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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:
"Our aim is automated processing of absent vote applications—that is, by computer—in the time period available, which is different from the time period in Great Britain".—[Official Report, Standing Committee D,
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:
"Absent voting provides a serious threat to the integrity of the electoral system in Northern Ireland—a view with which the Interim Review agrees."
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 been associated and identified with a fairly ruthless and, in the words of 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.
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.
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.