|Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill
Mr. Blunt: 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.
Mr. Browne: 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 applicationsthat is, by computerin 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 paperunfolded 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
Mr. Blunt: 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 enoughbecause 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 orderand 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.
Mr. Peter Robinson: 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 forman original form, not a photocopywhich 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 No. 3]
Amendments made: No. 46, in page 3, line 41, leave out `(ba)' and insert
No. 47, in page 3, line 47, after `rules)', insert
(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
No. 48, in page 3, line 48, after `count)', insert
Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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