Clause 3 - Absent votes and declarations of identity

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:45 pm on 16th October 2001.

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Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 5:45 pm, 16th October 2001

I beg to move amendment no. 45, in page 3, line 32, leave out `(ba)' and insert—

`(ba) the application states the applicant's date of birth and the registration officer is satisfied that the date stated corresponds with the date supplied to the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland as the date of the applicant's birth pursuant to section 10(4A)(b), 10A(1A)(b) or 13A(2A)(b) of the principal Act,

(bb).'.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendment No. 46, and amendment No. 12, in page 3, line 46, at end insert—

`(3A) In section 6 (absent vote at elections for an indefinite period) and in section 7 (absent vote at a particular election), there is inserted at the end of paragraph (1)(c) the words—

``, which shall include the date of birth and the national insurance number of the applicant.''.'.

Government amendments Nos. 47 and 48.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

Paragraph 2 currently has the effect that applications to vote by post or proxy for an indefinite period must be signed, and that the signature in the application must correspond to the signature provided to the chief electoral officer on registration.

Amendment No. 45 amends section 6(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1985, which specifies requirements when an elector applies for an absent vote at elections for an indefinite period. An application can be granted only if the chief electoral officer is satisfied, among other matters, that the date of birth on the application corresponds with the date of birth supplied by the elector with his registration application. The effect of the amendment would be that an application for a postal or proxy vote for an indefinite period would have to include an elector's signature and date of birth. Both would have to correspond with the signature and date of birth supplied by the elector with his registration application.

Amendment No. 46 would have the same function as amendment No. 45, but applies to applications to vote by post or proxy at a particular parliamentary election. It amends section 7(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1985. Thereafter, an application for a postal or proxy vote for an indefinite period or for a particular parliamentary election would have to include an elector's signature and date of birth, and both would have to correspond to the signature and date of birth supplied by the elector on registration.

Amendment No. 47 would amend rule 24 on postal ballot papers under the parliamentary elections rules in schedule 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. It provides for a postal ballot paper to include provision for the form to be signed and, in the case of an elector, the stating of his date of birth.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I need clarification. The Minister said that the amendment would leave a duty on the chief electoral officer to check that the signature on the application corresponds to the signature supplied by the elector. I am not clear whether it would do that. The amendment would change the duty under the Bill to ensure that the chief electoral officer checks the date of birth, but his duty to check the signature would be removed from the Bill. If I have not understood the amendment correctly, I should be delighted to be corrected.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that he has misunderstood the amendment. The Bill already requires the checking of the signature and the amendment would add the provision under which the date of birth would be checked. I was encouraged to do that on Second Reading by certain contributors to the debate, a suggestion which at first I rejected. I was told that paragraph (ba) would become paragraph (bb). If it is of any assistance to the hon. Gentleman, that may explain why he thought that the provision would disappear.

Amendment No. 48 amends rule 45 of the parliamentary election rules in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. Its effect is that a postal ballot paper shall not be deemed to be duly returned unless the accompanying declaration of identity states the date of birth of the elector and the returning officer is satisfied that the date stated corresponds with the date supplied to the chief electoral officer on registration and on the elector's application for a postal vote.

The chief electoral officer will be able to check that both the date of birth and the signature on an elector's declaration of identity accompanying the postal ballot paper corresponds with the date and signature supplied by that elector on registration. I acknowledge again that the amendments are contrary to my position on Second Reading. However, I have reconsidered the matter and I now believe that the chief electoral officer should be given as much useful information as possible to enable him to check absent vote applications against the information that an elector will be required to provide on registration. Amendments Nos. 45 to 48 should further assist the chief electoral officer in detecting fraudulent absent vote applications.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I am glad that the Government tabled their amendments at the same time as my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings and I tabled ours. Amendment No. 12 would go further than the Government amendments in requiring the national insurance number, but we have had that debate and I do not propose to cover the issue again. Therefore, given that the Government have met my amendment halfway by including the date of birth but not the national insurance number—much as I regret that last fact—I am content not to press the amendment and to support the Government amendment introducing the date of birth requirement.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the logic of his contribution to the debate and for his support for the Government amendments.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I seem to rise every 20 seconds. Every time I have stood up it has been to criticise the Minister, so I should not allow the occasion to pass by without welcoming the fact that the Minister has tabled the amendments. They are helpful.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

For clarification purposes, I would like to say, along with the hon. Member for Belfast, East, that we are pleased that the Government have tabled the amendments.

Forgive me if I seem to raise the same issue again, but how does the Minister intend to deal with the matter of those absent voters who are incapacitated or otherwise unable to give their signature or date of birth, given the requirement for the date of birth on applications for absent votes?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

Off the top of my head, I do not know the answer to that question. Would the hon. Lady accept an undertaking to write to her on that matter? She has caught me unsighted on that particular point, but I may be able to answer it in the context of another debate.

Amendment agreed to.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 3, line 32, after `application', insert

`is made on a form supplied by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland containing such marking or coding as he may determine,'.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 42, in page 3, line 37, at end insert—

`(2A) In section 6 (absent vote at elections for an indefinite period) after subsection (1) insert—

``(1A) Any application under subsection (1) for an absent vote must be by means of an application form provided by the Chief Electoral Officer.

(1B) Any application form supplied by the Chief Electoral Officer under subsection (1A) shall be marked with a bar code unique to each form.''.'.

No. 7, in page 3, line 41, after `application', insert

`is made on a form supplied by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland containing such marking or coding as he may determine,'.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

When I discussed my amendment with the Minister, he felt that I was over-egging the cake by changing primary legislation for what might be an administrative matter. If the Minister is content with the general thrust and can find a way for the same effect to be achieved other than through an amendment to primary legislation, I will be pleased.

The amendment would facilitate the chief electoral officer and his staff by providing a tracing mechanism for applications. That has been a problem in the past when bulk applications were photocopied by political parties without identifying where they were coming from so that, if there were attempts to gain postal votes fraudulently, the electoral officer could not trace their origin.

One of the other difficulties, which is dealt with in other amendments in this group, is that there would be a requirement for the official form sent out by the chief electoral officer to be the only form for use for postal votes. At the moment there is no such requirement; one does not need to fill in a postal vote application form to apply for a postal vote. Some of the applications received have been in the form of an ordinary letter—or worse, as the chief electoral officer can tell us. In those circumstances, if people do not use the official form, they often leave out some of the necessary information, which requires further inquiry. Standardising by introducing the requirement to use the official form provided by the electoral office therefore makes sense. Also, if the form is marked or identified by bar coding or some other means of detecting who was sent the application form in the first place, that helps tracing if there are queries about its validity at a later stage.

It is necessary to look at the issue in terms of the number of applications received for postal votes in elections in Northern Ireland. Even with the generous basis on which postal votes are offered in the rest of the United Kingdom, the take-up is not as great as it is in Northern Ireland, given the limited circumstances in which postal votes are available. In some constituencies, many thousands of applications are received, and, indeed, many thousands of valid applications appear to be received. In about eight constituencies in Northern Ireland, it probably becomes the difference between a candidate winning and losing a seat. It is therefore an important area, which must be tied down as much as possible. The proposal is a further way of doing that, and of assisting the electoral office, and I understand that the chief electoral officer will find the measure useful. As the Minister used the views of the chief electoral officer earlier in the debate, I am sure that he will want to be consistent by supporting the amendment, or at least the thrust of it.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 6:00 pm, 16th October 2001

I am delighted to support the hon. Member for Belfast, East in putting forward the amendments, especially Nos. 6 and 7. He has slightly understated the case and the importance of the amendments. He alluded to conversations that he has had with the chief electoral officer, during which he received precisely the same information I have received. That reinforces the statements made earlier in Committee that absent votes constitute the area of greatest vulnerability in the electoral system of Northern Ireland.

There are stories about the electoral office being presented with thousands of applications for absent votes at the last moment, before the end of the timetable, which means that the electoral office is unable to make the necessary checks to ensure that absent votes are properly applied for. Stories are also legion about the distribution of those votes and the postman being followed around. Those of us who represent constituencies in Great Britain must remember that elections in Northern Ireland frequently take place in communities where there is real intimidation. The idea of surrendering one's vote to someone else for a quiet life is possibly one that people will entertain. If they have their vote stolen from them by an organisation seeking to abuse the system, that might be an option, however unwelcome we might find it, given the scale of intimidation that people live with day by day in Northern Ireland.

It is therefore extremely important that we address the issue of absent votes as robustly as we can. Regrettably, we do not have the national insurance number to refer to, but the forms do include the date of birth and the signature, which is information that will be compared. We cannot give the electoral office the resources to cope with thousands of applications coming in at once on forms that are not issued by the electoral office. That is why it is essential for the amendments to be agreed.

The amendment would ensure not only that the absent vote applications go to the electoral officer in a form that he set out, but that the forms are bar-coded and he will know to whom he has given the forms. That does not mean that it would be the responsibility of the individual elector to approach the electoral officer in order to get a form. It would still be possible for political parties, candidates and agents to receive a group of forms, but the officer would know that he had issued forms one to 1,000—whatever the numbers—to a specific political party. That is his intention, under the existing legislation, in order to trace where malpractice occurs and to give him a handle on that. If the provision that the absent vote application must be on one of the forms put out by the electoral officer is not in the Bill, we can be pretty sure that if, as many believe, organised malpractice occurs in the collection of absent votes and the stealing of votes, such applications will not come in on bar-coded forms with unique identifiers issued by electoral officers.

I hope that the Government will accept the amendments because they will address what everyone accepts as the greatest area of malpractice in the conduct of elections.

Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Would the voting allegiance of a particular voter be identified when the forms are issued to a political party and returned?

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

In effect it would, if returned by the political party. I imagine that the hon. Gentleman's constituency is pretty much the same as mine. When canvassing during a general election, especially in the early stages before the deadline for postal votes, one is keen to identify whether one's supporters will be present on polling day. If they are not, one will assist them by giving them necessary forms to allow them to claim an absent vote. Of course, that is an ordinary part of political life, as the hon. Gentleman and I know. Therefore, we will provide people with the forms. Plainly, the elector understands that if he receives a Conservative on his doorstep to whom he pledges support and makes it clear that he wants an absent vote, he has effectively declared—in this instance to me—his support and, presumably, he is not unwilling for that information to be shared with an official. The official will not be under any duty to disclose that, and, in fact, will be under a duty not to disclose to whom he has sent forms and the numbers of the forms that he receives. Therefore, the bar code on the form will be used to check whether malpractice has occurred and to chase the responsible organisation, if particular numbered forms appear to be suspicious.

Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

I listened to the point. The practical difference in my constituency and the hon. Gentleman's constituency is that, when I return a form that has been issued to me, nobody in authority is able to guess the political allegiance of the person returning the form from the issue of the form or any type of identification. The hon. Gentleman will accept that certain parts of the community of Northern Ireland may have reason to distrust—if that is not too strong a word—authority in any shape or form.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I entirely agree. Each elector can apply for an absent vote. He does not have to go through a political party. If in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes an elector is so worried, he would make the application himself, and the bar code that he would receive would be unique to him as issued by the electoral office. It might be argued that it would be preferable to place the duty on individual electors to make the application themselves rather than allowing it to go through political parties. Given the stage that we have reached in trying to deal with the problem, I accept that on the grounds of practicality many electors are not so interested in whether they vote—perhaps not in Northern Ireland but in Great Britain, given the turnout in the last general election—and that there is a role for political parties to try to interest people in elections and make the bureaucratic path for people who will not be around on polling day as easy as possible. In such circumstances, I accept that the balance of argument in this instance comes down to the fact that we should allow political parties to be a vehicle for increasing turnout by making it easier for people to exercise an absent vote, but with the necessary protection that it be known exactly to whom the form on which people register was sent so that the electoral officer can chase down applications that turn out to be fraudulent.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

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.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

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.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 6:15 pm, 16th October 2001

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.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

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.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

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?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

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.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

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.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

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.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

The Minister is talking about the checking of information. If there is not a duty for the forms to be the originals issued by the chief electoral officer, they can take whatever shape they like. An organisation may be engaged in organised defrauding, to have a production line of absent votes, and the duty placed on the electoral office to check the information on the forms is much more difficult if the forms are not coming back in a precisely standard shape. It might be acceptable in the case of a photocopy, but there is no duty to produce forms in exactly the same shape as those issued by the electoral officer. That would be another advantage of bar coding and serial numbers.

The computer technology is not yet able to check precisely one signature against another, but if the form comes back in precisely the manner issued, the electoral officer is in a position to check all the signatures on the absent vote forms. He cannot do that at the moment and has not been able to in the four months since the general election on 7 June. In June, July and August, no comprehensive checking of the validity of absent votes in Northern Ireland could take place.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening yet again, because it allows me to clarify another potential piece of misinformation that might be affecting the Committee. At the moment, the information technology and software available to the chief electoral officer does not allow him to do any such checking. However, we are currently concluding the contract that will put in place the necessary computers, in a process rolling out from next year towards a target date of 2003, to provide the IT equipment that will make the Act work. It is pointless to compare what the Bill seeks to do with what the chief electoral officer can currently do technologically. The contract will be drawn in a specific way to enable the software to check signatures in a digitalised form or in some electronic fashion.

I cannot stand in front of the Committee and claim that all of that can be done now, because none of it can be. The purpose of the Bill is to provide the legislative framework to match the plans for computers and software so that we will reach a point in 2003 when we can interdict the dishonest use of votes in elections in Northern Ireland. It is of no help to anyone in the Committee to say what the chief electoral officer can or cannot do with the equipment available at the moment. The potential equipment is my concern, and it will be my job, as a Minister, to ensure that the chief electoral officer and the agency have the resources necessary to achieve their objective. I have given the Committee and the House undertaking after undertaking that we will ensure, as far as possible, that that is done. I have no intention of doing otherwise.

The central point of the amendments is the checking of information. 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, in order to cut down the opportunity for such fraud. Things have been done to prevent such fraud in the past, and we will have to take advantage of them, but we will also have to design the software, and put in place the computer equipment, to allow the chief electoral officer to work in that window of opportunity.

We all know what the challenges are. If the information comes in in large amounts, its handling has resource implications. I understand that, and I cannot make that any clearer. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the electoral office is being flooded with ad hoc forms and bits of paper—unfolded cigarette packets and other things with the information on them. The fact is that applications are coming in on forms, or copies of them, provided by the chief electoral officer. I am being urged to provide a legislative framework so that it is possible to trace where the forms went. That can be done but it is not necessary. We do not need to go to the lengths of sequentially numbering every single form, because we can keep a record of to whom we give an individual form. If a form is photocopied, that evidence will be as good as if we had given someone 10,000 forms.

What we can do does not require legislation. Hon. Members are urging me to do something that would seem to fall on the wrong side of the balance that I have tried to apply to all such decisions. I have changed my mind about some of these matters, but on others I am holding my ground. It is perfectly legitimate for people to be able to apply for absent votes through a letter that they have drafted themselves, and which gives the chief electoral officer the information that he needs and that the legislation requires. We ought not to put a barrier in the way of someone for whom such an application to vote is the only resort. In fact, we have a duty to tell people that they can apply for absent votes on that basis.

However, it is not individual handwritten applications that are the problem. Members of Parliament can easily deal with, say, the 5,000 postcards about a single matter that a particular organisation has encouraged voters to sign. We can deal with that by sending out one letter. It is the individual handwritten letters from constituents, expressing their personal views, to which we pay attention. They stand out because they are comparatively small in number. As I understand it, the situation is exactly the same in relation to applications for absent votes.

The automated processing of absent votes will allow the electoral office to make simultaneous checks against the register. Such processing, along with the declarations and applications, will identify those that do not provide sufficient or correct information, so that they can be further investigated. I hope that that contribution has reassured hon. Members about the way in which we intend to deploy our resources in relation to absent votes, and has persuaded them to withdraw their amendments.

Before I sit down, I should answer an earlier intervention from the hon. Member for North Down that related directly to the amendments and the process of absent vote applications. In fact, the answer to her question can be found on page 3 of the Bill. The relevant provisions are in line 32, and they are repeated in line 41 because we have to deal with both types of absent votes. The phrase

``(unless section 10(4B), 10A(1B) or 13A(2B) of the principal Act applies)'' essentially means that checks in relation to absent vote applications—the check against the signature—can be applied only to those for whom registration also requires a signature. If people are excused signature on registration, it cannot be checked because there is no signature to be checked on an absent vote application.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

In the course of the interventions that the Minister has been good enough to take, we have covered many of the issues. However, he has failed to convince me of the merits of the case. We are dealing with the suggestion that a political party with access to resources and manpower and a high level of organisation deliberately goes about stealing votes, and that the route that it uses is the application for the absent vote. If we in this Committee do not put sufficient obstacles in the way of people who want to behave like that, we will have failed in our duty to make the electoral process as fair as we reasonably can.

At the moment, in order not to have absent votes checked, it is sufficient to pile in 5,000 at the last moment following a photocopy of the correct form as issued by the electoral officer. The electoral office is unable to check 5,000 absent vote applications at once with the technology that it has. If it becomes clear that that practice is no longer good enough—because a photocopy of the form will be whistled through a computer and all the data will be checked to make sure that the absent vote application is in order—and that the way to put an obstacle in the way of the chief electoral officer is to get supporters who are going after votes to complete forms that are deliberately different from those issued by the chief electoral officer, that is the route that will be taken by those engaged in organised defrauding of the electoral process through applications for absent voting.

Can the Minister explain why we are going to allow that opportunity? We do not need to. The problem could be addressed by the Government's accepting the amendments. In proposing the amendments, we have accepted that it is possible for the political parties to help to administer the process and to try to meet the need for as many people as possible to be registered. However, if the information is not on a form that is bar-coded or identified in some way by the electoral officer, we are leaving open the opportunity for parties, in Northern Ireland in this instance, to engage in organised defrauding of absent votes. One can see a loophole forming. We should now move to close it.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

The hon. Member for Reigate said in his initial comments that I had perhaps understated the case, a charge not usually directed at me. I am usually accused of having gone over the top. However, he is right that of all the areas of electoral fraud, this is the most popular target of the fraudsters. It is the most popular target because there is an anonymity about it, and a distance between the fraud and being caught. It is therefore an area to which the Government must pay special attention.

If anything, I am slightly more confused as a result of this debate than I was when I started it. I had thought that it was a relatively simple process: if we wanted to clean up that whole area of activity, we should require everyone to complete the recognised official form—an original form, not a photocopy—which would be coded in such a way that if there were something unusual that required further inquiry the electoral office could immediately source and trace it. However, a lot of smoke has been put up during the debate that has confused the issue a little for me. Nevertheless, it is an area that we should undoubtedly deal with because of the steps mentioned earlier in the debate.

I am coming to the Minister's getting his retaliation in first about patterns changing. Patterns will change. If an organisation wants to commit electoral fraud and the House changes legislation to close its options, it will look for the weakest area and attempt to get through there. If we leave such an obvious gap as this, it is clear that organisations such as that will follow through on that activity. Their members will not need to stand in front of a presiding officer with a passport in one hand, attempting to make themselves look the age of the person whose vote they are taking. They will be able to do it discreetly at a distance in circumstances permitted by the Minister without much chance of being caught.

There is cause to make changes to reduce the operating and manoeuvring ability of the electoral fraudster. I believe that we could do so by using one official and coded form, which could therefore be properly traced.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 9.

Division number 3 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 3 - Absent votes and declarations of identity

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendments made: No. 46, in page 3, line 41, leave out `(ba)' and insert—

`(ba) the application states the applicant's date of birth and the registration officer is satisfied that the date stated corresponds with the date supplied to the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland as the date of the applicant's birth pursuant to section 10(4A)(b), 10A(1A)(b) or 13A(2A)(b) of the principal Act,

(bb)'.

No. 47, in page 3, line 47, after `rules)', insert—

`(a) rule 24 (postal ballot papers) is renumbered as paragraph (1) of that rule,

(b) after paragraph (1) of rule 24 (as so renumbered) there is inserted—

``(2) The prescribed form shall include provision for the form to be signed and, in the case of an elector, for stating his date of birth.'', and

(c)'.

No. 48, in page 3, line 48, after `count)', insert—

`(i) in paragraph (2), the words from ``it is returned'' to the end are to be sub- paragraph (a) of that paragraph, and after ``authenticated'' there is inserted ``, and''

(b) in the case of an elector, that declaration of identity states the date of birth of he elector and the returning officer is satisfied that the date stated corresponds with the date supplied to the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland as the date of the elector's birth pursuant to section 10(4A)(b), 10A(1A)(b) or 13A(2A)(b) of this Act.'', and

(ii)'.—[Mr. Browne.]

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.