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Clause 3 — Absent votes and declarations of identity

Part of Orders of the Day — Election Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:00 pm on 31st October 2001.

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Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 9:00 pm, 31st October 2001

As in the last group of amendments, when I made common cause with Mr. Trimble and Lady Hermon, so also we make common cause on amendment No. 15. This has already been touched on, but let me outline the key reason why I believe, along with the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady, that bar codes are an important evolution in reducing fraud.

I have been concerned about the opportunities for fraud with regard to absent votes in United Kingdom elections as a whole. Some of the important check steps are absent if people are absent themselves. As such, the people in Northern Ireland for whom the legislation is intended are most likely to go to the point of least resistance once other changes have been made. Even with the Bill's limitations, given that the Government have not accepted our amendments, there will be some improvement in the situation in Northern Ireland. However, if the Government do not accept the proposal in amendment No. 15, we still have the Achilles' heel of absent votes.

The principle of the proposal was debated in Committee. We stipulated that applications for absent votes must contain a bar code, which are easy to scan and difficult to reproduce. The basic principle is to have each application form for an absent vote marked in a specific way so that applications cannot be photocopied wholesale many times over, as has been the case in the past. Each code will be unique to its particular application form and, by direct implication, to a particular person.

Mr. Blunt said that about 40,000 absent votes were recorded in Northern Ireland in the recent election. Even if that figure were 80,000, the cost of specifying a particular bar code for each paper would be relatively small, perhaps a few pence per sheet. Given the benefit that would be gained, the investment of a few thousand pounds would surely not be prohibitive. So cost is not an issue. The logistical challenge of creating these forms is well within the Government's technological capabilities, so there is no logistical barrier to having a supply available.

Mr. McGrady, who is resistant to amendment No. 15 and this group as a whole, can be reassured by the fact that we would not have to maintain the existing limitations on availability of forms. We could streamline it and speed it up and still maintain a cohesion as to who gets which form. We could track where large blocks of forms go and ensure that there was no concerted effort to duplicate the applications, which would show up with the bar codes.

In terms of the cohesion of the system as a whole, bar codes would enable us to spot patterns if a large block of forms was completed in the same handwriting in a suspicious fashion. We could trace patterns much more easily if each form was observed afterwards as having come from a particular block given to a particular grouping.

There is no absolute certainty, even with bar codes. A fraudster who was inventive and determined enough could still be responsible for a limited degree of fraud. However, it would get much more difficult as the circumstantial evidence would mount up until the people behind the fraud could be identified and prosecuted.

If bar codes are not introduced, the Liberal Democrats are concerned that we would be unable to make significant progress. As right hon. and hon. Members who served on the Committee will recall, at present one can use any piece of paper in Northern Ireland or in any election in the United Kingdom with which to apply for a postal vote. When I was a councillor in Newcastle upon Tyne, the incidence of requesting postal votes on anything other than a proprietary form was fairly small. The political parties active in the Newcastle area were assiduous in using the readily available forms from Newcastle council. If we can be sure that honourable individuals and their associated political parties are willing to use these forms at council level, I would like to think that the same would apply to Northern Ireland.

Sadly, we have just rejected the case for the use of national insurance numbers, which are unique to individuals as right hon. and hon. Members will recall. I fear that we will have to return to that matter in another place. In their absence it makes it even more important that individual absent vote forms are traceable. In that way, we can ensure that forged signatures and so forth can at least be tracked as I described.

What is the Minister's view of the desirability of tracing individual forms and has it changed since the Committee? If he accepts that there are no logistical or significant costing negatives to introducing bar codes, will he at least consider the case that we have put forward and respond in kind to the many hon. Members who are interested in ensuring that each form can be traced?