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Electoral Fraud

2. Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): What steps are being taken by the Government to tackle electoral fraud; and if he will make a statement. [18093]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): The Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill, will provide the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland with additional

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powers to address the problem of electoral fraud there. The proposed measures will tackle electoral abuse effectively without disadvantaging honest voters.

Stephen Hesford: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. We are considering a key battle in the normalisation of civil society in the Province. Will my hon. Friend say a little more about multiple electoral registrations and what the Government are doing to make progress on that?

Mr. Browne: My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge the importance of combating electoral fraud in Northern Ireland to the stability of the political institutions there. On multiple registration, he will recollect that, on Third Reading, I undertook to consider whether there should be a requirement in Northern Ireland for those seeking to register to advise the chief electoral officer whether they were already registered or had tried to register at another address. I can now confirm that I intend to give the chief electoral officer powers to ask those questions during the canvass, starting in autumn 2002. Any person who knowingly gives a false answer to that question will be liable for a fine of up to £1,000.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Successive Governments have made a meal out of tackling electoral fraud. Has the Minister noticed that the Republic of Ireland is considering electronic voting in three counties to avoid fraud? Is not it time to deal with issues at that level, apart from pre-registration? Will he assure us that the chief electoral officer has full authority to change the method of voting?

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman has made consistent and important contributions to the debate, for which I thank him. He will recollect that, on Second Reading, there was a discussion about our aspiration to move towards electronic voting. However, all parties, including the Ulster Unionist party, agreed that the objective should be to put in place measures that would interdict the sort of fraud that had been identified and suspected. That is my priority, but it does not alter the fact that my long-term objective is to move towards electronic voting, which will help to tackle fraud.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's final point, he can rest assured that the chief electoral officer has all the powers, support and assistance that he needs to address this issue. In addition, I have started holding a series of regular meetings with him to ensure that I am kept up to date with progress on addressing the issue of electoral fraud.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): Does the Minister agree that the improvements contained in the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill will do much to eradicate electoral fraud in Northern Ireland? Does he also agree that the proliferation of electoral fraud could jeopardise the democratic process there? Above all, does he agree that one of the outstanding remaining ways of tackling such fraud would be to introduce proportional representation for elections in Northern Ireland? As the House knows, we use proportional representation for local government elections and European elections, so why not use it for the elections to this House?

Mr. Browne: I agree with two thirds of the hon. Gentleman's observations. First, he is perfectly correct to

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recognise the importance of the Bill as a measure for tackling electoral fraud. Secondly, it is important to reinforce the view that I expressed earlier that the stability of the political institutions of Northern Ireland is to a large degree dependent on the confidence that people have in their votes. The issue of proportional representation—other than in the circumstances in which it is already exercised in Northern Ireland—is reflected in a recommendation in the draft Bill of Rights by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should direct his contributions on that debate to the commission in the first instance.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): How can the Government's commitment to tackling electoral fraud in Northern Ireland be taken seriously when every party in the House but their own has argued for the inclusion of national insurance numbers on the electoral register?

Mr. Browne: I think that the hon. Gentleman was present for the final stages of the Bill, although he might not have been. He will, however, recollect that there was cross-party support for the use of national insurance numbers as an identifier. He will also recollect that I opposed those proposals because I considered that they were disproportionate, that they made unreasonable demands on voters, and that they were opposed by the chief electoral officer.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members are being very noisy. The House must come to order.

Mr. Browne: I also opposed the proposals because data protection implications were involved. The hon. Gentleman will also recollect that I undertook to reflect on the issue, and I have continued to do so. I continue to have discussions with the chief electoral officer, and I have had interesting discussions with the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) on these matters. I am still in reflective mode on them, but as soon as I come out of reflective mode, I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets to know of my decision.

Organised Crime

3. Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): What recent initiatives the Government have taken to tackle organised crime in Northern Ireland. [18094]

5. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): What recent progress has been made in the fight against organised crime in Northern Ireland. [18096]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I chair the organised crime taskforce, which has been in operation for just over a year. There have been a number of successes: on 8 November this year, 42.5 million cigarettes were seized at Warrenpoint harbour—the largest ever such seizure in the United Kingdom. In September, 26,000 litres of illicit liquor were recovered in Coalisland. Only this morning, a series of multi-agency operations in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been carried out to tackle fuel smuggling, fuel laundering and associated money laundering. Customs, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and agencies in the Republic of Ireland have

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searched 31 premises, 10 people are assisting those agencies with their inquiries, and the investigation is on-going. This is exactly the type of multi-agency operation that the Government wish to see.

Mr. McFall: Alongside the welcome peace initiatives taking place in Northern Ireland lies an increase in criminal activities involving drugs, alcohol and counterfeit goods. As the Minister knows, the profits from those activities go to terrorist organisations as well as lining the pockets of criminals. What is the organised crime taskforce doing to eliminate such activities, particularly at this sensitive time around Christmas, when many people are out shopping, and organisations such as the Co-op and other retailers are very concerned about counterfeit goods?

Jane Kennedy: My hon. Friend, who is a long-time supporter of the co-operative movement, knows very well how the sale of counterfeit or adulterated goods undermines legitimate traders. Only last week Sir Reg Empey, the Northern Ireland Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and I went on a shopping trip in Belfast city centre as part of a joint effort to publicise the need to tackle the sale of counterfeit goods. That is a good and practical example of the way in which everyone can play a role in fighting organised crime.

My hon. Friend is right, and members of the public should take note of the message: do not line the pockets of criminals this Christmas.

Helen Jones: In the context of tobacco and alcohol smuggling, what is my hon. Friend doing to make people aware that when they think they are getting a cheap bargain on the doorstep, they are actually putting money straight into the coffers of criminals and terrorists? In particular, will she ensure that communities such as mine which have experienced terrorist attacks in the past are made clearly aware that they should not be funding those who want to perpetrate similar atrocities elsewhere?

Jane Kennedy: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Shoppers in Warrington ought to be aware of an element of organised crime in Northern Ireland that has direct links with paramilitary organisations. They ought to be aware that when they buy cheap cigarettes and alcohol, and other counterfeit goods, they are providing funds for organisations that go out of their way to seek to kill, to maim and to lay the bombs that we saw in Ealing and Birmingham very recently.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): Does the Minister accept that one reason for the difficulty in tackling organised crime is the rundown of police numbers in Northern Ireland? While the numbers are on the increase elsewhere, in Northern Ireland the number of regular police officers is being reduced. Will the Minister give an undertaking that the full-time reserve in Northern Ireland will be maintained? Will she also give an undertaking that measures aimed at demoralising the police will be reversed? I refer to the issue of the name, the symbols, and the flying of the Union flag at police stations.

Jane Kennedy: My overriding concern is to ensure that the Police Service has all the resources it needs, and that Government continue to be guided by the Chief

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Constable's assessment of his resourcing requirements. As the hon. Gentleman knows, decisions on the full-time reserve will be made next year, in the light of the security situation prevailing at the time. I can say no more at this stage.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): Does the Minister agree that the best way to reduce organised crime in Northern Ireland is for all political parties to participate in the new policing board? That would replace vigilante activity with legitimate policing. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady must be heard.

Mrs. Calton: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, but I had finished. Would you like me to repeat the question?

Mr. Speaker: No, it is all right.

Jane Kennedy: I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) on her appointment to the Liberal Democrats' Front Bench. It is a pleasure to be joined by another lady.

The hon. Lady asked about political support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. She is absolutely right. It is important for the establishment of the service to be recognised for the watershed that it was. It was supported by the Catholic Church, the nationalist community and the Social Democratic and Labour party, and it marked an historic moment. The police deserve the support of everyone in the Northern Ireland community, as we take up the fight against organised crime and the associated links with paramilitary organisations.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool): I commend the Minister on her public statements in support of the Northern Ireland police during recent civil disturbances, in which 800 police officers have been injured since June. May I press her, however, on the subject of the full-time reserve? Will she comment on the fact that the reserve supplies a significant proportion of the active police manpower in Northern Ireland, amounting in certain districts to a quarter of those available for active duty? Does she accept the view of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary that, in view of the situation, the full-time reserve needs to be retained in existence for at least the next three years?

Jane Kennedy: My right hon. Friend knows certainly better than I do the issues facing the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the enormous changes that it has been undergoing to win the support of all the community in Northern Ireland. I hope that he will be encouraged when I tell him that we have been able to recruit 66 per cent. more recruits than had been envisaged. We are making every effort, and we stay in constant touch with the Chief Constable to ensure that he has the resources that he needs to police Northern Ireland as we expect it to be done.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): What an extraordinary coincidence that, two weeks ago, six of the 27 questions tabled by Labour Back Benchers happened to be on organised crime and that, this morning, we had an announcement on a successful operation against organised crime. Although the Government lost the benefit of doubt

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on coincidence long ago, we must welcome that operational success. However, will the Minister take it from me, and confirm, that fuel smuggling in South Armagh is an industrial-scale racket that is worth hundreds of millions of pounds; and that, in an area where police cannot operate without Army protection, Customs and Excise must be able to operate with all the assistance of the Army and police in dealing with an appalling threat that provides funds to future terrorism in Northern Ireland?

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman has demeaned himself in the way in which he asked that question. The Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Customs and Excise officers who were involved even in today's operation daily risk their lives in the work that they undertake, and they deserve our full support.

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