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Electoral Register

2. Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): If he will make a statement on the state of the electoral register in Northern Ireland. [174922]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar): The current electoral register for Northern Ireland published on 4 May contains the names of 1,076,940 individuals.

Mr. Swire: All hon. Members will have welcomed the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, to which Her Majesty's Opposition provided much good input, both here and in the other place. By December 2002, 10 per cent. fewer people were entitled to vote in Northern Ireland. We have just heard how the funding of political parties in Northern Ireland is to be brought into line with the rest of the UK, but is there not something to be said for bringing the rest of the UK into line with Northern Ireland in respect of the amount of evidence needed for registration of voters? In that way, we could achieve unanimity, here and in Northern Ireland, on the ability and entitlement to vote.

Mr. Spellar: With the greatest respect, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I think that that question ought to be addressed to my colleagues in the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South) (Lab): Surely my right hon. Friend will be as concerned as I am that there are 20,000 fewer people on the electoral register this year than there were last year, and that there are major discrepancies between the Northern Ireland census and the electoral register. Is not it time for us to review the legislation, given that we want more people to vote, not fewer? Should we not try to encourage voters to return?

Mr. Spellar: There are a number of reasons for the change identified by my hon. Friend, and one is the end of carrying forward, which obviously has had an impact. In addition, members of the police and prison services are reluctant to register, as parties with links to paramilitaries have access to the full register. However, I fully acknowledge that that is not the whole story. For
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example, studies of the demographics show that under-registration is more common in working-class areas. Along with electoral registration officers and officials in my Department, I am considering what measures can be taken to ensure that the register—which is probably the most accurate that we have ever had in Northern Ireland—is as comprehensive as possible. We want every citizen in Northern Ireland to be able to vote and to exercise the franchise, on 10 June and in other elections.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The Electoral Commission published a very authoritative report on the Northern Ireland elections last year, and it included some recommendations. What plans do the Government have to implement those recommendations and the observations made in the report about the electoral register?

Mr. Spellar: I am examining all the representations made to me about the electoral register and voting practice, but the need for an identification card at polling stations is becoming more widely understood by people and political parties, as is the need to register. We need to keep the electoral register honest and up-to-date but, as I said in reply to the previous questioner, I am concerned that we try to use a number of mechanisms to make it more comprehensive.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): In ensuring—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There should not be all this conversation going on. It is unfair to the hon. Gentleman, who is asking a question.

Mr. Dodds: In ensuring that those people who are properly entitled to vote in Northern Ireland are able to do so, will the Minister tell the House in more detail what he is doing to promote the take-up of the electoral identity card, especially in working-class areas, where people may lack other photo ID that would enable them to vote on election day?

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland has provided various facilities. I fully accept that the system could be improved, and we are more than willing to receive recommendations and suggestions in respect of weaknesses and possible improvements. As I said earlier, we want to ensure that all citizens who are eligible to vote are registered in their proper locations.

We want to facilitate voting by those on the register, including people with disabilities. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are undertaking work in that area. We also want to ensure that the person who turns up at the polling station to vote is the individual who is registered. I am sure that hon. Members understand the need for that degree of accuracy. Considerable improvements have been made, but that does not mean that we cannot make further changes that will lead to further improvements.
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3. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab): What discussions he has held with the Irish Football Association regarding the implementation of a soccer strategy. [174923]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela Smith): There have been ongoing discussions with the Irish Football Association—the IFA—at official level, leading up to the association's decision on 6 April 2004 to proceed with the implementation of the changes required under the soccer strategy. I met with the president of the IFA immediately following that decision, on 7 April, and discussions have continued since with officials, the Sports Council for Northern Ireland and the association. Terms of reference and membership of the soccer strategy implementation group have been agreed and the group, which includes representatives of the IFA, held its first meeting on 24 May.

David Taylor : Football has the power to forge links between divided communities and to combat the poison of the sectarian bigotry that led to the premature end of the international career of Neil Lennon, the former Leicester and now Celtic midfielder. Only last week, death threats were painted in the area around his home in Glasgow. Can my hon. Friend the Minister tell the House how much of the welcome £8 million that the IFA has dedicated to football in Northern Ireland will be used to develop the skills of all young players there and, in particular, encourage them always to play the game and never to play the man?

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Angela Smith: My hon. Friend can tell from the response from the House that we all entirely agree with his comments. I wish to put it on the record that I totally and utterly condemn the attacks on Neil Lennon, both in Northern Ireland and in Glasgow. In fact, Northern Ireland has been deprived of a talented international player. Sport has the power and the capacity to bring people together. The IFA has an officer dealing with sectarian issues, Michael Boyd, and it will bring forward proposals on youth development work that will address the situation.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP): The Minister will be aware that Windsor Park is in my constituency. Will she give an undertaking that the necessary finance will be forthcoming to upgrade the ground for the European matches, which will include games against Austria, Azerbaijan and Poland—not forgetting England and Wales—to meet the regulation standards? Will she also join me in congratulating the IFA and other sporting bodies in Northern Ireland that have campaigned to root out sectarianism in sport?

Angela Smith: I have had no official approach from Windsor Park to contribute to upgrading the facilities, but I hope that international games will continue to be played there. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the proposals for the infrastructure of sport in Northern
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Ireland and, if a site can be agreed, a multi-sport stadium. I congratulate any sport that takes action to root out sectarianism.

School Exchanges

4. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): If he will give financial assistance to the development of exchange programmes between schools in Northern Ireland and (a) the UK mainland and (b) the Irish Republic. [174924]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Barry Gardiner): This year, my Department has provided financial assistance of £275,000 for a number of exchange programmes with schools in both Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. I pay tribute to the dedication and commitment of the teachers who have organised those exchanges. Both teachers and pupils have found the programmes to be of enormous benefit to the learning experience and my Department is currently exploring ways of extending exchange opportunities with both Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

Chris Ruane : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Last year in my constituency, Mr. Alun Jones, the head of Ysgol Dewi Sant—a Welsh-medium school—tried to organise an exchange with a Gaelic-speaking school in the north. He asked me if I could access funding, but try as I might, I could find no funding for that visit. Does my hon. Friend agree that school exchange visits are a valuable way of breaking down barriers and prejudice, and that funds should be made available for school exchange visits between the north and the UK mainland?

Mr. Gardiner: I entirely endorse those remarks. Language is important—tábnactach - an teanga. It is good that those schools have had the opportunity to make that exchange.

When it was inaugurated, the east-west programme involved just Britain and the Republic of Ireland, but it has been extended to allow exchanges between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic and Northern Ireland. Although it is in its infancy, increasing money is being put into that, which I hope my hon. Friend will be able to access.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Will not the exchanges with the mainland reveal to pupils' parents a shocking disparity of treatment? If the status of a selective school is to change on the mainland, there will be a ballot. In the Province, it is being done by ministerial fiat, in the face of the express wishes of the people.

Mr. Gardiner: This was supposed to be a question about education exchanges. The hon. Gentleman has given us an education in an exchange of questions. However, on the issue of the Costello report, it is the express wish of two thirds of the population in Northern Ireland, as estimated in the household survey, that the 11-plus should be abolished, and that is what we propose to do.
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