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14 Oct 1999 : Column WA91

Written Answers

Thursday, 14th October 1999.


Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will recognise Rastafari as a religion for the purposes of prison administration so as to secure the rights of religion without discrimination of prison inmates as guaranteed by Article 9 and Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.[HL4107]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): The Prison Service recognises the culture of Rastafari by, for instance, allowing Rastafarians to wear dreadlocks and to be provided with a special diet. The Prison Service is seeking further information in order to establish whether it would be appropriate to treat Rastafari as a religious as well as a cultural movement.

Firefighters' Conditions of Service

Lord Graham of Edmonton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will agree to the request from the Local Government Association for an inquiry into the machinery for determining the firefighters' conditions of service.[HL4217]

Lord Bassam of Brighton : Yes. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has, at the request of the Local Government Association, agreed to set up a departmental inquiry to consider whether, and if so what, changes need to be made to the present arrangements for determining the national conditions of service (other than pay) and working practices of firefighters. The purpose would be to secure best value, fairness at work, and effective procedures for the settling of disputes.

The Government's priority is the safety and protection of the public. It is not acceptable that there should currently be no effective machinery for ensuring that disputes between the local authority employers and the Fire Brigades Union over fire service national conditions of service are resolved by meaningful negotiations. The Government have agreed to the request for an independent inquiry because it is in the public interest and the right way forward.

The local authority employers have already agreed to restore existing procedures for resolving local disputes. While the inquiry is sitting, there will also be no changes to firefighters' pay and pension arrangements and the Government are inviting the employers to suspend their current proposals for

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changes to national conditions of service. In return, they would expect the Fire Brigades Union to suspend its ballots for industrial action.

Greater London Authority Elections

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any plans to introduce electronic counting for the Greater London Authority elections.[HL 4204]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): The Government intend to proceed with plans to use electronic scanning equipment to count the votes in next year's elections on 4 May for a London mayor and the London assembly. The election will provide an excellent opportunity to introduce a more up to date method of counting of votes, more in keeping with today's technology and systems. This will be the first time such a modern system of counting has been used in an election in the United Kingdom.

We estimate that a manual count in next year's London elections could take up to three days before a result is known. With the new equipment, a result will be known by the next morning. For an election in the new millennium it is only right that we use the latest technology to speed up the process, as long as it can guarantee an accurate count and maintain public faith in the secrecy and integrity of the election process.

Shortly, we will be appointing DRS Data & Research Services Plc to undertake the count. They have a successful track record in elections in other countries, including Norway and Bosnia-Herzegovinia, and we are confident that they can contribute to a smoothly run election in London. We will be conducting a major trial in the New Year, involving a mock election in one of the London boroughs.

As well as saving time, an electronic count will save money. Without the need for many teams of people and large counting halls for a prolonged period, we estimate that, despite the additional cost of counting machines, there will be an overall saving of some half a million pounds in the cost of the election.

Economic and Finance Council of Ministers,8 October

Lord Strabolgi asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What was the outcome of the Economic and Finance Council of Ministers held on 8 October.[HL 4205]

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury attended the Economic and Finance Council of Ministers in Luxembourg on 8 October 1999.

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The Commission presented the 1999 Employment Package. The Presidency stated that work would continue on the substance, in co-operation with the Social Affairs Council. There was a discussion of the state of implementation of OLAF, the European anti-fraud office. The Commission gave a presentation outlining its short-term work programme. There was further discussion of VAT on labour intensive services. With regard to taxation of savings, the Council noted the reports of the UK and other member states on discussions with their dependent territories. There was a discussion of ECOFIN's contribution to a common strategy of the Union for the Mediterranean region.

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There was continuing discussion of the renewal of the European Investment Bank's mandate for lending to third countres. This will be discussed further at the 8 November ECOFIN. Subject to a formal Commission proposal, it was agreed to guarantee 600 million euro of EIB loans to Turkey, to help in the reconstruction following the recent earthquake. Greece drew attention to the damage caused by the Athens earthquake. The Commission were asked to consider ways forward. The European Investment Bank noted that it had already granted one million euro to Greece. Over lunch the Council had a discussion with Ministers from EFTA countries on matters of mutual interest, including current economic policy issues.

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