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Electoral Fraud

6. Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): What steps are being taken in Northern Ireland to combat electoral fraud. [36894]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): On 31 July 1997, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State established a review of electoral procedures in Northern Ireland. That review is due to report this summer, and will take into account the Northern Ireland forum and Northern Ireland Select Committee recommendations. Northern Ireland officials and the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland are also participating in the Home Secretary's working party on electoral procedures.

Shona McIsaac: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. As there may be a referendum in Northern Ireland as well

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as European elections, will he estimate when the changes--specifically those mentioned in the Northern Ireland Select Committee report on electoral malpractice--will be implemented?

Mr. Ingram: That raises an important issue, not only because of the referendum, but because of future elections, as my hon. Friend said. The issues are fairly complex, which is why the review is taking place. It would be wrong for me to give a precise timetable, other than to say that we are urgently considering such matters as the way in which the electoral returning officer would process applications for absent voters. That is one of the Select Committee's concerns that we are addressing immediately.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe (South Antrim): The Minister will be aware how important these matters will be in future, perhaps in the near future. Is he aware that 88 per cent. of those on the electoral list are registered with the car registry for driving licences in Coleraine? If that is taken into account, it could ease the time scale for voting. Will the Minister take that into account, in considering identification, for instance?

Mr. Ingram: As I have said, we are considering, by way of review, the entire procedure. We are taking into account the recommendations from the Northern Ireland Forum and the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Specific recommendations and assessments of ways in which this matter can best be handled will always be taken on board. I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman's observation to my hon. Friend the Minister of State with responsibilities for political development, who has direct responsibility for dealing with this matter.

Security Situation

8. Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): What her current assessment is of the security situation. [36896]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): The current security situation remains tense, and terrorist incidents such as last night's horrific murder of Mr. Trevor Deeney continue to cause anxiety and fear among the community. They are clearly being perpetrated by those who want to see the current talks process destroyed in order to prevent the people of Northern Ireland from enjoying the benefits that a lasting peace can bring. There must be no retaliation for this murder: to do so would lead only to another escalation of violence and loss of innocent lives.

The security forces remain on full alert to prevent further terrorist attacks and the Royal Ulster Constabulary continues to investigate those crimes that have taken place. Every effort will be made to bring those responsible to justice.

Mr. Spring: During this difficult time, will the Minister pay tribute to the work of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in maintaining order in the Province? In any further consideration of the future of the RUC, will the hon. Gentleman ensure that no consideration is undertaken that would involve damaging the morale of those brave and dedicated officers in the RUC who do such a fine job in the Province?

Mr. Ingram: I commented earlier on the fine and brave work that the men and women of the RUC do--as well

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as those in the Garda Siochana and other serving members of the security forces, north and south of the border. We could include also those who serve elsewhere in the interface with terrorists, in the Prison Service and other areas.

It is important that the dedication and commitment to duty shown over 25 years or more by the RUC is fully recognised. That is why I am closely engaged in discussions and points of contact with the Police Federation and the superintendents' association and, of course, with the Chief Constable and his senior officers.

PRIME MINISTER

The Prime Minister was asked--

Engagements

Q1. [36919] Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 8 April.

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): I have been asked to reply.

As the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is today in Northern Ireland involved in the peace talks. My right hon. Friend has shown that he is committed and determined to reach an agreement. I am sure that the whole House would want to send its best wishes to my right hon. Friend, to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and to all those who are involved in efforts to bring about a peaceful and long-term settlement.

The further killing last night reminds us of the many people who have died and the terrible price paid by the community and the difficulties faced by our security and emergency forces in Northern Ireland. That underlines the importance of the task in hand--to reach agreement. A peaceful settlement is what the House would wish, and that is what the country wants.

Ann Clwyd: May I ask my right hon. Friend to convey to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister the sincere hope of everybody in the House that those involved in the peace negotiations will be able to reach a lasting agreement so that the people of Northern Ireland can live in peace and harmony with their neighbours, regardless of creed and regardless of nationality?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The House has signified that it completely shares those views. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has held a series of meetings with the participants in the talks. He will be meeting the Taoiseach and other parties again later today. My right hon. Friend continues to believe that tomorrow's deadline for an agreement can be reached provided that there is good will and commitment, and sincere negotiations on all sides.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): Will the right hon. Gentleman pass on to the Prime Minister in Belfast the support of the official Opposition as he seeks to bring to a successful conclusion 22 months of negotiation, in which hon. Members in all parts of the House have participated? Will he also pass on to the

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Prime Minister our sincere hopes that it will be possible to reach a peaceful settlement that is acceptable to the political parties at the talks and to the greater number of people in Northern Ireland?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I welcome the right hon. Lady to the Dispatch Box. I am happy to pass on the support of the official Opposition. I am delighted to do so. The Prime Minister knows--today's Question Time has confirmed this--that all decent and right-thinking people want the process to reach a peaceful and successful conclusion.

Mrs. Shephard: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. Will he confirm that it remains the Government's policy that any settlement will be in accordance with the principles of the triple lock, whereby, before the settlement is put to a referendum of the people, it should have the agreement of the two Governments and the backing of the majority of political parties in Northern Ireland?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Lady is absolutely correct. The principle of consent must, and will, underlie any agreement. The Prime Minister has made it clear that nothing will happen to the people of Northern Ireland without their agreement. There have to be suitable cross-border arrangements. There has to be basic equality and fairness for all. These are the principles. Of course words and detail matter, but in the end it is down to good will, good faith, patience and determination. There is nothing here that cannot be resolved if there is a desire to do so.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): My right hon. Friend will know of the new tram link system in Croydon, which is due for completion in November 1999. We are all aware of the welcome news of the renaissance of the London tube and the emergence of new democracy through the Greater London Authority. Can the constituents of Croydon look forward to an integrated transport system for London that will link up the new tram ways in London to the new, reinvigorated tube system for the capital?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That will be the intention of the White Paper on an integrated transport system, which we hope to publish and bring before the House in early June.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil): The Prime Minister and the Irish Taoiseach carry with them the hopes of all the people of the British Isles for success in their quest for peace in Belfast. Surely by now everyone must understand that, after 30 years of conflict, this is not only the best chance for peace that we have: it could also be the last chance that we have for yet another generation. In those circumstances, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that, whatever the price of compromise, the price of failure is greater? Does he further agree that, now that 80 per cent. of the agreement has been put in place, it would be unforgivable--and unforgiven--for any party not to find the final compromises to achieve success?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The House will agree very much with that statement. It is about agreement. I recognise that the right hon. Gentleman has

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considerable experience and knowledge of the situation in Northern Ireland and is listened to carefully on this matter. Therefore I am happy to confirm that what he said is exactly the position. As I said to the shadow Leader of the House, the principles are firmly in place. All the efforts of the participants must now be to reach an agreement on the basis of the principles that I have just outlined.

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North): I welcome the progress that has been made on the creation of regional development agencies in England. After 18 years or more of centralised power, we have an opportunity to disperse power in this country. I particularly welcome the role taken by local authorities and the business community in developing RDAs in the east midlands. What progress would my right hon. Friend like to see in making RDAs truly accountable through an electoral process?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The House will be aware from many debates that I have a clear view on regional development agencies. I want RDAs to be introduced--as they are being introduced by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning. I also want them to be accountable. I would like to see the proposed regional chambers in the regional government context. That is what democratic accountability is about. The House has to be convinced of that matter. We want to discuss with people in each of the regions their attitudes towards these matters. Economic instruments need to be democratically accountable. That is my view.

Q2. [36921] Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): Precisely what support are the Government giving to hard-pressed arable farmers in my constituency in south Lincolnshire, and across Britain?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As with education and health, and as the relevant Ministers have said at the Dispatch Box, we have been able to give considerably more resources to rural areas, as well as to education and health, than were given by the previous Administration--despite inheriting a mess in all those areas after 18 years of Tory government.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): Is my right hon. Friend aware that drug-related crime in my constituency has more than doubled in the past two years, and that class A drug seizures have also more than doubled in that period? The estimated street value of heroin sold in Luton is now running at more than £5 million a year. Will he join me in welcoming the eight additional police officers being recruited to Luton to tackle this and other crime problems; and can he assure me that the Crime and Disorder Bill will enable tough action to be taken on drug-related crime?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am pleased to say that the legislation will help, but other forthcoming reports will also be relevant. I welcomed the fall in crime reported yesterday, but it remains of great concern that violent crime continues to increase.

As for drugs, our appointment of a drugs tsar was a step in the right direction; a report due to appear before the House in April or thereabouts will deal with these points.

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Q3. [36922] Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): In the light of the Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), and of the recent report by accountants Touche Deloitte to the effect that there was not much prospect of profit in milk production, and of the Agriculture Minister's illuminating comment in the House that he believed there was little chance of farming avoiding a long-term decline, can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether dairy farming has a place in his and the Prime Minister's vision of cool Britannia?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is clear from our actions that farming has an important part to play in Labour's programmes. Some of the difficulties in today's farming industry--beef, for example--can be traced directly to the inactivity of the Tory party. Some of the problems of dairy farming are due to the deregulation of milk and dairy farming. We inherited these problems as a result of the Tories' inactivity as regards farming.


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