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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, of course, the Government have a policy to ensure that all regions share in our prosperity. It is for that reason that we have actively supported the Northern Way proposals in that regard. We recognise the importance of
 
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bridging the economic gap between north and south, particularly, which that organisation's report has identified. That report also suggested that we needed to improve the rate of renewal of housing stock, particularly in the north.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, would it not kill two birds with one stone if the Office of Rail Regulation was relocated to the northern regions?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am sure that that suggestion will be very carefully taken on board.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, to what extent does my noble friend the Minister believe that the proposal of the Lyons review on the relocation of central government office jobs to the regions would have a positive impact on the readjustment of housing stock in this country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, without question, the Lyons review makes a very important contribution. I am confident that those proposals, when considered and responded to in detail, will provide some answers to some of the problems that we have discussed this afternoon.

Identity Cards Bill

3.8 p.m.

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and ordered to be printed.

Business of the House: Standing Order 47

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, I beg to move the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That Standing Order 47 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with on Tuesday next, 22 February, to allow the Electoral Registration (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL] to be taken through its remaining stages that day.—(Baroness Amos.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Business of the House: Debate this Day

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I beg to move the second Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That consideration of the report of the Select Committee on Economic Affairs on Monetary and Fiscal Policy: Present Successes and Future Problems, in Grand Committee today shall be limited to three hours.—(Baroness Amos.)

Lord Barnett: My Lords, may I ask my noble friend why it has been found necessary to time limit this important and indeed historic new debate in the Moses
 
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Room? Undoubtedly the time will be met, given the unfortunately small number of speakers, but why has it been time limited?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, noble Lords will be aware that Grand Committee cannot last for more than four hours.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill

Lord Grocott: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith on the Order Paper.

Moved, That it be an instruction to the Grand Committee to which the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill has been committed that it considers the Bill in the following order:

Clauses 1 to 7, Schedule 1, Clauses 8 to 16, Schedule 2, Clauses 17 to 34, Schedule 3, Clauses 35 to 50, Schedule 4, Clauses 51 and 52, Schedule 5, Clauses 53 to 57.—(Lord Grocott.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Electoral Registration (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL]

3.9 p.m.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Before I introduce the Bill, I should like to say a few words about my noble friend Lord Callaghan of Cardiff. On 14 February, my noble friend entered the record books as the longest lived former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom—a record held until then by the late first Earl of Stockton, Harold Macmillan.

My noble friend's career included a period as Home Secretary when he was responsible for Northern Ireland. It is difficult to imagine anyone in the future matching his achievement of having filled at various times the positions of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister. I know that the whole House will wish to salute our longest lived former Prime Minister and to convey to him our warmest good wishes.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I gladly follow the tribute that has just been paid by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House; it must be a quite exceptional tribute to a living Member of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, carries great affection in this
 
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House. He has been much missed these recent months when he has been away from the House. It is worth recalling that he was Prime Minister at a difficult time, but his government were informed, as he was, by a profound love for their country, its history and the proud traditions of a Labour movement with which he always identified himself. Not only I but many of his old opponents behind me, and perhaps even all around me, will wish him well for a long future, many more birthdays, and thank him for the contribution that he has made to this House and to this country.

Lord McNally: My Lords, personally and on behalf of the Liberal Democrat Benches I associate myself with those good wishes. I hope that this is just a doff of the cap in the nineties on the way to a faultless century.

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I wish to associate the Cross-Bench Peers with these tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, on this milestone in his life. It is clear that his contribution to the national life is very well known. I believe that all Peers, whether of a party or of none, share an appreciation of his work. The noble Lord embodies two special features of this House: high quality and longevity.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the Electoral Registration (Northern Ireland) Bill has four main components.

First, it gives the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland the power to reregister former electors on to the Northern Ireland Electoral Register by 1 April 2005. Former electors are individuals who appeared on the register published on 1 September 2004, but failed to return the annual canvass from that year or failed to complete it accurately, and accordingly did not appear on the register published on 1 December 2004. Those electors will be put back on to the register to be published on 1 April 2005. This will be the register to be used for the Northern Ireland local elections in May.

The personal identifiers that the former electors gave when they originally registered will be kept when they are restored to the register. An elector's previous expressed preference on whether they wanted their name to be on the full or the edited version of the register will still be binding.

Secondly, the Bill ensures that those 83,000 electors who will be reregistered as a result of this Bill will be taken off the register if they do not reregister during this year's annual canvass in the autumn.

Thirdly, the Bill also gives the chief electoral officer power to carry forward names of electors who fail to complete the annual canvass form in 2005 on to the register published on 1 December 2005.

Finally, the chief electoral officer has been given the authority to apply the carry forward only following the annual canvass later this year. However, if necessary, the Secretary of State can extend the chief electoral officer's authority by way of affirmative order to cover the 2006 annual canvass as well. In response to concerns expressed by members of the opposition parties, we have agreed that the Secretary of State's power can be used only once.
 
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Let me now say something about the background and context of the Bill. In respect of Great Britain, the Representation of the People Act 1983 allows the name of an elector to remain on the register after a canvass until the registration officer makes a determination that he or she is not entitled to so remain ("the carry forward"). However, in Northern Ireland, names must be removed by the chief electoral officer if no form is submitted or if the form submitted does not include all the information required. This has the effect of preventing the carry forward of names from the register of electors from year to year in Northern Ireland; unless the chief electoral officer receives a properly completed form for each elector at the annual canvass, that person's name is removed from the register. This measure was introduced by the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 as part of a package of anti-fraud measures.

While the measures introduced in 2002 have been successful in reducing fraud and increasing the accuracy of the register, an unfortunate side-effect has been a consistent fall in the numbers registered year on year. While it was expected that the measures would lead to a reduction in numbers, the continuous fall experienced now risks damaging the integrity of the register due to a lack of comprehensiveness. For example, in Great Britain around 93 per cent of eligible electors are registered whereas the comparable figure in Northern Ireland is about 85 per cent. I am sure that if only 85 per cent of the electorate in Great Britain were registered, all political parties would be pressing the Government to introduce measures to address the problem.

The main Northern Ireland parties have been lobbying Ministers hard to introduce measures to alleviate the falling numbers on the register. As a result we have decided to re-introduce the carry forward on a temporary basis until we can put in place new registration arrangements for Northern Ireland in the longer term that will help us attain a register that is both accurate and comprehensive.

Putting these additional 83,000 electors back on to the register will strengthen the democratic process in Northern Ireland, particularly with important local elections due in May. Strengthening democracy is at the heart of these measures.

I should like to stress that the introduction of these measures in no way diminishes the Government's commitment to fighting electoral fraud. Let me explain why.

The chief electoral officer has checked all the personal identifiers—that is, national insurance numbers and dates of birth—of electors, including the 83,000 individuals to be put back on to the register, against the central database held by the Department for Work and Pensions. Any individual whose identifiers do not match the central database has been, or will be, contacted to clarify the position. It may, of course, be that a simple error has been made, but if the information provided is false, that person will be taken off the register.

Individual registration will remain in place. This is fundamental to our anti-fraud measures. There will be no return to household registration. Photographic identification will continue. This has virtually eliminated attempted fraud in polling stations.
 
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The chief electoral officer will be giving special attention to any absent or proxy vote applications from any of the 83,000 individuals put back on the register. I hope that will reassure noble Lords that there will be no easing of the fight against fraud.

When we abolished the carry forward as part of our anti-fraud measures, it was a necessity because we had to start afresh in compiling a new register. Now that we are able to ascertain the identity of each elector, it is no longer necessary to prohibit the carry forward. Much of the abuse that took place was the result of household registration and electors having their identity stolen at polling stations. All we are doing is putting Northern Ireland back into line with the rest of the United Kingdom where every elector has the right to be carried forward for an additional 12 months.

I appreciate that there may be some concern that this Bill is being fast-tracked. Originally we had hoped that the measures would form part of a larger Bill that would have arisen if the political talks before Christmas had been successful. Unfortunately, that was not the case. We have no option now but to get the Bill through quickly because we want to ensure that the 83,000 electors are put back on to the register by 1 April, thereby allowing them to vote at the forthcoming local elections. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Amos.)

3.19 p.m.


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