, but would have been part of our legislation since we ratified the convention in 1953. Article 3 obliges the high contracting parties, including the United Kingdom, to undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature. It does not state: "the opinion of the people resident for three months in the choice of the legislature."

My anxiety is underlined by the fact that under the 1957 EEC treaty, article 48 guarantees the free movement of workers from one member state to another. I am sure that the Minister knows that the High Court ruled in the landmark case of Van Duyn v. the Home Office several years ago that article 48, especially the second and third paragraphs, were directly effective in the United Kingdom. They give workers from member states, including the Republic of Ireland, the right to move freely from one member state to another.

After the treaty, the important Council regulation 1612 was introduced in 1968. It guarantees to workers who move from one member state to another the same social and tax advantages as the workers of the host member state. Given that the three-month residence requirement has existed since 1949, the Minister must deal with its compatibility with our obligations under the European convention on human rights and especially EU legislation.

Will the Minister explain the reason for the two definitions of the Representation of the People Act 1983? Clause 1 states: The Representation of the People Act 1983 … (in this Act referred to as 'the 1983 Act')". Clause 7 repeats that by stating: In this Act, 'the 1983 Act' means the Representation of the People Act 1983". That is superfluous. A definition of the principal Act would have been better; it is not defined at all. I rest my case, and look forward to the Minister's replies.

Mr. Wilshire

Unlike the Liberal Democrat spokesman, who spoke as a contributor from the minor parties, I have no complaints about the Minister's opening speech. He was helpful, patient and did his best to answer a range of important and genuine queries that hon. Members from all parties raised.

Lembit Öpik

I went to some lengths to stress that I did not condemn the Minister for the length of his speech; I was making a point about the programme motion.

Mr. Wilshire

It did not sound like that at the time; it sounded like a criticism, which prods me to say that I am not criticising. However, the spokesman for the minor parties is right that the debate tells us much about the stupidity of the programme motion. After a sensible debate in which the Minister, quite rightly, took up a lot of time, we are about to run out of time on the first group of amendments. Two of my hon. Friends still want to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which means that there will not be the slightest chance of the Minister being able to respond fully and properly to the additional points being made, let alone to start any sort of a debate on the second group of amendments, unless people can now be persuaded to shut up. I am sure that that is what the Government would like, so that we cannot demonstrate the futility of yet another programme motion curtailing debate in the House and curtailing our opportunities to press the Minister to explain the Government's priorities.

That said, it would be wrong of me to say other than that I, like everyone else, welcome a change of heart when it is on offer. Heaven only knows, it is rare enough for any Government, let alone this one, to change their mind. We ought all, therefore, to put on record that we appreciate that. Exactly what has led the Minister to this is private grief on which I do not wish to intrude. I just want to thank him.

I want to say one or two things about the Minister's comments at the beginning of the debate. Those comments are relevant, because we had an exchange of views about why the chief electoral officer had changed his mind. I accept that the Minister does not know those reasons; he was very honest about that, for which I am grateful. We ought to know the reasons, however, because if we are to make a fair, rational judgment about these matters, we need to know what the chief electoral officer has now concluded. I hope that he has not simply changed his mind because the Government told him to. That would never be a justification.

Mr. Browne

indicated dissent.

Mr. Wilshire

The Minister shakes his head, and I am glad, because that suggests that that is not what happened. If the Minister is certain that the chief electorial officer has not changed his mind because of Government pressure, he must have some reason for that certainty—he must know what the reason was. If the Minister rules out one reason, he must have some evidence on which to shake his head and say no. I urge him to go back to the chief electoral officer after this debate to ask him the reason, and to write to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) with the answer—or place a copy of the letter or statement in the Library—so that we can see it.

Mr. Browne

indicated dissent.

Mr. Wilshire

The Minister is again shaking his head. If he would like to intervene to say why he is not prepared to do that, the House would be grateful. The Minister does not want to tell us why he is not prepared to get the answer to a question. That is typical of a Government who do not like to answer questions if it does not suit their purpose. That is entirely wrong.

Another comment that the Minister made, but did not pursue as much as I would have liked, was that all the parties in the House supported his change of heart. That is good as far as it goes, but he then went on to say that he was unable to tell us what Sinn Fein-IRA thought about the proposal, although he had a general sense that they were not much in favour of it when it was originally published. It is crucial that the House should know what the agents of terror think about our attempts to improve democracy in Northern Ireland. Not only are they prepared to ignore the wishes of their constituents in refusing to take their seats here, but if they are against this attempt to clamp down on fraud, we are entitled to assume that they welcome fraud. That would certainly seem to be the case. It is, therefore, remiss of the Minister not to have made any effort to discover what Sinn Fein-IRA really think, because we need to know.

Mr. Swire

Is my hon. Friend aware of what Baroness Park said recently in the other place? She quoted the following statement from Sinn Fein: Sinn Fein believes that there is a compelling and logical argument to ensure that the electorate has the maximum freedom to exercise their vote as freely as possible."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 January 2002; Vol. 630, c. 463.]

What does my hon. Friend deduce from that?

Mr. Wilshire

I deduce that I am glad someone has taken the trouble to think about this, and to say something about it, unlike the Minister, who clearly has not made any such effort.

Mr. Browne

I am reluctant to take up any more time in this debate, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is inadvertently misrepresenting my position. Sinn Fein was, of course, consulted on these matters, as were all parties. The quotation that the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) referred to in the other place came from the early paragraphs of its response to the consultation process, which is available for anybody to read. In answer to the hon. Gentleman's other point, I merely pointed out that I had not had a response from Sinn Fein on the point that he raised. I did not say that I did not seek a response, but that I had not had one.

Mr. Wilshire

If I misrepresented the Minister, of course I apologise, and I am grateful that he has explained his position for the benefit of the House.

The Minister said earlier that it was right for the Government to take the necessary time to get the legislation into the form that it now takes. Of course it is necessary to take a degree of time, but on this occasion, the most enormous amount of time seems to have been taken. Suspicious people such as I cannot help but wonder what caused that. Could it possibly be that one of the things going through the Government's mind was that the last thing they wanted was to upset Sinn Fein-IRA ahead of a general election? After all, the Government have been busily giving in on one-sided deals throughout their term of office, and perhaps they did not want to minimise Sinn Fein's opportunity to win more seats.

I am of an equally suspicious mind when it comes to this Government's dealing with terrorists, and it may well be that, by taking the time that they say was necessary, they will have allowed Sinn Fein-IRA to win more votes in the Assembly election than they would have done if we had clamped down on fraud ahead of it. If that is not the case, I am sure that the Minister will put the matter right.

Many issues remain to be explored in this debate; I have a list of them. They are important to the people of this country, who need to know the answers. Yet here we are again, three minutes from a guillotine, without any real opportunity to debate what needs debating, and two of my colleagues still want to contribute. I will protest again, therefore, that I am being silenced by the Government. I am not being allowed to debate what needs to be debated. The Government are escaping from being held to account by the House by hiding behind programme motions and guillotines. That said, other hon. Members wish to speak.

Mr. Gregory Campbell

I want to draw the attention of the House to the fact that, in the original Select Committee consideration of the inclusion of national insurance numbers, it was my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) who proposed that they should be included. A significant number of people over the past 30 years have engaged in electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland, and it is no coincidence that thousands of absent-vote applications have mounted up in the constituencies where Sinn Fein either has a Member of Parliament or is endeavouring to win the seat.

My party welcomes the Bill. It is not perfect, but it will be a substantial improvement if it is implemented in time. I hope that the Minister will take note that a court case may well end up in the House of Lords that might not permit the Assembly elections to be in May 2003; they might be earlier. That being the case, I hope that he will ensure that the legislation will be proceeded with as quickly as possible, to prevent further malpractice. There are those in Northern Ireland, principally Sinn Fein-IRA, who have mastered the art of the abuse of the electoral system to the tune of many thousands of votes. They have done that in election after election, and will no doubt do so again unless this Bill is implemented as speedily as possible. We therefore welcome the Bill, even if it costs the £750,000 that it appears from the notes that it will cost. We welcome it none the less.

Lords amendment agreed to.

It being Seven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER, pursuant to Orders [28 June and this day], put forthwith the Questions necessary to dispose of the Business to be concluded at that hour.

Subsequent Lords Amendments agreed to.

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