Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

I have three further questions. First, will the Environment Agency have any say in those sorts of developments, because it would be a case of closing one door and opening another to the floods? Secondly, will the Environment Agency, in playing this leading role, get greater resources in terms of management and taking on the role of other organisations? My recollection is that 12,000 people work for the agency at the moment. Will the situation get out of hand because it is too big to manage? Thirdly, where does the Environment Agency sit with regard to joined-up government in this country?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I must generalise about the issue as I am not in a position to identify the particular area to which the noble Baroness referred. The Environment Agency will be a statutory consultee and will follow planning guidance for all new build. I do not know how far plans for the eco-town she mentioned have reached, but I certainly give an assurance that the Environment Agency will play the role I mentioned. That is critical. On the more general points she made, the agency will inevitably need additional resources. That is why the Government are committed to providing them, because the agency is charged with a significant role.

As I indicated in the Statement, the Government have already pledged a programme of increased resources during the next three years, some of which will be for the Environment Agency. I agree with the noble Baroness that one cannot place obligations on any institution without giving it the means of fulfilling them. The Environment Agency has an excellent record and the Government will ensure that that record continues.

Lord Chidgey: My Lords, in the Statement the noble Lord repeated the point that the Government have made available up to £88 million, with a further £31 million to come, to help local authorities and assist those in greatest need. The noble Lord may recall that a few weeks ago he answered my Written Questions on this point. I asked in particular about the money promised from the European Union Solidarity Fund that would be used to defray costs from central government. That amounts to £110 million, compared to the £88 million that the Government have made available so far. Can the Minister provide some explanation of how the money from the Solidarity Fund, which is to be used to defray costs, is related to the budget and the £88 million that is to be expended, as well as to the £31 million to come? At the moment those sums seem to be entirely reliant on the EU Solidarity Fund. I am sure that that cannot be the case. No doubt the Minister will explain that.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Minister would very much like to, but the response to the noble Lord’s Question was fairly detailed and technical. I can say to the House only that that Written Answer is in Hansard. I do not have its details here. It was a very precise Question, but all noble Lords who are interested

25 Jun 2008 : Column 1496

in it will have seen the reply. I want to assure the noble Lord that when these resources are made available, the obligation on the Government is to ensure that they are spent on the purposes for which they are duly allocated. Therefore, I do not have the slightest doubt that I can offer the noble Lord reassurance on that.

On the main elements of the restoration fund, I have a figure of £30.6 million that has come from HM Treasury. We have been able to release that through a successful European Union Solidarity Fund bid. So we are making progress. It is not the end game yet as the noble Lord will readily appreciate, but I assure him that the Government are all too well aware of the resources that can be obtained, quite properly, from the European Union with regard to issues of this kind. We intend to ensure that we get our full share of that necessary resource.

Lord Sheikh: My Lords, I declare an interest. I am the chairman of an insurance broking organisation and I have been a director of the British Insurance Brokers’ Association. I took part in the debate on flooding and I reinforce the points made by my noble friend Lord Taylor. The insurance industry has acted very quickly; indeed, we have settled claims as quickly as we can. Our difficulty sometimes is that a lot of properties are not insured, and this is where there is perhaps difficulty in obtaining reinstatement. Indeed, the experiences of our clients demonstrate that people suffer from a great deal of anguish. Does the Minister agree that there must be better co-ordination between the Environment Agency and local authorities, because one criticism is that there is not a great deal of that? Can he assure us that there will be a timetable for implementing what has been suggested?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, as I was for his contribution to the debate. The insurance industry responded well to the situation last year. That does not alter the fact that some households are uninsured and there are those who are bound to feel that the loss that they sustained has still not been fully made up. We are all too well aware of the difficulties that people face when their homes undergo flooding. I reiterate the points I made in response to a noble Lord earlier; the Environment Agency has a clear role to play in relation to local authorities. Everyone is crucially aware of the significance of having necessary flood defences and the action that needs to be taken by local authorities. The Environment Agency is in the best possible position to identify those issues and it will be its job to ensure that local authorities comply.

On the insurance issue, we will produce an action plan in the autumn with a timetable on how these matters can be dealt with. I assure the House that although the final report has just been published, the Government had preliminary sight of the position that Mr Pitt was taking, and therefore we have made preparations for full development in the autumn.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, Sir Michael Pitt should be congratulated on this report. Obviously, none of us has had time to read it all, or even the executive summary, but the list of recommendations seems to cover a lot of areas and there is a lot of common sense

25 Jun 2008 : Column 1497

in them. I hope that the Government will take them up. The report has 462 pages plus a 43-page executive summary—a total of more than 500 pages. Any unsold copies might come in useful as flood defences in some areas. We are used to getting lots of paper in this place, walking away to our offices with piles of thick documents and having good intentions of spending a lot of time looking at them. I will take this document away to read when I am on holiday this summer, because it is full of extremely interesting and useful stuff. I have dipped into it and it seems to be more readable and interesting than quite a lot of the turgid stuff that we are invited to take away from the Printed Paper Office.

I have just a couple of points to make. First, I welcome what appears to be a theme throughout of partnership between the Environment Agency taking a strategic role at the national and regional level and the vital importance of local authorities, which have the local knowledge and accountability in their areas. From what I have read so far, it does not read as if the Environment Agency is there to ensure that local authorities do this, that or the other; it means that they will work together. Does the Minister agree that that is essential, because local authorities have the local knowledge? To make a detailed point that I made in the debate sponsored by the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, there is evidence that the Environment Agency is taking responsibility for small streams for too small watercourses. There is evidence of watercourses being blocked and other such problems. Those problems need to be sorted out locally but local authorities cannot do that because they have been declared to be major rivers. Clearly, they are not; they are just becks.

My second point concerns insurance and the importance of the Government and the insurance industry getting as many people as possible insured. We will be looking at that very carefully, especially in relation to social housing. Social housing landlords have to take much greater responsibility for trying to get people insured. The Minister in the Commons said that he would report further to the House in the autumn. Will the Minister confirm that we will get that report here too?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, on the last point, a report is somewhat different from a Statement. If it is made as a Statement, I have no doubt that it will be repeated here. If it is a report to the House, it will be for this House to judge how it wants to handle the issue. I have every confidence in the House airing the issues, given the widespread concern about and interest in them. I have no doubt that the Pitt report and subsequent developments will feature in our debates in future.

On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, about insurance, the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, has already emphasised the crucial role of the insurance industry. That is why we intend to make progress on that in the autumn. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is absolutely right to say that insurance is crucial. Far too many people have underestimated the necessity for it.

25 Jun 2008 : Column 1498

I was questioned by two noble Lords earlier; I want to emphasise the significance of the Environment Agency on planning decisions by local authorities. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves—in every other respect, the Environment Agency’s relationship with local authorities is one of a partnership. It will need to work with the grain of local authorities. As he said, in so many areas, local people know best about local problems and have crucial intelligence for the Environment Agency. Often, the local authority is the agent of necessary change. I assure him that the Environment Agency has an enhanced role, but that is not at the cost of local authorities. Most of its relationship with local authorities will be one of partnership.

Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2008

7.43 pm

Lord Tunnicliffe rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 14 May be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall move the first order in my name on the Order Paper and speak to the second. The regulations set out the procedures for registering voters in Northern Ireland and cover some technical administrative aspects of the conduct of parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland.

The regulations consolidate and replace the existing Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2001, which have already been amended several times. Although this is a consolidation exercise, which means that the regulations before us are rather lengthy, bringing the regulations together in a single text will simplify the legislation and make it easier to use for all those involved in the application and interpretation of electoral law in Northern Ireland.

Most of the regulations simply replicate the substance of the 2001 regulations. However, there are some changes. The regulations contain new provisions necessary to implement the changes to electoral administration contained in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 and the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006. The regulations also introduce new provisions requested by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, which are intended to help him to fulfil his registration objectives and further to improve the management of elections in Northern Ireland.

I will now highlight the key changes that the regulations will make. Noble Lords may be aware that Northern Ireland’s registration procedures differ from those operating in the rest of the UK, as a result of the anti-fraud measures operating there. As in the rest of the UK, under the late registration scheme, eligible individuals will be able to register to vote up to 11 days before polling day. However, the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act provides that those applying to register late in Northern Ireland will be required to provide additional supporting material alongside their application. That is because, at that stage in the electoral cycle, the chief electoral officer would simply not have the time to make the necessary checks on applications made under the normal application process.

25 Jun 2008 : Column 1499

Regulation 25 lists the type of supporting material that may be required when applying for late registration. That material will enable the chief electoral officer to verify the applicant’s date of birth, nationality, address, and the fact that he or she has been resident in Northern Ireland for three months prior to the application date.

A further change relates to photographic identification. Unlike in Great Britain, voters in Northern Ireland are required to produce photographic ID when voting in person. At present, only a photographic driving licence, passport, Translink senior citizens travel pass or an electoral identity card, which is issued by the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland, may be accepted as proof of identity. Regulation 15 would extend the type of acceptable ID to include a blind person’s travel pass and a war disabled travel pass issued by Translink. Both of those documents meet the same fraud prevention requirements as the senior citizens’ travel pass.

Regulation 15 also removes the requirement for the ID to be “current” to be accepted at a polling station. Post-election reports indicate that a small number of otherwise eligible electors have been unable to vote because they have presented out-of-date photographic ID. A person should not be disfranchised simply because his or her ID is not current. In order to maximise voter participation, the regulations will allow electors to vote regardless of whether their ID is current, as long as the presiding officer is satisfied that the ID confirms the elector’s identity.

The regulations also contain provisions aimed at encouraging more young people to register to vote. Young people are at present especially underrepresented on the electoral register. For that reason, Regulation 42 contains changes that will allow the chief electoral officer to request information from secondary schools in Northern Ireland. That information would then be used to invite older pupils to register. That proposal builds on the chief electoral officer’s current powers to obtain information and offers an innovative solution to increasing the number of young people registered in Northern Ireland.

The Service Voters’ Registration Period (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 would simply extend the period for which members of the forces, or their partners who have made service declarations, may remain registered as electors before being required to make a further declaration. This period is currently set at one year in Northern Ireland. The order will extend that period to three years, bringing Northern Ireland into line with Great Britain. The consolidation exercise means that the draft regulations before us are particularly lengthy. However, the changes made in them, and the process of consolidating the existing legislation, will benefit voters and help us to make the complex rules governing elections easier to follow for all concerned. I hope noble Lords will join me in supporting these regulations, which are necessary to ensure the effective administration of elections in Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 14 May be approved. 20th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.—(Lord Tunnicliffe.)

25 Jun 2008 : Column 1500

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I welcome the Minister to the government Dispatch Box on his first appearance for Northern Ireland. He joins a great team of players who have attempted to support Northern Ireland in one way or another and who have debated the issues long into the night on many occasions. Let us hope that we do not do that any more. The noble Lord is very welcome.

I also thank the Minister for the clear way in which he laid out the statutory instrument linked to the services. It certainly seems straightforward, now that he has told us about it. I definitely support all these changes. We have, in Northern Ireland, the best form of electoral management in these islands, and probably in many other places. We have argued and fought hard to get to where we are—that includes the Government, the joint opposition and those on the Cross Benches from Northern Ireland. We have a very satisfactory situation. This legislation would appear to improve it and sharpen it up.

There are one or two areas we need to be careful about, one of which is photographic identification being out of date. If I may say so with the government Chief Whip in her place, I worry that, particularly with women, disguise can very quickly take over. When they are young and beautiful, they have such pictures on their identification. As they age and become more mature, they could pass themselves off as all sorts of people by changing the colour of their hair, the weight that they carry and so on. I am a little nervous about that, and attention needs to be focused on how far we go. I would have liked to see a limit to the number of years that pass before a photograph is deemed out of date.

Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Would he extend his remarks to men, who would have the same sort of problems as those he depicts for women?

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, the noble Baroness misunderstood me. I was referring to everybody, but I wanted to be particularly apologetic to the ladies who are with us. Men also suffer in that regard, and I do not think that we need to be felt sorry for. We are, I suspect, less adept at disguise. On a serious note, this point should be noted. I would like to see a time limit, whether it is 10 years, or whatever. People should not be able to present identification that has a name and number on it but whose photograph was clearly taken 25 years ago. It puts too much of a burden on those responsible at polling stations.

The provisions regarding young people are an excellent idea. I understand that some schools are reticent to conform with the idea of electoral officers going into schools to collect data from students who are about to join the electorate. That is understandable because over the years the Government have not made a great success of computerisation. We have seen a lot of nasty headlines about the loss of personal and private data. Some reassurance is needed because it is not that big a deal. The data banks on students and other people cannot be that big. We have had no unpleasant impact of this nature, other than through terrorist

25 Jun 2008 : Column 1501

attacks, in Northern Ireland. I support the Government’s attempt to bring more young people on to the electoral roll.

I read the notes on the changes for the services and had the opportunity to speak to officials. I mentioned that I was anxious that the words “service personnel” should be clarified. It is probably clarified in the notes. In my day “service personnel” meant the police, firemen and sometimes nurses and ambulance staff. This, I assume, is aimed at the Armed Forces. There is a difference. The Armed Forces have always had separate electoral rolls, as I know having served for 13 years. What this order—which is almost a Bill—proposes is absolutely right and proper. I ask only that, for late registration, the Government insist and ensure that the 11-day extra requirements are adhered to. The order says that people can register 11 days before polling day provided that they produce extra identification at the time. I would hate to think that that was not going to be strictly adhered to. If I have taken too long, I apologise. I support the order.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I too welcome the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, to the Northern Ireland government team. I support these two orders. I was going to raise the question about up-to-date photographs, but I hesitate to do so after the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. If he spent 13 years in the Armed Forces, I am pretty certain he blacked up for night manoeuvres and impersonated a tree. He would have made a very good tree. I do not believe that changing one’s personality is confined to the female gender.

We are pleased to see these changes in the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations to make it as convenient as possible for people in Northern Ireland to exercise their right to vote without undermining the security of the electoral processes there. We very much welcome the introduction of two additional forms of photographic ID to be used as identifiers for voting: the blind person’s smart pass and the war-disabled smart pass. We hope that this will go some way to ensuring that as many people are not turned away from polling stations for not having the right form of identification as we saw in the Assembly elections in March 2007.

We also support the provision that will allow the chief electoral officer to gather information from secondary schools in Northern Ireland, to help in encouraging young people to vote. As previous Ministers will be aware, it is the Liberal Democrats’ policy to extend the right to vote to 16 year-olds. We hope this initiative will be useful in encouraging younger voters to participate in elections and the political process. It is also extremely useful to have previous regulations consolidated in this way, along with the new changes. We hope that this will be helpful to the chief electoral officer and to others involved in elections in Northern Ireland.

Finally, with regard to the second order, we are pleased that armed services personnel in Northern Ireland are now being brought into line with the rest of the UK. My noble friend the late Lord Garden

25 Jun 2008 : Column 1502

pressed very heavily for this, and it is good to see his influence in its extension to Northern Ireland. We support the orders.

8 pm

Lord Bew: My Lords, I, too, welcome the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, to his new position with regard to Northern Ireland affairs. I support what he has said and welcome these new regulations. As he said, they are a work of consolidation.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page