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Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am grateful for the comments that have been made in this short debate. I deal first with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, and other noble Lords about decommissioning. Noble Lords will be aware that there is no direct linkage between decommissioning and the release of prisoners. However, we have made it clear that decommissioning is an integral part of the agreement. We look forward to the LVF making a start on decommissioning in the very near future. This applies to all terrorist organisations.

The Government see no reason why decommissioning should not start now. We have made it very clear that there must be decommissioning of paramilitary

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weapons. We are not in the business of setting new preconditions or barriers, as the Prime Minister said at Balmoral. The Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act, together with the Northern Ireland Bill, with which we have just dealt, provides for the implementation of the agreement as an overall package of which decommissioning is an essential part. We cannot rewrite the agreement by introducing new pre-conditions. What would stop the other parties to the agreement from making new linkages and setting new pre-conditions? The best way to achieve decommissioning--the only way to achieve it--is by the full implementation of the agreement by all parties concerned. As I stated a few moments ago in the debate on the Northern Ireland Bill, the Government have played their full part in implementing the agreement. We call on all other parties to the agreement to do likewise.

I was asked a question about Noraid. I am afraid that I am not able to give an answer as to whether Noraid is providing money for the purchase of arms by terrorist organisations.

As regards the question asked on the emergency legislation passed in September, I do not believe that that is directly related to arms dumps or finding arms. Indeed, I am satisfied that we have long had the necessary powers to find arms, as have the Garda in the Republic. In the past few months the Garda has made many significant arms finds in the Republic and in the border areas. Indeed, it was not that long ago that they intercepted a car carrying explosives about to be brought over to England. So I think that the Garda has had successes. I am sure that they will continue to be assiduous in trying to identify arms. I believe that that is not directly related to the legislation we passed in September, which had a different purpose.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 1998

9.46 p.m.

Lord Dubs rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 19th October be approved [45th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the two draft instruments before the House today are fairly modest in content but we see them as making a good start on the work ahead of us to further improve electoral procedures in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps I may give your Lordships a little background information. In July last year my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced the establishment of an internal electoral review to look into allegations of widespread electoral abuse and to consider electoral procedures. That review reported last month and has made a number of far-reaching and radical recommendations. The Government have given Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland public, the political parties and anyone else with an interest in these matters until Christmas to comment on the review's

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proposals. Elections are an excepted matter and it will be for the Government to decide on the way forward. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to encourage response to the review.

I should also say at this point that the elections review concluded overall that elections in Northern Ireland are efficiently and fairly administered in very difficult circumstances, and that much of the credit should go to the Chief Electoral Officer. In the meantime, however, we believe that there are two issues on which we can make some progress. The order and regulations before your Lordships today tighten up arrangements for absent voting for local government, parliamentary and European elections. A subsequent order following the Northern Ireland Bill will do the same for Northern Ireland Assembly elections. Absent voters are those members of the electorate who vote by post or by appointing a proxy.

The legislation before your Lordships will amend two areas. First, it will increase the scrutiny time available to the electoral office to consider all the absent vote applications. Secondly, it will tighten up the medical attestation statement that is required on the absent vote application form for a particular election when the reason for needing an absent vote is on health grounds.

The elections review commissioned by my right honourable friend found cause for concern in the current absent vote application procedure. Insufficient personal information is requested; the application form can be photocopied and altered and there is a far lower standard of identification from that required of the voter at a polling station.

Northern Ireland's Chief Electoral Officer has been concerned for some time that there is considerable potential for fraudulent absent vote applications. During the course of the Government's election review, the team commissioned an investigation into absent voting by comparing the applications for the May 1996 elections and the May 1997 parliamentary and local government elections. The application forms were sorted into wards and then put into alphabetical order by name. In the case of people applying for an absent vote in more than one of these elections, the signatures and reasons given on the form were compared. Where there was a contradiction, the applications were clearly suspect.

Forty to 60 per cent. of those applications gave cause for concern. A further exercise has been carried out comparing the absent vote application forms for this year's referendum and Assembly elections. The results are not yet available but, when they are, a third and final exercise is planned comparing the results of the first two exercises.

The concern about the potential for absent voting fraud in Northern Ireland is shared. All the political parties contributing to the review, some members of the public, the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee report and the Forum Committee report expressed that concern. We have decided, therefore, that, rather than wait to move on the review recommendations as a whole, we can secure a couple of safeguards, one of which was employed in both the referendum and the

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Northern Ireland Assembly elections, and the other of which is already in use for applications for an indefinite absent vote.

I turn in detail to the first of our changes. Today's legislation proposes to increase the time available for the electoral office to scrutinise the absent vote application forms. In 1996 the electoral office had about five working days for scrutiny. In 1997 that was changed across the UK, giving only three working days. That was particularly inadequate for Northern Ireland's somewhat unique needs. For the referendum and Assembly elections this year, the legislation allowed six working days. We propose to retain that timeframe with today's order and regulations.

The effect of that increase is to shorten slightly the time allowed to make applications. I do not wish to give the impression that we are making life difficult for potential absent voters; quite the contrary. Let me emphasise that we are talking about one-off applications. That has nothing to do with those voters who are on the permanent absent voter list because of physical disability, nature of occupation, being a service voter or a difficult journey by air and sea to the polling station. It concerns those voters who, realising that there is an impending election, become aware that on this occasion they will not be able to vote in person. We endeavour to help as much as possible in such circumstances. For example, specifically to help the absent voting applicant, the chief electoral officer now sets up around 20 advice centres around Northern Ireland, which are announced in the local press before an impending election.

Furthermore, when an election is impending, my department sends to every one of the 642,000 Northern Ireland households a clearly printed coloured leaflet advising voters among other things of their need to apply for an absent vote. Additionally, when the electoral office's canvassers are delivering and collecting the electoral registration forms to Northern Ireland households, the canvassers remind all households of the facility of an indefinite absent voters list.

Moreover, the recommendations in my right honourable friend's electoral review provide for a computerised processing of absent vote applications to speed up the process and to make the procedure more straightforward and responsive for applicants.

I now turn to the other aspect of today's legislation: the tightening up of the medical attestation required by a doctor, registered nurse or Christian Science practitioner. What today's legislation is dealing with is only the attestation by a health worker in the case of a physical illness. Current regulations for an application for an indefinite absent vote on health grounds require the health worker's statement to attest that the applicant has been seen by him or her in relation to the application. However, a one-off application for a particular election currently only requires the health worker to attest the applicant's reason to the best of the health worker's knowledge and belief. The review found that in some cases doctors have each attested dozens of

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individual applications at a level out of proportion with the overall patterns of application or ill health across the Province.

The reasons why health workers may make false statements centre around intimidation where the doctor or nurse is forced into signing blank forms, or where the health worker is a party activist or sympathiser and gives a large number of blank, signed forms to party workers. In any event, the Government propose to make the medical attestation on the absent vote application form for a particular election the same as that for an indefinite absent vote application on health grounds. We believe that this change will discourage possible fraud and, where that fails, make subsequent prosecution easier.

In conclusion, these are two relatively minor changes. But we believe that they will help to improve Northern Ireland electoral procedures and will give the Northern Ireland electorate a system in which they can have more confidence. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 19th October be approved [45th Report from the Joint Committee].--(Lord Dubs.)

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