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Lembit Öpik: In that case, will the Minister explain why he said in the Standing Committee:

Surely that means that if two forms came in with the same bar code they would not be accepted by the electoral officer.

Mr. Browne: I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman reads my whole contribution, he will see that I made it perfectly clear on more than one occasion during that Committee debate that it would still be open to parties to copy those forms. Although the form would be unique when it was provided by the chief electoral officer, it would still be open to parties to copy those forms as they do at present.

Earlier today, I made the point that as long as the original form that is copied includes the bar code it will be possible to identify to whom it was given. As I

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explained in Committee and now repeat, it is not my understanding that the effect of any of the amendments would be that parties would not be able to pick up more than one form from the chief electoral officer. That would defeat the objective of being able to identify to which specific voter a bar-coded form was sent or given. Those who tabled the amendments in the group are not suggesting that parties will not be able to go in and pick up forms in hundreds, or even more, if they are available. In those circumstances, how does amendment No. 3 achieve the objective of making it possible to trace a particular form to an individual voter?

Lembit Öpik: The Minister makes a fair point. After reading the fuller contribution that he made in Committee, I recall his views on the subject. However, will he at least recognise that there is a difference of view here—on one side a concern that it is easier if each form genuinely is an original, and on the other the argument that he is making—and will he accept my concern that if any photocopying is allowed, it significantly weakens the opportunities to trace voters who exercise absent votes? I do not want to pursue the matter further; I believe that we have both made our points.

Mr. Browne: I accept the objective that the hon. Gentleman has now set up, but that objective, which the official Opposition may share, could be achieved only by an amendment that required an individual voter to make application individually to the chief electoral officer for a form and to obtain that form from the chief electoral officer, so that in the first place the chief electoral officer knew which voter was asking for the form and could give a bar code to that individual voter.

Lembit Öpik indicated dissent.

Mr. Browne: Failing that, those who apply for more than one form will need to have in advance the names of the voters who will use those forms. It seems to me, with respect, that we are in danger of creating a level of bureaucracy in relation to absent votes that will be calculated—I use that word advisedly—to defeat the opportunity for many people to vote, either by proxy or by post.

Mr. Blunt: There is an issue about the traceability of the forms that are going out from the CEO to individuals. The Minister's argument that the process would be too bureaucratic is well made, and he talks about the opportunity for parties to photocopy the forms and make application on photocopied forms. That in a sense is not, as I understand it, precluded by amendments Nos. 3 and 4.

The Minister must still address the fact that the reason why at the moment the forms are in pretty much the same format as those issued by the chief electoral officer is that they cannot yet be checked by computer, but by 2003 he wants to be able to computer-check these things. Unless the applications come in on a specified form once the computer-checking is up and running, the whole point of that computer-checking will be negated.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman makes my point precisely. Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 do not prevent parties from collecting one form from the chief electoral officer and photocopying that form, because that would

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still be a form that had been provided by the chief electoral officer and an application would be made on that form. They are therefore consistent with what we are putting in place administratively, and there is no need for the amendments to achieve the objective that we can achieve administratively.

The hon. Gentleman is arguing that unless the information is submitted in a format that is identical to the format of every other application, it cannot be checked by the chief electoral officer using a computer. I do not accept that that is necessarily so. In my view, the information provided on the form can be checked against a simple keying process on the computer, but in any event the bulk of the applications will come in—I expect that they will continue to do so—on forms that have been provided by the chief electoral officer and then copied, or on the originals of those forms. The comparatively small number that may arrive in another form will still entitle people to vote. I do not accept that a flood of applications will suddenly come in on odd bits of paper.

9.30 pm

The requirement for electors to provide additional identifiers in the registration and in any subsequent application will improve the efforts to authenticate absent vote applications. Applications and declarations of identity will require the elector to provide a signature and a date of birth, and those data can be compared with those that an elector provided on registration. That is how the system will operate, and in the light of those remarks I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be persuaded to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Blunt: I shall reply briefly to this short debate, in which we have dealt with absent votes. The Minister has gone round the same course as in Committee, and we do not yet have a satisfactory answer to the issue that I raised in an intervention. The behaviour of parties that want to abuse the process will change when they realise that to avoid automated checking—the position that the Minister wants to reach—they need to supply the information on a large scale on forms other than those issued by the chief electoral officer.

The Minister is entitled to say that, so far, there has been no suggestion that people will not use the forms, or copies of the forms, produced by the chief electoral officer. Plainly, that is all right at the moment because it is convenient. However, rather than make their own forms, parties that want to abuse the process will give 10,000 applications to the chief electoral officer at the last possible moment, so that he is totally overwhelmed and unable to check them because it has to be done manually. The moment the system is computerised, the way to stop computer-checking will be to ensure that the information is presented on a non-standard form. That opportunity exists, and the House should prevent that loophole from being exploited by parties that might be determined to do so.

Mr. McGrady: Surely the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is a question not of identifying the form, per se, but of determining that the form has been returned by the applicant. That will be based on the signature and the date

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of birth identifiers—and, we hope, on the national insurance identification in future—not on the actual piece of paper, so individual application forms need not be bar coded.

Mr. Blunt: I take the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I think that we agree, but the form must be standard if the signature is to appear in the right place to be read by the computer and then to be cross-referenced to the information on the signature that is held on the register, so that people can check that they are the same. I presume that the same is true for the date of birth, as well as for the name. I imagine that it would be impossible for the computer to read that information if it did not appear in a standard place.

The Minister has said that a simple keying process would deal with that problem, but manual keying processes should be avoided as far as possible, given that 10,000 application forms may have to be checked at the last moment. The Minister will want to consider the issue further. He has had a fairly rough evening so far and I rely on him to reconsider the issue, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

9.33 pm

Mr. Browne: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill has remained largely unchanged since its introduction. [Interruption.] For the edification of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), I was merely stating a fact. The Bill will give effect to the proposals in the White Paper "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland", and will provide the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland with additional powers to address the problem of electoral fraud.

In recent years, there has been growing concern about the perceived level of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland. Electoral fraud is a crime and the Government are determined to combat it wherever it occurs.

The Bill represents a broadly acceptable, workable and fair set of proposals to combat electoral fraud. It is the culmination of a great deal of work by, and extensive consultation with, the Northern Ireland political parties and the chief electoral officer.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute once again to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), for his work on this issue in his time at the Northern Ireland Office. I also pay tribute to all my former colleagues on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Its report made an important contribution to the thinking behind the Bill, as did the work of other bodies such as the Northern Ireland Forum. However, it should not be a criticism of the Bill that it does not implement all the Select Committee's recommendations.

The Bill is the result of extensive consultation. When taking measures to prevent electoral fraud, we have to ensure that we do not put obstacles in the path of genuine voters. Only if we do that will the measures that we take be acceptable to the House and to the people of Northern Ireland.

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As I said earlier, the Bill's purpose is to provide the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland with additional powers to address the problem of electoral fraud there. In the debate on Second Reading, in meetings with political parties before the Committee Stage and in Committee itself, I have continued to listen carefully to all proposals and suggestions that have been made to me and that hon. Members have argued will improve this Bill.

I thank colleagues for the hard work that they put into tabling amendments and for the robust and civilised debates that we have had on a wide range of topics. I know that colleagues are as keen as I am to tackle successfully the problem of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland.

We amended the provisions relating to absent voting. Originally, the Bill stated that applications to vote by post or by proxy must be signed and that the signature on the application must correspond with the signature provided to the chief electoral officer on registration. Now an application for a postal or proxy vote for either an indefinite period or for a particular parliamentary election will have to include an elector's signature and date of birth. Both will have to correspond with the signature and date of birth supplied by the elector on registration. Similarly, a postal ballot paper will have to be signed and an elector will have to state his date of birth or that ballot paper will not be deemed to be duly returned.

I will continue to reflect on a number of points that hon. Members have made during the Bill's passage and I will consider carefully, with the chief electoral officer, whether those suggestions would help our efforts to combat fraud and improve the electoral system in Northern Ireland.

I have already indicated my willingness to explore other possible forms of photographic identification that may be used at the polling station. I hope that the Translink smart card, which will be issued to all those aged 65 and over in Northern Ireland from April next year, will meet the security requirements that will enable me to add it to the list of specified documents.

I have written to the political parties in Northern Ireland to ask for their views on whether there might be value in including in the annual canvass form—or any other application to be included on the electoral register in Northern Ireland—a question asking an elector whether they were registered or intended to register at another address. I will continue to explore further ways in which data held by other organisations might be used to combat fraud.

We will consider all these issues, and others that are suggested to us, carefully and with an open mind. The Bill and other measures that have already been taken by the chief electoral officer respond to calls from within Northern Ireland itself and from parties across the political spectrum.

The Bill sends a clear signal to those people intent on committing electoral fraud that it is a crime that the Government are determined to combat. We have a duty to protect the electors of Northern Ireland's right to free and fair elections. The Bill does that by countering electoral abuse directly and at every stage of the electoral process. However, we will not prevent genuine voters from making their voices heard.

Tonight, I have heard people arguing that a strict timetable should be imposed for the implementation of certain features of this Bill, but I hope that they now see

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that such a measure would not necessarily assist the joint aim of interdicting electoral abuse while not preventing genuine voters from making their voices heard.

I am happy to reassure the House yet again that the measures in the Bill will be implemented as soon as is practicable, and our target for the removal of all forms of non-photographic identification will remain May 2003. However, we will take all the necessary steps to ensure that no one is disfranchised because of the proposals contained in the Bill.

In all our discussions with the Northern Ireland political parties, we have been constantly reminded of the need to proceed in a careful and considered manner. The Bill has maintained cross-party support thus far because it contains carefully thought-out, workable measures to address the specific problems in the Northern Ireland electoral process. It strikes the right balance between limiting the opportunity for abuse and putting obstacles in the path of genuine voters. I commend it to the House.

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