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Absent votes and declarations of identity

Mr. Blunt: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 3, line 36, after "application", insert—

'is made on a form supplied by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland containing such marking or coding as he may determine,'.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 15, in clause 2, page 3, line 47, at end insert—

'(2A) In section 6 (absent vote at elections for an indefinite period) after subsection (1) there is inserted—
"(1A) Any application under subsection (1) for an absent vote must be by means of an application form provided by the Chief Electoral Officer; and
(1B) Any application form supplied by the Chief Electoral Officer under subsection (1A) shall be marked with a bar code unique to each form.".'.

No. 4, in clause 3, page 4, line 4, after "application", insert—

'is made on a form supplied by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland containing such marking or coding as he may determine,'.

Mr. Blunt: It is quite an evening when we reduce the Government's majority to 87. That is indicative of just how badly the Minister lost the argument on new clause 2, in this Parliament of such unhappy numbers.

I am grateful for the progress that we made in Committee, when the Government changed the Bill to include a requirement to put the date of birth on applications for absent votes. Yet again, I am here to help the Minister. He has accepted our help, to some extent, on one occasion. In Committee, he said:

The amendments would achieve precisely that.

This is an area of key importance in addressing electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. Paragraph 38 of the excellent 1998 report from the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs concludes:

The extent of absent voting in Northern Ireland and the potential for abuse, which was predicted in the report, was confirmed by the statistics that emerged from the 2001 general election. The seats that were contested most fiercely and resulted in gains by Sinn Fein, which has

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been associated and identified with a fairly ruthless and, in the words of the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), a paramilitary organised approach to these issues, included West Tyrone, where the astonishing number of 2,012 proxy votes and 3,427 postal votes were granted. There was a total of 5,443 absent votes. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, 4,664 postal votes and 1,116 proxy votes were granted, and there was a total of 5,784 absent votes.

The number of proxy votes granted in West Tyrone is fabulous, and I do not think that any other constituency in the United Kingdom can come remotely close to that figure. Certainly, no constituency in Northern Ireland does, because the next highest number of proxy votes is about half that.

The constituencies of West Tyrone, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and Mid-Ulster, all Sinn Fein held, were the ones with the highest number of absent votes. To say that there is a coincidence between those figures and the fact that Sinn Fein is on the receiving end of accusations about an organised approach to the abuse of the electoral system is to take coincidence one step too far.

The prediction that was made by the Select Committee in 1998 appears on the basis of the statistical evidence to be borne out by what happened in the last general election. Unless the amendments are accepted, as the law stands—and will continue to stand under the Bill when it is enacted—only the information with an absent vote application has to be delivered to the chief electoral officer. The Bill does not specify in which form that information is to come.

If the Minister wants to meet his aim of automated processing of absent vote applications, those application forms will have to marry up with the computer system for the information to be read in the appropriate place. So far, the House has not agreed to include the requirement for national insurance numbers, but if we require the signature and date of birth as factors to be tested between the absent vote application and the register, the forms must enable that to happen. Otherwise, we will be in the same position as we are today.

In the general election in Northern Ireland, 31,048 postal vote applications and 10,000 proxy vote applications were made, which gives a total of more than 40,000. The chief electoral officer was not able to check, even after the event, whether those applications merited further investigation. In the 1997 general election, the chief electoral officer was faced with a tidal wave of up to 10,000 applications that were produced at the very last moment. There was a only a short time between the presentation of those applications and the general election, and given the way in which the forms are constituted, there was not a cat in hell's chance for the chief electoral officer to check them properly. That is known, so people who wish to abuse the system have an opportunity to do so.

9 pm

In Committee, the Minister mentioned the fact that we should not advertise the opportunities to defraud the system by explaining that it was sufficient to provide the necessary information without using the official form, but I am sure that those who wished to do so could work it out for themselves. The abuse of the electoral system is sophisticated and if we leave a loophole, it will be exploited. It is our job to ensure that that cannot happen.

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The Government resisted similar amendments in Committee and squeaked through the Division nine votes to eight, which means that all five Opposition parties were united in their view, including all the parties representing Northern Ireland. The Minister said that the change would be an unnecessary restriction on normal activities as part of the political process. I do not accept that. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the chief electoral officer—who has been in post for 17 years—believe such fraud to be the commonest form of vote stealing in Northern Ireland and it must be addressed. The most effective way to address it is to ensure that the forms on which people apply for absent votes are those issued by the chief electoral officer.

My amendments would leave it to the chief electoral officer to decide the format of the form, but the amendments tabled by the Liberal Democrats would require the form to be bar-coded and would place a duty on the chief electoral officer to ensure that the forms could be individually identifiable. It is the chief electoral officer's intention to bar-code the forms, if possible, but I have been convinced by the arguments for flexibility and would leave the decision to him. However, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and I differ only slightly on the issue.

The issue is important and the Minister needs to address it. He was able to give some comfort to us earlier tonight and I hope that he will be able to do so again.

Mr. McGrady: The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) suggested that the absent vote system—for the sick and disabled, and for proxy votes—presented the biggest opportunity for electoral fraud and I can but agree with that statement. However, statistics are wonderful things and I shall give a few figures from the table mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

In 1997, before the 1998 report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the percentage of absent votes in West Tyrone was 7.5 and it went up to 9 per cent. in 2001. For Fermanagh and South Tyrone, in 1997 the percentage was 9.3 and it went down to 8.7 per cent. in 2001. In Mid-Ulster, it was 8.6 per cent. in 1997 and fell to 6.7 per cent in 2001. High figures for absent votes are not a new phenomenon but have been going on for many years. I should like to attribute great insight to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, but modesty and the statistics forbid me.

However, this is a serious issue, and one with which we have wrestled for many years at hustings in Northern Ireland. The difficulty is that it has been traditional for the political parties, in the most honourable and trustworthy way, to help people to vote who otherwise could not go to the polls for one reason or another. The people thus helped have included those permanently on the sick list because of disablement, or those temporarily affected by sickness or injury during an election. Some people, of course, are unable to vote in elections for other reasons, or are elsewhere when election day comes around.

The phenomenon of trusted proxies is relatively new, but their use as a way to represent people at the polls is valid and is increasing. However, I think that imposing on the electoral officer and his assistants the requirement that each postal vote application form issued should be coded individually would cause practical difficulties.

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Moreover, I believe that the proposal would diminish the ability of people to secure a postal vote when there are genuine reasons that render them unable to vote in person on the day of an election. Perhaps that is its purpose. In my experience, it is very difficult to get the electoral office to issue postal applications in time for people to return them, and requiring the applications to be allocated on a one-to-one basis would make that process even more difficult.

If all the people unable to get to the polling station on election day had to apply for a form permitting them an absent vote, I believe that the system would break down, as they would have to complete the form, get it attested, and send it back in time for inclusion in the poll. I am fully aware of what goes on in certain areas, and that means that I am reluctant to make the process so difficult. The danger is that many people would be disfranchised if numbered and traceable application forms were introduced.

It has been suggested that block applications could be given to the existing accredited representatives of political parties, and that those block applications could have a single, identifiable code number that would allow the person or group to whom the block application was issued to be identified. In other parts of the country colours could be used to identify the block applications, but that could cause all sorts of difficulties in Northern Ireland.

Although the use of a code number would not be foolproof, as no doubt the number would filter out somewhere down the line and duplication could take place, it would be a step towards what is proposed in the amendments. On balance, however, I am unable to support what is proposed in the amendments because I judge that many people who are legitimately unable to vote because they are ill or absent on election day would be disfranchised. In addition, I consider that the proposed system would be unnecessarily complicated.

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