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Mental Health

A message was brought from the Commons that they concur with the resolution of this House of 29 November relating to a Joint Committee of both Houses on any draft Mental Health Bill and that they have made the following orders:

That, in accordance with the order of the House of 20 July in the last Session of Parliament, a Select Committee of 12 members be appointed to join with a committee appointed by the Lords, as the Joint Committee on the draft Mental Health Bill, with the same terms of reference, powers and membership as in the last Session and that the proceedings of the Joint Committee on the draft Mental Health Bill in the last Session of Parliament be referred to the committee; and

That the committee do meet with the committee appointed by the Lords on Wednesday 1 December at half-past nine o'clock in the Boothroyd Room.

Written Statements

Tuesday 30 November 2004

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Northern Ireland: Electoral Registration

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My honourable friend the Minister of State for Northern Ireland has made the following Ministerial Statement.

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 other points 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.

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
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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 mean time, 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 urge 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.

Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004: Implementation

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): My right honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Planning has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I have today published a consultation paper on proposed secondary legislation and guidance to implement some of the development control provisions in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. We intend that, after a three-month consultation period and consideration of the responses received, the provisions would come into effect in May 2005.
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We are preparing to implement the development control provisions in Part 4 of the Act in stages. Where the provisions in the Act require secondary legislation we are proposing changes to the general development procedure order. The paper proposes the form and content for economic impact reports for major infrastructure projects. The paper proposes a 21-day period in which statutory consultees must respond to consultation on planning applications. Last year some consultees pointed out the inconsistency between this period and the ability of local planning authorities (LPAs) to determine applications within 14 days. We are now proposing that LPAs should not determine applications until the consultee has responded or after 21 days, whichever is the sooner.

The consultation includes updated guidance on some of the provisions in the Act for which secondary legislation is not required. The guidance refers to the right of appeal for non-determination of a similar repeat application. We will not be introducing the power to decline to determine overlapping application (twin-tracking) until the performance of local authorities in handling planning applications improves.

There is revised draft guidance on the duration of permission and consent. The Act reduces the default period for the commencement of a detailed permission from five to three years. The Government have acknowledged that periods longer than three years might be appropriate in some cases. For most major developments, such as complex regeneration projects, outline rather than detailed applications are likely to be the route to permission. The period for approval of reserved matters after outline permission has been granted will normally remain as three years. The guidance makes clear the need for flexibility on the part of local authorities in their dealings with applicants on the duration of permissions and consents.

There is also draft guidance on consultation with regional planning bodies (RPBs) on certain applications where development would be of major importance for the implementation of the regional spatial strategy or for other types of development on which RPBs specify that they wish to be consulted.

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