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Mr. Blunt suggested that the absent vote system—for the sick and disabled, and for proxy votes—presented the biggest opportunity for electoral fraud and I can but agree with that statement. However, statistics are wonderful things and I shall give a few figures from the table mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.
In 1997, before the 1998 report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the percentage of absent votes in West Tyrone was 7.5 and it went up to 9 per cent. in 2001. For Fermanagh and South Tyrone, in 1997 the percentage was 9.3 and it went down to 8.7 per cent. in 2001. In Mid-Ulster, it was 8.6 per cent. in 1997 and fell to 6.7 per cent in 2001. High figures for absent votes are not a new phenomenon but have been going on for many years. I should like to attribute great insight to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, but modesty and the statistics forbid me.
However, this is a serious issue, and one with which we have wrestled for many years at hustings in Northern Ireland. The difficulty is that it has been traditional for the political parties, in the most honourable and trustworthy way, to help people to vote who otherwise could not go to the polls for one reason or another. The people thus helped have included those permanently on the sick list because of disablement, or those temporarily affected by sickness or injury during an election. Some people, of course, are unable to vote in elections for other reasons, or are elsewhere when election day comes around.
The phenomenon of trusted proxies is relatively new, but their use as a way to represent people at the polls is valid and is increasing. However, I think that imposing on the electoral officer and his assistants the requirement that each postal vote application form issued should be coded individually would cause practical difficulties.
Moreover, I believe that the proposal would diminish the ability of people to secure a postal vote when there are genuine reasons that render them unable to vote in person on the day of an election. Perhaps that is its purpose. In my experience, it is very difficult to get the electoral office to issue postal applications in time for people to return them, and requiring the applications to be allocated on a one-to-one basis would make that process even more difficult.
If all the people unable to get to the polling station on election day had to apply for a form permitting them an absent vote, I believe that the system would break down, as they would have to complete the form, get it attested, and send it back in time for inclusion in the poll. I am fully aware of what goes on in certain areas, and that means that I am reluctant to make the process so difficult. The danger is that many people would be disfranchised if numbered and traceable application forms were introduced.
It has been suggested that block applications could be given to the existing accredited representatives of political parties, and that those block applications could have a single, identifiable code number that would allow the person or group to whom the block application was issued to be identified. In other parts of the country colours could be used to identify the block applications, but that could cause all sorts of difficulties in Northern Ireland.
Although the use of a code number would not be foolproof, as no doubt the number would filter out somewhere down the line and duplication could take place, it would be a step towards what is proposed in the amendments. On balance, however, I am unable to support what is proposed in the amendments because I judge that many people who are legitimately unable to vote because they are ill or absent on election day would be disfranchised. In addition, I consider that the proposed system would be unnecessarily complicated.