Letter to the Chairman from the Secretary
of State for Northern Ireland
I am replying to the comments and recommendations
in the Select Committee's First Special Report. The Report mentioned
in particular: electoral malpractice, the impact of cross border
road fuel price differentials, and legislation.
The Government has set out its proposals to combat
electoral fraud in Northern Ireland in its recently published
White Paper (Cm. 5080). Most, but not all, of these proposals
require primary legislation. The Government intends to bring forward
legislation at the earliest possible opportunity.
Certain proposals contained within the White Paper
can be implemented without primary legislation, including the
full-scale cross-checking of the electoral register with the databases
of specified public bodies and the automated processing of absent
vote applications. The Government will continue to make urgent
progress to implement these proposals with the Chief Electoral
A further 37 organisations have recently been made
subject to the statutory equality duty, including the Chief Electoral
Officer and all colleges of further and higher education - including
the Open University. This represents the latest tranche of bodies
to be designated for the purposes of section 75 of the Northern
Ireland Act 1998.
Work on designation continues as part of a rolling
programme and further designation Orders will be made as and when
Cross Border Fuel Price Differentials
We welcome the Committee's report, in particular
their support for Custom's achievements in increasing illicit
fuel seizures. Although Customs seizures are a useful indicator
of success, their primary objective is to have a positive impact
on the legitimate road fuels market in Northern Ireland. They
continue to work with the legitimate trade in Northern Ireland
to establish the impact increased enforcement effort has had.
Customs work closely the Royal Ulster Constabulary
on a daily basis and the delay over the formal Memorandum of Understanding
has not affected this relationship. Work to develop and maximise
the inter-agency working of all law enforcement agencies in Northern
Ireland is now being taken forward by the Organised Crime task
Force. This work has overtaken the separate MoU between Customs
and the RUC.
Turning to the misuse of rebated oils, the Government
continues to press the case in Europe for a more robust EU fiscal
marker. In parallel, Customs are considering the practical issues
associated with maintaining a UK marker to be used in tandem with
the proposed "euromarker". The Government recognises
the importance of ensuring that those involved in the fraudulent
use of rebated oils do not benefit in any way from the changes
proposed by the EU.
The Government notes the Report's recommendation
that there should be a presumption that Proposals for draft Orders
should be referred to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee (NIGC).
The Government is content to agree to this recommendation and,
indeed, the first two orders under s.85 of the NI Act 1998 (namely,
the Life Sentences and Financial Investigations Orders) have been
considered by the NIGC. The Government would, however, like to
enter the caveat that it might not always be possible to do so
for reasons of urgency or where we have to keep to a tight timetable.
So far as the Report's second recommendation on legislation
is concerned (i.e. the use in such NIGC's debates of a procedure
akin to that used in European Standing Committees), we understand
that the main features of such a procedure could be followed at
present simply by using Standing Order No 112 followed by Standing
Order No 114. This would mean:
- referral by House of a proposed draft Order to
the Committee under SO No 114, and notice to Chairman of NIGC
of the same draft Order as the subject for a statement under SO
- meeting begins with statement and questions (duration
at Chairman's discretion);
- Minister moves motion (which could be moved
formally) "That the Committee has considered the [said legislative
- Debate may last until the time specified by the
House in the referral of the draft Order.
An approximate following of the European Standing
Committee procedure could thus be achieved without any amendment
to Standing Orders. The Government would be content to agree to
the above procedure being followed in principle for NIGC debates
on Proposals for draft Orders under s. 85 of the Northern
Ireland Act 1998. But we would propose to review the situation
after the first couple of NIGC meetings to ensure that no problems
I trust that these comments go some way to responding
to the Committee's concerns and recommendations.
25 April 2001