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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar): In the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, the Government introduced a range of reforms to electoral law in Northern Ireland. These measures were aimed at addressing widespread concern that the electoral process was vulnerable to fraud. In respect of electoral registration, the Act introduced individual registration in place of the household based system, together with a new series of personal identifiers to enable checking of the register for inaccurate or fraudulent entries. In addition, the life of the register was limited to one year, with all individuals required to register during an annual canvass each autumn. The annual canvass had previously been supplemented by a system of rolling registration, allowing individuals to register at others point during the year, with updated registers published monthly and this continued.
The Government are satisfied that these measures have been extremely successful in substantially improving the accuracy of the electoral register in Northern Ireland. The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland has undertaken a substantial programme of work to make the changes a success. As a result, there are now comprehensive systems in place to check and maintain the integrity of the register.
However, there are concerns across the political spectrum that the requirement on voters to re-register and provide their personal identifiers afresh each year is leading to a downward drift in the overall numbers registered. The chief electoral officer and I share those concerns. The register published on 1 February 2004 following the 2003 annual canvass showed that 1,069,160 people, or approximately 87 per cent. of the eligible population in Northern Ireland, were registered to vote.
The Government are determined to ensure that as many people as possible both secure and use their right to vote. Our goal is an electoral register that is both as accurate and as comprehensive as possible. In the light of that, I can announce today that the Government are committed to moving away from the legal requirement for the register to be completely refreshed each year. This will reduce the burden on the individual citizen. And it will allow resources to be redirected towards targeting those groups where rates of registration are low.
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However, the Government are absolutely clear that any reform must also preserve the very high level of accuracy delivered as a result of the 2002 Act. So we will be actively considering what additional security or checking measures might need to be put in place to ensure that this remains the case, to ensure that accuracy can go hand in hand with rising levels of registration.
I have discussed options with the chief electoral officer and begun consultation with the Northern Ireland political parties on a number of ideas. In due course I will also be consulting the Electoral Commission. Any changes will require primary legislation. The Government are committed to introducing legislation once consultation is complete and Parliamentary time allows, and in line with the need to ensure an orderly transition to the new system.
In the meantime, a number of steps have been taken to encourage registration at this year's annual canvass, which closed on 17 November. The chief electoral officer has ensured that electoral registration forms have been more widely available than before, in a range of locations including council offices, housing executive offices, social security offices, libraries, jobcentres and Citizens' Advice Bureaux. Forms were also made available on both the Electoral Office and Electoral Commission websites. I also understand that the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland has also been working closely with the Electoral Commission in a combined publicity and outreach programme aimed particularly at young people, including a programme of school and college visits.
The new register will be published on 1 December. The Government urges all those who have not taken the opportunity to register during the annual canvass period to take the opportunity to register through rolling registration. We will be looking with the chief electoral officer at what additional steps might be taken to encourage people to take up this opportunity.
However, in the light of the concern about falling numbers registered and the local elections due in Northern Ireland next May, the Government have decided that, if parliamentary time allows, we will legislate before then to allow the chief electoral officer to reinstitute the carry forward as a temporary measure. This would permit the CEO to reinstate the names of those individuals registered on 1 September 2004 who have not re-registered during this year's canvass so that they reappear on the first monthly register published after the legislation has been enacted.
The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The Government have agreed to a request from British Energy plc to extend the long stop date for completion of the company's restructuring plan beyond 31 January 2005.
In granting this extension, the Government considered their overarching objectives of nuclear safety, security of electricity supplies and value for money for the taxpayer
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and consulted with the Health and Safety Executive's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. The Government continue to believe that the company's restructuring plan is the best means of ensuring these objectives. Therefore, in the light of the intermediate milestones set out in British Energy's announcement of 30 November 2004, the Government have agreed, subject to two conditions, to extend the long stop date in the Government restructuring agreement for a period of three months until 30 April 2005.
In the context of meeting its overarching objectives at this time, the Government believe that continuity and stability in the management of British Energy's business in the immediate future is desirable. We have also sought and received assurances from British Energy's management that any measures taken to manage the group's working capital will not adversely affect safety or security of supply. The extension is therefore subject to conditions relating to those two issues.
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As I have said previously, contingency plans remain in place to ensure safety and security of supply if the restructuring plan fails for any reason and British Energy decides administration is the only option.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): On 26 April 2004 I announced that, to support the Government's efforts to restore confidence in fines as an effective component of the criminal justice system, we propose to increase the amount of the weekly deduction applied to certain benefits from £2.80 to a maximum of £5 in April 2005.
The implementation date for this measure has now been brought forward to 18 December 2004 in order to introduce this at the earliest possible opportunity. The amended regulations have been laid accordingly.