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Justice and Home Affairs Council

Mr. Hood: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what the outcome of the Justice and Home Affairs Council held in Brussels on 15 to 16 March was; what the Government's voting record at the Council was; and if he will make a statement. [154788]

Mr. Straw: I, together with the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), represented the United Kingdom at the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 15 and 16 March. The main matters dealt with at the meeting were as follows:

A points

The A points were approved as in document 6943-01 (a copy of which is in the Library), with the exception of item 2, Council Decision updating the Common Consular Instructions. The Government did not vote on those items in which the United Kingdom does not participate.

Mixed Committee

Illegal Immigration via the Western Balkans

The Council gave firm support for the United Kingdom, Commission and Italian initiatives. I reported that the United Kingdom was prepared to commit 10 immigration officers for 12 months to work in joint teams supporting Croatian and Bosnian border services, and urged others to provide similar resources. Five member states gave commitments to provide personnel.

Directive and Framework Decision on preventing the facilitation of entry and residence of illegal immigrations

Member states were divided on the level of penalty for facilitating illegal entry into the European Union (EU) and on the scope of an exemption for those acting with humanitarian motives. Although a majority of delegations were willing to accept as a compromise a Presidency proposal for a six year minimum maximum penalty where the offence involved specified aggravating circumstances, others argued for a higher penalty of between eight and 10 years. The Presidency sought, without success, to achieve consensus on an alternative approach involving agreement on a six year penalty by all, with those member states who wished to impose a 10 year penalty making a joint Declaration to do so. There was, however, agreement on making the offence of facilitation as defined in the Directive extraditable. It was also agreed that work should continue on the two draft instruments with a view to reaching political agreement at the May Council.

Schengen Implementation in Nordic Countries

The Mixed Committee noted that evaluations had been completed and border controls between the Nordic states, including Iceland and Norway, and the existing Schengen area would be lifted on 25 March.

Main Agenda

Proposal for a Council Directive on minimum standards for giving temporary protection in the event of mass influx of displaced persons and on measures promoting a balance of efforts between member states in receiving such persons and bearing the consequences thereof

The Presidency reported positively on progress. Outstanding issues on duration, decision making, access to asylum procedures and solidarity were to be dealt with by the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER) in time for adoption at the 28-29 May Justice Home Affairs Council.

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Council Regulation reserving to the Council: implementing powers with regard to certain detailed provisions and practical procedures for examining visa applications. Council Regulation reserving to the Council implementing powers with regard to certain detailed provisions and practical procedures for carrying out local border checks and surveillance

These texts were remitted to COREPER.

Civil crisis management

Over lunch, the Council exchanged views with the High Representative, Javier Solana, as part of the preparations for the Police capabilities commitment conference on 10 May. Ministers stressed the importance of proper training of the police involved.

Fight against drugs through law enforcement

The Council held a public debate focused on the themes of criminal law, practical law enforcement and EU action with the candidate countries.

The Council welcomed the Commission's intention to present a communication on drugs in April. This would include: proposals for evaluating the implementation of the EU Action Plan in 2002 and 2004; a drugs follow-up table; and an assessment of implementation of the joint action on synthetic drugs. It was important to maximise assistance to candidate countries through the Poland and Hungary Aid for Reconstruction of the Economy and Mesures d'Assistance programmes and to pursue early participation in the EU drugs observatory.

The Council discussed harmonisation of legislation on drug trafficking and common penalties. A Commission proposal for a framework decision on harmonising drug trafficking legislation would be published in April.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State drew attention to the priorities set out in the United Kingdom paper: an all encompassing drugs scoreboard; tough penalties to be agreed by the end of 2001; confiscation of convicted drug traffickers' passports and travel banning orders; speeding up the production of supply side indicators; agreement by the end of 2001 to the drug action plans for the candidate countries; and increased co-operation with Turkey.

Crime prevention--towards a European crime prevention policy

Political agreement was reached by unanimity on the draft Council Decision establishing the European Crime Prevention Network and Articles 1 to 4 of the Hippocrates funding programme, subject to consideration of the European Parliament's opinion on both texts which was expected in mid-April. The Presidency's paper on a European Crime Prevention Policy was agreed.

Draft Framework Decision on the protection of the environment through criminal law

The Council discussed handling of the draft framework decision in the light of the Commission's proposal for a directive, which sought to impose an obligation on member states to introduce criminal sanctions for breaches of existing Community environmental legislation. The majority of member states expressed support for the objectives of the draft framework decision. They accepted that consideration would need to be given to the issues raised by the Commission's proposal but were clear that criminal sanctions were matters for the Third Pillar and argued for a clear declaration to that effect. The Presidency concluded that the Council had reached provisional agreement concerning the objectives and in principle the

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content of the framework decision, but would instruct officials to examine whether it was necessary to complement the framework decision in the light of the Commission's proposal.

Fight against cybercrime

The Commission presented its Communication on cybercrime. This envisages future legislation proposals to approximate member states' legislation on: child pornography on the internet; computer hacking and virus attacks; racist/xenophobic material on and off the internet; and mutual recognition of pre-trial order in cybercrime investigations.

Candidate Countries

On 16 March, an informal meeting was held in the margins of the Council with candidate countries, including Turkey, with the aim of strengthening practical co-operation; in particular discussion focused on the fight against organised crime, asylum and illegal immigration. The United Kingdom was represented by officials.

Postal Votes

Mr. Bob Russell: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will issue guidance to political parties, agents and candidates on the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 2000 relating to breaches of the postal vote regulations; and if he will make a statement. [155470]

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The Representation of the People Act 2000 made no changes to the provisions for the security of postal votes. Electoral administrators are aware of those provisions and will see that they are enforced. It is the responsibility of political parties, agents and candidates to familiarise themselves with all aspects of electoral law which may affect them.

Mr. McCabe: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if (a) candidates and (b) their agents will have the right to a copy of the list of electors exercising their right to vote by post, and the address to which the ballot paper is to be sent, at least 24 hours prior to the despatch of absent votes to electors. [154797]

Mr. Mike O'Brien: Regulation 61(i) of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 provides that the registration officer shall, on request, supply a copy of the list of those electors who have been granted applications to vote by post to each candidate or their election agent at any time. However applications for postal votes can be received up until the sixth day before polling, so obviously a complete list of postal voters will not be available until after that date. Postal ballot papers will be despatched continuously from the date of close of nominations until shortly after the sixth day before polling day.

Electoral Register

Mr. McCabe: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if electoral registration officers have been advised to suffix existing elector numbers to accommodate additions to the register. [154799]

Mr. Mike O'Brien: Electoral registration officers were advised by a Home Office Representation of the People Act 2000 (RPA) circular (RPA circular No. 437) on 20 February that they should ensure that all individuals

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are inserted at the correct location in the register consistent with their address, and that no numbers should be re-used. Instead, existing elector numbers should be given a suffix to accommodate additions to the register. This will allow for identification of additions and cause little disruption to the already published numbering.

Mr. McCabe: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if the provisions for existing rights of inspection and copying of the ballot box register (marked register) used on polling day are to continue. [154800]

Mr. Mike O'Brien: There has been no change to the legal provisions for parliamentary and local elections governing the inspection and copying of the marked register used on polling day in those elections.

Mr. McCabe: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if elected public representatives and registered political parties will be entitled to receive details of additions and deletions to the register as and when they are published by electoral registration officers; and if representatives and registered political parties will be entitled to a free copy of the register in data format up to four times a year. [154798]

Mr. Mike O'Brien: Paragraph 47 of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 provides for elected representatives, political parties, candidates and their agents to be supplied with one copy of the register that relates to the area they represent, or seek to represent. Unless the recipient requests otherwise, this copy will be in data format from which they may produce further copies. There is currently no provision for lists of amendments to the published electoral registers to be sold or supplied free of charge, though amendment regulations dealing with the sale and supply of the register which we hope to publish shortly will provide for it.

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