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Lembit Öpik: As in the last group of amendments, when I made common cause with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), so also we make common cause on amendment No. 15. This has already been touched on, but let me outline the key reason why I believe, along with the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady, that bar codes are an important evolution in reducing fraud.
I have been concerned about the opportunities for fraud with regard to absent votes in United Kingdom elections as a whole. Some of the important check steps are absent if people are absent themselves. As such, the people in Northern Ireland for whom the legislation is intended are most likely to go to the point of least resistance once other changes have been made. Even with the Bill's limitations, given that the Government have not accepted our amendments, there will be some improvement in the situation in Northern Ireland. However, if the Government do not accept the proposal in amendment No. 15, we still have the Achilles' heel of absent votes.
The principle of the proposal was debated in Committee. We stipulated that applications for absent votes must contain a bar code, which are easy to scan and difficult to reproduce. The basic principle is to have each application form for an absent vote marked in a specific way so that applications cannot be photocopied wholesale
The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said that about 40,000 absent votes were recorded in Northern Ireland in the recent election. Even if that figure were 80,000, the cost of specifying a particular bar code for each paper would be relatively small, perhaps a few pence per sheet. Given the benefit that would be gained, the investment of a few thousand pounds would surely not be prohibitive. So cost is not an issue. The logistical challenge of creating these forms is well within the Government's technological capabilities, so there is no logistical barrier to having a supply available.
The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), who is resistant to amendment No. 15 and this group as a whole, can be reassured by the fact that we would not have to maintain the existing limitations on availability of forms. We could streamline it and speed it up and still maintain a cohesion as to who gets which form. We could track where large blocks of forms go and ensure that there was no concerted effort to duplicate the applications, which would show up with the bar codes.
In terms of the cohesion of the system as a whole, bar codes would enable us to spot patterns if a large block of forms was completed in the same handwriting in a suspicious fashion. We could trace patterns much more easily if each form was observed afterwards as having come from a particular block given to a particular grouping.
There is no absolute certainty, even with bar codes. A fraudster who was inventive and determined enough could still be responsible for a limited degree of fraud. However, it would get much more difficult as the circumstantial evidence would mount up until the people behind the fraud could be identified and prosecuted.
If bar codes are not introduced, the Liberal Democrats are concerned that we would be unable to make significant progress. As right hon. and hon. Members who served on the Committee will recall, at present one can use any piece of paper in Northern Ireland or in any election in the United Kingdom with which to apply for a postal vote. When I was a councillor in Newcastle upon Tyne, the incidence of requesting postal votes on anything other than a proprietary form was fairly small. The political parties active in the Newcastle area were assiduous in using the readily available forms from Newcastle council. If we can be sure that honourable individuals and their associated political parties are willing to use these forms at council level, I would like to think that the same would apply to Northern Ireland.
Sadly, we have just rejected the case for the use of national insurance numbers, which are unique to individuals as right hon. and hon. Members will recall. I fear that we will have to return to that matter in another place. In their absence it makes it even more important that individual absent vote forms are traceable. In that way, we can ensure that forged signatures and so forth can at least be tracked as I described.
What is the Minister's view of the desirability of tracing individual forms and has it changed since the Committee? If he accepts that there are no logistical or significant costing negatives to introducing bar codes, will
Mr. Browne: I can assure the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) that the resources are available and will be made available as necessary to achieve the objectives that have been set out in the planned programme of change for the introduction of the necessary computers and software in the electoral office. That will enable the very things that I spelled out in Committee, on Second Reading, and today to be done in time for the planned elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly in May 2003. As currently advised, we are still on course to achieve that objective. I intend to consult the parties in Northern Ireland and to find a mechanism to keep them involved in discussions about progress towards that objective.
We had detailed discussions in Committee about many aspects of absent votingproperly so, as there is clearly great concern about abuse of the electoral system. It is not merely a matter of statistics although, interestingly, when one aggregates the statistical evidence for Northern Ireland, the rate of absent voting is not significantly greater than the overall rate for the rest of the United Kingdom. It is concentrated in certain constituencies. The statistical evidence given us by my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) is also of some interest, in that there has been no consistent rise in the number of absent votes used in certain constituencies.
Whatever the explanation for these shiftsperhaps we need not dwell too much on an explanation of why there may have been shifts in individual constituenciesthere is well justified concern about the potential offered by the absent voting system for fraud and about evidence that suggests that fraud is being perpetrated by the use of absent votes.
As I said in Committee, the current law does not require people anywhere in the UK to apply for absent votes on a particular form. There is no evidence to suggest that the existence of that opportunity has been exploited by anybody intending or attempting to commit fraud in the electoral system anywhere in the United Kingdom.
In Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, an applicant for an absent vote is required to give the chief electoral officer certain information. Until now, the law has been that it is the information that entitles the applicant to the votenot the form on which the information is presented. However, it is currently the norm for applications for absent votes in Northern Ireland to be submitted in the main on formsor copies of formsthat are provided by the chief electoral officer. The chief electoral officer already plans to take administrative measures to ensure that applications for an absent vote will be given some kind of unique identifierbe it a serial number or a bar codeand that can be achieved without either primary or secondary legislation.
When it comes to tracing to whom the original form was issued, it will not matter if an application for an absent vote was made on an original form or on a photocopy, because the bar code would be copied on the copy. We do not have to insist that all forms are original to find out who took them out of the office. The chief electoral officer has only to record to whom he gave the individual forms. Although electors will not be required to submit their applications on a form from the electoral office, I suspect that it will continue to be the norm for most people to do so. I have no reason to believe that in future there will be a sudden flood of applications on odd bits of paper. However, I am not inclined to remove the possibility that people currently have to make an application in a form other than on an original form or a copy of an original form provided by the chief electoral officer. We live in a democracy and I shall not put into legislation any measures that could disfranchise people.