Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Fourth Special Report


Letter to the Chairman from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am replying to the comments and recommendations in the Select Committee's First Special Report. The Report mentioned in particular: electoral malpractice, the impact of cross border road fuel price differentials, and legislation.

Electoral Malpractice

The Government has set out its proposals to combat electoral fraud in Northern Ireland in its recently published White Paper (Cm. 5080). Most, but not all, of these proposals require primary legislation. The Government intends to bring forward legislation at the earliest possible opportunity.

Certain proposals contained within the White Paper can be implemented without primary legislation, including the full-scale cross-checking of the electoral register with the databases of specified public bodies and the automated processing of absent vote applications. The Government will continue to make urgent progress to implement these proposals with the Chief Electoral Officer.

Fair Employment

A further 37 organisations have recently been made subject to the statutory equality duty, including the Chief Electoral Officer and all colleges of further and higher education - including the Open University. This represents the latest tranche of bodies to be designated for the purposes of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Work on designation continues as part of a rolling programme and further designation Orders will be made as and when required.

Cross Border Fuel Price Differentials

We welcome the Committee's report, in particular their support for Custom's achievements in increasing illicit fuel seizures. Although Customs seizures are a useful indicator of success, their primary objective is to have a positive impact on the legitimate road fuels market in Northern Ireland. They continue to work with the legitimate trade in Northern Ireland to establish the impact increased enforcement effort has had.

Customs work closely the Royal Ulster Constabulary on a daily basis and the delay over the formal Memorandum of Understanding has not affected this relationship. Work to develop and maximise the inter-agency working of all law enforcement agencies in Northern Ireland is now being taken forward by the Organised Crime task Force. This work has overtaken the separate MoU between Customs and the RUC.

Turning to the misuse of rebated oils, the Government continues to press the case in Europe for a more robust EU fiscal marker. In parallel, Customs are considering the practical issues associated with maintaining a UK marker to be used in tandem with the proposed "euromarker". The Government recognises the importance of ensuring that those involved in the fraudulent use of rebated oils do not benefit in any way from the changes proposed by the EU.


The Government notes the Report's recommendation that there should be a presumption that Proposals for draft Orders should be referred to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee (NIGC). The Government is content to agree to this recommendation and, indeed, the first two orders under s.85 of the NI Act 1998 (namely, the Life Sentences and Financial Investigations Orders) have been considered by the NIGC. The Government would, however, like to enter the caveat that it might not always be possible to do so for reasons of urgency or where we have to keep to a tight timetable.

So far as the Report's second recommendation on legislation is concerned (i.e. the use in such NIGC's debates of a procedure akin to that used in European Standing Committees), we understand that the main features of such a procedure could be followed at present simply by using Standing Order No 112 followed by Standing Order No 114. This would mean:

  • referral by House of a proposed draft Order to the Committee under SO No 114, and notice to Chairman of NIGC of the same draft Order as the subject for a statement under SO No 112;

  • meeting begins with statement and questions (duration at Chairman's discretion);

  •  Minister moves motion (which could be moved formally) "That the Committee has considered the [said legislative proposal]";

  • Debate may last until the time specified by the House in the referral of the draft Order.

An approximate following of the European Standing Committee procedure could thus be achieved without any amendment to Standing Orders. The Government would be content to agree to the above procedure being followed in principle for NIGC debates on Proposals for draft Orders under s. 85 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. But we would propose to review the situation after the first couple of NIGC meetings to ensure that no problems have arisen.

I trust that these comments go some way to responding to the Committee's concerns and recommendations.

25 April 2001

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