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Lord Clark of Windermere: My Lords, would my noble friend the Minister confirm to the House that the Electoral Commissioner has actually endorsed Parliament's decision to go ahead with an all-postal ballot for the referendums in the north-east?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, yes, that is precisely the point that is made in the Electoral Commission's report.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, the Minister has already stated that it is up to the returning officer to allow one drop-off point for 50,000 people, but that more could be arranged. As parts of Northumberland are the most sparsely populated areas in England, could a geographically rather than numerically based drop-off point be arranged? Where I live, people could travel 30 miles to a drop-off point and still not meet that figure of 50,000.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, we have every confidence in the professional work of the counting officers to make an absolute success of this referendum and make sure that it is as convenient for people as possible. It is different from the June election, in that it is a
 
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referendum and therefore not about personalities or candidates. It is in everyone's interest that everyone has the right to participate, so everyone will get a postal ballot, and it will be ensured that the ballots are delivered and printed properly. We have every confidence that the counting officer will make available drop-off points for ballot papers at convenient locations in sparsely populated areas.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Electoral Commission's key recommendation was that there should never again be an all-postal ballot in this country? Does he not agree that the Electoral Commission in its opening statement said that it was able to go along with the north-east all-postal ballot only because the Government had already had that passed through Parliament? It did not give a ringing endorsement of that ballot; it said that it could give no reassurances that the ballot would be safe. Does the Minister agree that that is against the background of the recommendation that there should never again be an all-postal ballot in this country.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, with due respect, if that was the issue that the noble Baroness wanted to raise, she should have asked that question. The Question she asked was specifically about the north-east, where there is going to be one referendum. There are no referendums planned elsewhere.

I do not want to mislead the noble Baroness on the commission's report, which is only two pages long. It made the point that:

It then went on to say:

The document also states:

The document listed some of the points that I made earlier; namely, Parliament had approved the order; counting officers are making the necessary arrangements; the form of the postal balloting for the referendum is different and an improvement on the piloted form in June; there is no evidence that an all-postal referendum in the north-east would be unsafe in terms of fraud and malpractice and the relevant voters have experience of all-postal ballots. All those reasons were given in the report to justify its conclusion that the referendum should proceed.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government have endorsed the findings of the Electoral Commission by withdrawing the regulations in respect of the other two areas?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, that cannot be the case because we did not move the regulations on 22 July, which, of course, was five weeks before the report was received and published.
 
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Afghanistan: Harrier GR7s

Lord Garden asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach): My Lords, the Harrier GR7s deploying to Afghanistan will provide, first, close air support both to coalition forces and to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF); secondly, a reconnaissance capability to support ISAF; and, thirdly, air presence patrols as part of ISAF's support for the security of the Afghan elections.

Lord Garden: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that Answer. I am sure that we all wish the crews undertaking this task well at what is an important time in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the NATO Secretary-General, asked for more troops and more helicopters. Can the Minister tell us how many of those we have at the moment in Afghanistan supporting ISAF, and how he intends to increase them ahead of the election?

Lord Bach: My Lords, as I understand it, a number of other aircraft are already in Afghanistan. There are American aircraft and Dutch attack helicopters. We were also invited to provide some aircraft. As I understand it, there are two Lynx helicopters in Afghanistan at the present time. I do not think that anyone, least of all those in Afghanistan, could accuse the United Kingdom of not playing its absolutely full part in trying to bring that country back to freedom.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that this deployment will not delay the upgrading of the GR7s to the GR9 standard?

Lord Bach: Yes, my Lords.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, will the Minister remind the House what reductions in the Harrier force, all types, are in prospect? Are those reductions additional to the withdrawal of fast jet aircraft announced by the MoD on 20 July, which included the whole of the Jaguar force?

Lord Bach: My Lords, no reductions were made to the Harrier force as a result of the recent White Paper.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, will the Minister answer the question asked by my noble friend Lord Garden; namely, are we providing the necessary increase in forces for the elections?

Lord Bach: My Lords, as I believe noble Lords know, the position in Afghanistan generally is fragile. Both the coalition and NATO are doing everything that is within our power to make sure that that fragility
 
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does not break. That is why it is so important that the elections for the presidency of that country to be held on 9 October go ahead and are seen, as far as is possible, to be free and fair. As I understand it, all requests that have been made have been answered; certainly, the United Kingdom has done that.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, while it is right and proper that we are playing our full part through NATO in helping in the sad situation in Afghanistan, will my noble friend use his influence with other countries and other parts of government to make sure that we have a clear strategy for the destruction of the poppy harvest, which accounts for 30 per cent of the Afghan gross national product at the present time, as without that destruction there will be a continual fuelling of the warlords and a continuing financing of terrorism?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for raising that issue. He will know that our policy is to assist the Afghans in eliminating the cultivation of opium. Our country is the G8 nation with lead responsibility for assisting the Afghan Transitional Authority in countering the narcotics industry in its country. With other nations we are providing a range of support to the Transitional Authority. This includes helping to develop Afghanistan's own counter-narcotics capabilities and institutions, to reduce drug use in that country and assisting with its economic reconstruction to provide alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I estimate very roughly that the six GR7s which are to be deployed will need ground crew of about 350 personnel. How many soldiers will be needed to protect that ground crew, or are they expected to protect themselves? Will the RAF Regiment be deployed in that role? Is its future still under threat?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the regiment's future is not under threat. I think that the noble Lord knows that. We are deploying temporarily 53 Field Squadron (Airfield Support) Royal Engineers, who are based at Waterbeach. They will carry out some minor work necessary to operate the Harriers from Kandahar airfield. Initially, we shall deploy some 315 members of the Army and the RAF altogether, but that should eventually settle at a detachment of about 230 personnel. Of course, the protection of all those troops will be of fundamental importance.


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