Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lady Hermon: Two points come to mind. First, I was impressed and pleased when in the early part of the debate the Minister explained to the Committee that ``the IT would be rolled out in the near future'', and kindly further explained that that meant from next year. Bearing that in mind, I reflected on the evidence taken from the now retired chief electoral officer, Mr. Bradley, by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. He had noticed that the abuse of absent voting

    ``constitutes the commonest form of vote stealing in Northern Ireland. Although the regulations requiring identification have not by any means eliminated personation'',

as the Minister emphasised,

    ``they have made it harder to personate successfully'',

as we have agreed. However,

    ``fraudulent applications for absent votes provide a comparatively easy and safe way to steal votes.''

That is the reflection of the chief electoral officer in evidence to the Select Committee. We could marry the two—the fact that IT will be rolled out and available from next year and the serious problem of absent votes being so easy and safe to steal—and, under the amendment, have a bar code that could be electronically scanned and would, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East said, get rid of the photocopies of any other forms involved in applying for an absent vote. The two could easily be married.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Member for Belfast, East accurately describes our conversation about the issue. My contribution was more detailed than saying that he was over-egging the pudding, but that is probably a reasonable categorisation. The safeguards that we are putting in place to deal with the anxiety identified in evidence given by the chief electoral officer, to which the hon. Member for North Down referred, is the appropriate and reasonable response. It is unnecessary to introduce legislation relating to such issues to ensure that they work. I shall discuss some of them in detail. Some do not require legislation. It is sometimes considered helpful, as the hon. Member for Reigate says, to provide a belt and braces in legislation when the Government want to make a clear statement about a matter. However, when dealing with a matter of fact, as the chief electoral officer is with the application forms, it seems doubly unnecessary to include the provisions suggested in the amendments in the Bill.

Mr. Blunt: I want to be clear about what the Minister is saying. I understand that the electoral officer intends to bar code absent vote application forms, and if those were the only forms with which people could register for an absent vote, that would be entirely satisfactory. Unless that is specified in the Bill, people and political parties will be able to register people for absent votes on any old form they like, as long as it conforms to what is already in legislation.

6.15 pm

Mr. Browne: Without wishing to agree with every word said by the hon. Member for Reigate, he is correct that current law does not require people in the UK to apply for absent votes on a particular form. It requires the applicant to give the relevant electoral authority certain information, but not for that information to be on a particular form. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Belfast, East is right, that all electoral officers will have experience of getting applications on documents that are far removed from the relevant form. However, they will be few and far between and not in the numbers that would cause concern that they were being used to steal votes or create the basis for fraudulent voting. Electoral officers will remember examples in detail because there are so few.

The norm is that applications for absent votes are submitted on forms or copies of forms that are provided by the electoral officer—in Northern Ireland the chief electoral officer. I have examined the issue, and there is no evidence to suggest that the few people who do not use the normal forms are suspicious applicants. I also have no reason to believe that there will be a sudden flood of applications on odd bits of paper as a result of this debate. I am sure that we will rehearse in other contexts the argument that patterns of voting in Northern Ireland will suddenly change because people now know the law. There is no evidence to suggest that that will happen, and I believe that the current situation will continue to be the norm.

It does not matter whether an application for a postal or absent vote is made on an original form or a photocopy when it comes to trying to trace who received it. If I take from the chief electoral officer form number one and he records that he has given me form number one, as he will, and if I make a thousand copies, it will be a reasonable assumption that of the one thousand forms that come back to the chief electoral officer marked as form number one, 999 are copies. 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 in some way to whom he gave the individual forms, which is what he intends to do.

The total effect of the amendments, which would go further and require that the only forms that can be used are the originals provided by the chief electoral officer, would place unnecessary restrictions on the legitimate activities of political parties in the electoral process, as well as hindering individuals who wish to apply for an absent vote. I cannot speak for all Committee members, but I suspect that we have all filled in applications for absent votes to assist voters who are not able to get to the polling station. We will not have signed them; we will have helped such voters fill them in, and there is nothing wrong with that. It has become an accepted part of the political process in the United Kingdom. For the reasons explained by the hon. Member for Reigate with regard to what he as a representative of the Conservative party would do if he canvassed one of his constituents in that situation, people in Northern Ireland should be able to do so as well. I see no objection to that.

However, we must recognise that the evidence suggests that there is the potential for dishonesty and vote stealing and put in place a system that checks applications to ensure that they are legitimate, so that suspicions can be investigated.

The chief electoral officer will in future ensure that applications for an absent vote will be given a unique identifier, be it a serial number or a bar code. That could be achieved without legislation. Although voters will not be required to submit their applications on an original form from the electoral office, I suspect that it will continue to be the norm for people to do so.

Lembit Öpik: I follow the Minister's logic. It is fair enough. The research paper states on page 19 that it was apparent that large numbers of the forms had been filled out almost on a production line. The production of a bar code would make it much more difficult for such an operation to take place because it would remove the ability to photocopy forms. I accept the Minister's point that such a system would make the Northern Ireland system different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom, but would he share his perspective on why he is so opposed to it?

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that observation. Such a system would not make any difference to our ability to respond to production-line completion of absent vote forms. If the chief electoral officer knew to whom he gave forms, it makes no difference whether they are sequentially numbered or bar-coded. However, the difference when the Bill is enacted will be the requirement to provide additional identifiers at registration and in any subsequent application. It is by the use of that additional information and the system for checking it that we intend to improve the authentication of absent vote applications—not by authenticating the forms on which the applications are made. It is not the forms that create the problems; it is the fabrication of information on the forms. We need to attack the dishonesty at the point that it is perpetrated.

I am arguing—I may be wrong but the evidence suggests that I am right—that the norm will be that the information will come in on the forms provided by the chief electoral officer or on copies of them. If, as he will do, the chief electoral officer keeps a record of where the forms have gone, it will not make any difference whether they are sequentially numbered or photocopied from one that is bar-coded.

Mr. Blunt: I am sure that if the Minister reflects on that argument for a moment he will realise that it does not hold. As soon as there is one photocopy in the system, it can in turn be photocopied. That means that, if a Sinn Fein supporter, for the purposes of the argument, waits to collect a form on their doorstep from a Unionist, SDLP or any other party canvasser, saying that he or she will complete it, and the form is photocopied in large numbers, the link between the electoral officer sending out the form and his being able to identify which organisation was responsible for the production line alluded to by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire will immediately be broken.

Mr. Browne: I invite the hon. Gentleman to do what he has just invited me to do in regard to his own argument. The weakness in the suggestion that nobody has any control over what is done with the forms once they are handed over from the chief electoral officer is that it does not matter how they are marked. If someone collects 20,000 forms from the chief electoral officer, all bar-coded and marked, they could then be stolen or moved from one constituency to another. That person could subsequently say, ``I lost all but one of them on the bus; I have no idea where they disappeared to.''

The purpose of the Committee is surely not to spell out to people how they can cheat the system. We must concentrate on the information, as the Bill does. It concentrates on the individual information: the signature, date of birth, name and address, the checking of the registration to ensure that people are properly registered and the checking of the information when applications are made for absent votes.

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