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I can assure Mr. Trimble that the resources are available and will be made available as necessary to achieve the objectives that have been set out in the planned programme of change for the introduction of the necessary computers and software in the electoral office. That will enable the very things that I spelled out in Committee, on Second Reading, and today to be done in time for the planned elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly in May 2003. As currently advised, we are still on course to achieve that objective. I intend to consult the parties in Northern Ireland and to find a mechanism to keep them involved in discussions about progress towards that objective.
We had detailed discussions in Committee about many aspects of absent voting—properly so, as there is clearly great concern about abuse of the electoral system. It is not merely a matter of statistics although, interestingly, when one aggregates the statistical evidence for Northern Ireland, the rate of absent voting is not significantly greater than the overall rate for the rest of the United Kingdom. It is concentrated in certain constituencies. The statistical evidence given us by my hon. Friend Mr. McGrady is also of some interest, in that there has been no consistent rise in the number of absent votes used in certain constituencies.
Whatever the explanation for these shifts—perhaps we need not dwell too much on an explanation of why there may have been shifts in individual constituencies—there is well justified concern about the potential offered by the absent voting system for fraud and about evidence that suggests that fraud is being perpetrated by the use of absent votes.
Apart from that very general concession to the points properly made by contributors to the debate, I shall concentrate on the specific amendments for the remainder of my speech. The intended effect of the amendments would be that any individual application for an absent vote would have to be made on an original form provided by the chief electoral officer. It is on that point that I part company with the supporters of the amendments. I believe that the proposals would hinder individuals who wanted to apply for an absent vote.
As I said in Committee, the current law does not require people anywhere in the UK to apply for absent votes on a particular form. There is no evidence to suggest that the existence of that opportunity has been exploited by anybody intending or attempting to commit fraud in the electoral system anywhere in the United Kingdom.
In Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, an applicant for an absent vote is required to give the chief electoral officer certain information. Until now, the law has been that it is the information that entitles the applicant to the vote—not the form on which the information is presented. However, it is currently the norm for applications for absent votes in Northern Ireland to be submitted in the main on forms—or copies of forms—that are provided by the chief electoral officer. The chief electoral officer already plans to take administrative measures to ensure that applications for an absent vote will be given some kind of unique identifier—be it a serial number or a bar code—and that can be achieved without either primary or secondary legislation.
When it comes to tracing to whom the original form was issued, it will not matter if an application for an absent vote was made on an original form or on a photocopy, because the bar code would be copied on the copy. 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 to whom he gave the individual forms. Although electors will not be required to submit their applications on a form from the electoral office, I suspect that it will continue to be the norm for most people to do so. I have no reason to believe that in future there will be a sudden flood of applications on odd bits of paper. However, I am not inclined to remove the possibility that people currently have to make an application in a form other than on an original form or a copy of an original form provided by the chief electoral officer. We live in a democracy and I shall not put into legislation any measures that could disfranchise people.