The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The General Affairs and External Relations Council of the European Union agreed on 14 June to the establishment of a European defence agency in the fields of defence capabilities development, research, acquisition and armaments. The agency will make a major contribution to the development of the military capability of EU member states, a key UK objective for the European security and defence policy. By rationalising and harmonising capability requirements, and linking those directly to industrial and research efforts, it will help improve the military effectiveness of European nations which will benefit both the EU and NATO. The work of the agency will be directed by a steering board consisting of national Defence Ministers to ensure it is subject to appropriate national control as well as being given the necessary political impetus.
The Government regret that it was necessary to agree to the establishment of the agency, through a scrutiny override, before parliamentary scrutiny had been completed and before the debate, recommended by the European Scrutiny Committee on 9 June (22nd Report, 200304, HC42-xxii) could be held. The United Kingdom did not wish to prevent the decision to establish the agency being taken at the Council meeting given benefits expected from the creation of the agency and the influential role played by the United Kingdom in shaping and implementing its formation. I wrote to the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee on 10 June setting out this position. The Government are, nonetheless, fully committed to the need for national Parliaments to have proper oversight of EU issues and the establishment of the European defence agency will be debated in European Standing Committee B on 22 June.
To provide a secure defence courier service for the carriage of protectively marked material (PMM) operating within timescales for scheduled and special items at not less than 98.7 per cent. of that agreed with customers.
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To provide a resilient and dependable service for the controlled and specialised handling of defence official mails by operating at least 96 per cent. of deliveries within scheduled timings, agreed with customers.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Elections were held on Thursday, 10 June 2004 for local authorities in England and Wales, for the London assembly, for the Mayor of London and for the European Parliament. Following the passage of the European Parliament and Local Elections (Pilots) Act, voting in four regions of Englandthe north-east, the north-west, Yorkshire and the Humber and the east midlandswas by postal ballot.
The elections were successfully completed. Six thousand and forty-four councillors were elected in England and Wales, twenty five members of the London assembly were elected, a Mayor of London was elected and 78 United Kingdom members of the European Parliament were elected.
In the four all-postal pilot regions, overall turnout in the European Parliamentary election has more than doubled from that in 1999, going up from about 20 per cent. to 42 per cent.
In the other regions, turnout is also up, but by around half on their 1999 figures.
Nearly 3 million more people voted in the four pilot regions in these European elections than in 1999.
In places with all-postal local elections last week, turnout was substantially higher than elsewhere, with cities such as Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool showing increases in turnout of around half as much again since the last local elections.
We believe therefore that the all-postal pilots have shown, on a significantly larger scale than ever before, that a system in which a postal vote is automatically given to every elector positively encourages participation.
The Electoral Commission will evaluate the pilots and its report is due to be published in mid-September. The Commission will examine the extent to which the manner in which the elections were conducted affected the incidence of electoral offences or malpractice. During the period of the elections, a number of allegations of malpractice were made. Allegations of
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malpractice and fraud will be investigated. But with a small number of exceptions, such allegations are not reflected in either the experiences of the electoral administrators or reports to the Crown Prosecution Service. Regional returning officers are not reporting a higher volume of problems than in previous elections. For example, the regional returning officer for the North-west, Sir. Howard Bernstein, and the Greater Manchester police issued a joint statement saying:
"While the nature of allegations has changed this year, the scale has not increasedif anything, it has lessened."
There were also some concerns expressed about the witness signature requirement on the declaration of identity form. Both the Government and the Electoral Commission had reservations about this requirement, and it was almost certainly a factor in limiting turnout. In pilots in local elections in 2003 there was a significantly higher turnout where no witness statement was used. We believe that there are better alternative security arrangements which avoid complexity and avoid the need for an elector to disclose their intention to cast a ballot.
There were, in addition, a number of technical difficulties experienced during the pilots. Returning officers, the Royal Mail and other suppliers have worked very effectively together to overcome these difficulties where they occurred. Of the 14.1 million ballot packs, over 99 per cent. were issued by returning officers by the deadline of midnight on 1 June. The few remaining packs were issued by 5.10 am the following morning. Royal Mail provided an outstanding service in supporting the administrators and suppliers and ensuring their role in the process was delivered effectively.
Our judgment is therefore that these pilots confirm conclusions from previous pilots in 2002 and 2003. These have already been evaluated by the Electoral Commission which concluded that, with some further development, there should in future be a statutory presumption in favour of all-postal voting in local elections. The Government are therefore also confirming its intention for the proposed autumn regional referendums in the three northern regions to be on an all-postal basis.
The success of the all postal pilots will provide a strong base from which we can develop a multi-channel approach to elections in the future, giving further choice and opportunity to electors to have their say. Lessons from the pilots will be incorporated into the Government's wider plans for electoral modernisation, which include both traditional methods of voting and alternatives such as postal balloting and electronic voting.
Whilst testing all postal voting on this scale was bound to present challenges, those challenges were met, and the Government believe that this is a positive result for engagement and participation in the democratic process.
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|Yorkshire & Humber||19.6%||42.9%|
|East of England||24.5%||36.6%|
|Total pilot regions||20.2%||42.6%|
|Total non-pilot regions||25.9%||37.2%|
|Local Authority||2003||2004||PercentagePoint change|
|Local Authority||2003||2004||PercentagePoint change|
The Minister for Europe (Mr. Denis MacShane):
The General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) adopted the proposal to revise the staff regulations for EU officials on 22 March. While we noted that the European Scrutiny Committee had withheld clearance from the proposal when it met on 17 March and had recommended the document (15185/03) for debate, we supported the adoption of the proposal at
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the 22 March GAERC. We considered the proposal met agreed UK priorities in the reform of the careers structure, pensions and pay of EU officials and would promote merit, efficiency and staff developments and deliver significant long-term savings in the EU budget.
I regret however that we were unable to arrange the debate prior to agreement. This was due to the tight time frame involved. As the Parliamentary Under-Secretary
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of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell), explained in his letter to the Chairman of the Committee on 19 March, the GAERC needed to agree to the proposal in March to ensure that the new regulations would be in place in time for enlargement on 1 May. The debate with European Standing Committee B has now been scheduled for 23 June. I will be leading the debate.