Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lady Hermon: For clarification purposes, I would like to say, along with the hon. Member for Belfast, East, that we are pleased that the Government have tabled the amendments.

Forgive me if I seem to raise the same issue again, but how does the Minister intend to deal with the matter of those absent voters who are incapacitated or otherwise unable to give their signature or date of birth, given the requirement for the date of birth on applications for absent votes?

Mr. Browne: Off the top of my head, I do not know the answer to that question. Would the hon. Lady accept an undertaking to write to her on that matter? She has caught me unsighted on that particular point, but I may be able to answer it in the context of another debate.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Robinson: I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 3, line 32, 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,'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 42, in page 3, line 37, at end insert—

    `(2A) In section 6 (absent vote at elections for an indefinite period) after subsection (1) insert—

    ``(1A) Any application under subsection (1) for an absent vote must be by means of an application form provided by the Chief Electoral Officer.

    (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. 7, in page 3, line 41, 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. Robinson: When I discussed my amendment with the Minister, he felt that I was over-egging the cake by changing primary legislation for what might be an administrative matter. If the Minister is content with the general thrust and can find a way for the same effect to be achieved other than through an amendment to primary legislation, I will be pleased.

The amendment would facilitate the chief electoral officer and his staff by providing a tracing mechanism for applications. That has been a problem in the past when bulk applications were photocopied by political parties without identifying where they were coming from so that, if there were attempts to gain postal votes fraudulently, the electoral officer could not trace their origin.

One of the other difficulties, which is dealt with in other amendments in this group, is that there would be a requirement for the official form sent out by the chief electoral officer to be the only form for use for postal votes. At the moment there is no such requirement; one does not need to fill in a postal vote application form to apply for a postal vote. Some of the applications received have been in the form of an ordinary letter—or worse, as the chief electoral officer can tell us. In those circumstances, if people do not use the official form, they often leave out some of the necessary information, which requires further inquiry. Standardising by introducing the requirement to use the official form provided by the electoral office therefore makes sense. Also, if the form is marked or identified by bar coding or some other means of detecting who was sent the application form in the first place, that helps tracing if there are queries about its validity at a later stage.

6 pm

It is necessary to look at the issue in terms of the number of applications received for postal votes in elections in Northern Ireland. Even with the generous basis on which postal votes are offered in the rest of the United Kingdom, the take-up is not as great as it is in Northern Ireland, given the limited circumstances in which postal votes are available. In some constituencies, many thousands of applications are received, and, indeed, many thousands of valid applications appear to be received. In about eight constituencies in Northern Ireland, it probably becomes the difference between a candidate winning and losing a seat. It is therefore an important area, which must be tied down as much as possible. The proposal is a further way of doing that, and of assisting the electoral office, and I understand that the chief electoral officer will find the measure useful. As the Minister used the views of the chief electoral officer earlier in the debate, I am sure that he will want to be consistent by supporting the amendment, or at least the thrust of it.

Mr. Blunt: I am delighted to support the hon. Member for Belfast, East in putting forward the amendments, especially Nos. 6 and 7. He has slightly understated the case and the importance of the amendments. He alluded to conversations that he has had with the chief electoral officer, during which he received precisely the same information I have received. That reinforces the statements made earlier in Committee that absent votes constitute the area of greatest vulnerability in the electoral system of Northern Ireland.

There are stories about the electoral office being presented with thousands of applications for absent votes at the last moment, before the end of the timetable, which means that the electoral office is unable to make the necessary checks to ensure that absent votes are properly applied for. Stories are also legion about the distribution of those votes and the postman being followed around. Those of us who represent constituencies in Great Britain must remember that elections in Northern Ireland frequently take place in communities where there is real intimidation. The idea of surrendering one's vote to someone else for a quiet life is possibly one that people will entertain. If they have their vote stolen from them by an organisation seeking to abuse the system, that might be an option, however unwelcome we might find it, given the scale of intimidation that people live with day by day in Northern Ireland.

It is therefore extremely important that we address the issue of absent votes as robustly as we can. Regrettably, we do not have the national insurance number to refer to, but the forms do include the date of birth and the signature, which is information that will be compared. We cannot give the electoral office the resources to cope with thousands of applications coming in at once on forms that are not issued by the electoral office. That is why it is essential for the amendments to be agreed.

The amendment would ensure not only that the absent vote applications go to the electoral officer in a form that he set out, but that the forms are bar-coded and he will know to whom he has given the forms. That does not mean that it would be the responsibility of the individual elector to approach the electoral officer in order to get a form. It would still be possible for political parties, candidates and agents to receive a group of forms, but the officer would know that he had issued forms one to 1,000—whatever the numbers—to a specific political party. That is his intention, under the existing legislation, in order to trace where malpractice occurs and to give him a handle on that. If the provision that the absent vote application must be on one of the forms put out by the electoral officer is not in the Bill, we can be pretty sure that if, as many believe, organised malpractice occurs in the collection of absent votes and the stealing of votes, such applications will not come in on bar-coded forms with unique identifiers issued by electoral officers.

I hope that the Government will accept the amendments because they will address what everyone accepts as the greatest area of malpractice in the conduct of elections.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): Would the voting allegiance of a particular voter be identified when the forms are issued to a political party and returned?

Mr. Blunt: In effect it would, if returned by the political party. I imagine that the hon. Gentleman's constituency is pretty much the same as mine. When canvassing during a general election, especially in the early stages before the deadline for postal votes, one is keen to identify whether one's supporters will be present on polling day. If they are not, one will assist them by giving them necessary forms to allow them to claim an absent vote. Of course, that is an ordinary part of political life, as the hon. Gentleman and I know. Therefore, we will provide people with the forms. Plainly, the elector understands that if he receives a Conservative on his doorstep to whom he pledges support and makes it clear that he wants an absent vote, he has effectively declared—in this instance to me—his support and, presumably, he is not unwilling for that information to be shared with an official. The official will not be under any duty to disclose that, and, in fact, will be under a duty not to disclose to whom he has sent forms and the numbers of the forms that he receives. Therefore, the bar code on the form will be used to check whether malpractice has occurred and to chase the responsible organisation, if particular numbered forms appear to be suspicious.

Paul Farrelly: I listened to the point. The practical difference in my constituency and the hon. Gentleman's constituency is that, when I return a form that has been issued to me, nobody in authority is able to guess the political allegiance of the person returning the form from the issue of the form or any type of identification. The hon. Gentleman will accept that certain parts of the community of Northern Ireland may have reason to distrust—if that is not too strong a word—authority in any shape or form.

Mr. Blunt: I entirely agree. Each elector can apply for an absent vote. He does not have to go through a political party. If in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes an elector is so worried, he would make the application himself, and the bar code that he would receive would be unique to him as issued by the electoral office. It might be argued that it would be preferable to place the duty on individual electors to make the application themselves rather than allowing it to go through political parties. Given the stage that we have reached in trying to deal with the problem, I accept that on the grounds of practicality many electors are not so interested in whether they vote—perhaps not in Northern Ireland but in Great Britain, given the turnout in the last general election—and that there is a role for political parties to try to interest people in elections and make the bureaucratic path for people who will not be around on polling day as easy as possible. In such circumstances, I accept that the balance of argument in this instance comes down to the fact that we should allow political parties to be a vehicle for increasing turnout by making it easier for people to exercise an absent vote, but with the necessary protection that it be known exactly to whom the form on which people register was sent so that the electoral officer can chase down applications that turn out to be fraudulent.

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