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Baroness Amos: My Lords, I recognise the strength of feeling of the noble Baroness, Lady Park of
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Monmouth, on this matter. She has suggested two tests. In complicated discussions and negotiations, like the ones in which we are currently engaged, it would not necessarily be helpful to set out the detail of the issues which are being discussed. However, I note the noble Baroness's points.
I understand that some funds have been provided for the court case. I do not have a figure in front of me but will write to the noble Baroness setting out exactly how much it is and over what period of time.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, the forthright and absolute condemnation which has emanated from the Government and the financial penalties which are being imposed on Sinn Fein/IRA are welcome to many who have not trusted the IRA over a very long period. Does that mean that the period of appeasement is now over and that Northern Ireland can get back to real politics so that there can be proper devolution? That, of course, means proper elections to the Assembly, and the people who attain a majority will govern, either by themselves or in co-operation with others. I say that advisedly, because it really is clear now that power-sharing is unattainable in the short term and even the long term. It is only right that Northern Ireland should get back to having devolution to decide most policies in the north of that island.
Baroness Amos: My Lords, we are trying to achieve the restoration of devolution but let me repeat what I said in the Statement. It is very difficult, given the state of the parties in the Assembly, and in the absence of a clear plan which would see those parties come together on a cross-community basis, to form a government of Northern Ireland. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, that there have been elections and that part of the process was to try to find a way to restore devolution. That has not been possible in the current political climate.
Lord Fitt: My Lords, there cannot be anyone in your Lordships' House or in the House of Commons who can feel any degree of optimism about the present situation in Northern Ireland. Let us analyse what has brought this about. It was the enormity of the money stolen from the Northern Bank coinciding with the brutal murder of the young IRA man.
We have been here before. That was one murder of a young IRA man, but one must think of the scores of IRA men and others whose bodies were found just on the border area of Armagh over many years carried out by the IRA. There was not the same talk about governments wielding sanctions against it.
The last time I spoke in this House, someone told me later that I was expressing the view that I did not see any hope for Northern Ireland. I have no intention of changing my opinion of what has happened over the past two or three weeks. I hear from the government in the Republic and from the Government here that the
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only way we can have a restored devolved government in Northern Ireland is by inclusivity. If you insist on inclusivity, meaning bringing the IRA and Sinn Fein back into Northern Ireland, you are bringing about a further exclusion of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. I cannot see the members of the Unionist Party, at any time in the future, under any circumstances, in any year, being willing to sit down with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who have been quite aptly described as members of the army council of the IRA.
If the Government insist on bringing Sinn Fein back into the fold, as it appears from what the noble Baroness has said, they will be excluding at least two of the major parties in Northern Ireland. To insist on such a development will ensure that there will not be restored devolution in Northern Ireland.
I put it to the Government that now is the time to take a stand against Sinn Fein and to say that under no circumstances will it be permitted to take part in a devolved government if that means the exclusion of the other political parties. The Government will have to live with the realities of the situation as it presently exists.
Baroness Amos: My Lords, I say briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that even if you take out Sinn Fein, the other parties in Northern Ireland have not worked out a basis on which they might work together.
In moving this Motion, may I say a word about procedure? Report stage will take place at the end of the Second Reading of the Gambling Bill. I understand that the Public Bill Office has asked that any amendments be tabled as soon as possible and at least within two hours of the end of this Committee stage. Third Reading will follow at the end of the day.
The noble Lord said: The amendment would allow the chief electoral officer to carry out an additional canvass of those 83,000 people who were on the register in 2003 and did not re-register during the autumn canvass of 2004. The canvass would have to be completed by 18 March to allow time for an updated register to be produced for 1 April. That would concentrate the effort of encouraging people to register to those 83,000 whom the Bill affects. We hope to see a very vigorous campaign from the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to achieve this, including sending individual canvassers to call at the homes of each of these electors to persuade them to complete and return their forms. By stipulating a date of 18 March by which the process has to be completed, we anticipate that the register could be updated and published on 1 April. I beg to move.
Baroness Amos: The amendment would fundamentally change the nature of the Bill by requiring the chief electoral officer, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, indicated, to conduct a canvass of the 83,000 former electors before adding them on to the register. Currently, the Bill permits reinstatement on the register of individuals who were on the register prior to the publication of the register on 1 December 2004 but did not re-register during the annual canvass in 2004, provided the chief electoral officer has no information to suggest that they are no longer eligible to be on the register. The effect of having a canvass would be to require the chief electoral officer to send forms to all those people asking confirmation of their name, address, date of birth, national insurance number and signature. Only upon receiving satisfactory answers to those questions would they be added back on to the register.
It would be impractical to conduct an additional canvass on those electors before the deadline for publication of the register, 1 April 2005. As I think I said to the noble Lord in our discussions on Second Reading yesterday, we are confident that the anti-fraud measures we have put in place have been working well. Those are people who were already registered and have gone through that process.
Lord Smith of Clifton: If all the stops were pulled out, I believe that it would be possible to do this. However, I accept that within the bureaucracy there is no inclination to pull out all the stops and it is, therefore, probably impractical. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
(1) For purposes of this Act, the last day for an elector to register under the rolling registration process shall be the day on which nominations for election close.
(2) An updated register shall be published no later than one week after the relevant date in subsection (1)."
The noble Lord said: Noble Lords will recall that yesterday I alluded to the fact that there was potentially another way forward in terms of the rolling register. At present, the deadline to get on the 1 April register is 10 March. The amendment would move forward that deadline. I very much regret that yesterday I misled the House by indicating that the nomination date for local government in England was 11 April. However, the date is 7 April. Therefore, I hope that no one who reads Hansard and relies on that dateI cannot blame the Hansard writers; the date was in my notesmisses his or her nomination in England. If there were to be a general election, the date may be later.
The amendment would give people more time to register. The register is published a week later; and there may be an amendment sheet to the register. The provision would apply to anyone in Northern Ireland who believes that he or she is not on the register. It would be important for young peoplefor first timers. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said yesterday he believed that only 25 per cent of young people had registered. If the date were moved forward, I believe that in the fervour of a potential electionwe know that there will be a local government electionand with the work of the electoral commissioner, that longer period could well energise people to register.
The noble Baroness, Lady Amos, spoke to me yesterday and then wrote to me stating, first, that the date cannot be changed because of the UK-wide position and the 1 April date used in the May elections; that Northern Ireland would be out of step with the United Kingdom. Secondly, she says that the parties would not want this change. I should be surprised if the parties in Northern Ireland were to deny more young people in particular the opportunity to register.
What is the other side of the argument? One argument is that the position would be different from the remainder of the UK. But in three kinds of elections out of four Northern Ireland has an entirely different electoral system. There is PR under STV. I do not think that the noble Baroness suggests that local elections are under the STV system in England. The systems are very different. The register has been compiled on a very different basis. One of the reasons for the lack of youngsters on the registers in Northern Ireland is that parents do not have a duty, as we do in England, to place their adult children on the register.
Another argument relates to the workload of the returning officer. However, as I reminded the House yesterday, the postal vote deadline is not until 26 April. If about 15 per cent of the electorate were to seek a postal vote, consider all the work that that would involve.
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If the amendment were agreed, there could be an increase of those on the register of 2 or 3 per cent. The returning officer should be able to cope with such an increase bearing in mind that he copes with all the work involved with postal votes at a later stage. For local government the date would be 7 April. A general election might push it to a different date.
In response to the amendment, the noble Baroness may say that we do not have the wording right and that it can be improved. Alternatively, she may respond that she understands the point of the amendment and that the Government could give until 1 April. The register would then be made up to 1 April even if it were published a few days later.
I give these opportunities. This is Committee stage. I know that we are all in a hurry. But there are about 20 speakers at Second Reading on gambling and within that period there will be time to come forward with another amendment if the Minister does not like the wording of this amendment. I beg to move.
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