The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): It is intended that all the measures proposed in the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill will be in force in time for the scheduled Assembly elections on 1 May 2003. This represents a major step forward in tackling electoral abuse.
Mr. Stewart: Does my hon. Friend share my view that the elimination of electoral fraud should be a key priority for the Government? Will he also condemn the abuses perpetrated through the multi-registration and proxy vote procedures? Is he confident that the planned changes, which include the national insurance check for absent voters, will not deter legitimate electors?
Mr. Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Bill sends a clear signal to people intent on committing electoral fraud, which is a crime that the Government are determined to combat. I thank him too for his question about national insurance numbers, as it gives me an opportunity to announce for the first time in this House that, from this year's annual canvass, applicants to the Northern Ireland electoral register and for an absent vote will be required to provide a signature, a date of birth and a national insurance number. However, to assist applicants, registration will be facilitated by a canvasser on an individual basis, and it will be preceded by a significant publicity campaign.
The House should bear in mind also the fact that, until mid-March 2003, anyone who is not on the register on 1 December will still be able to get on to it on a rolling basis. I am satisfied that, in all circumstances, the proper balance has been struck.
Lady Hermon (North Down): Given that the electoral office will clearly have enhanced powers to combat electoral fraud, will the Minister give an undertaking that it and other offices, such as the office of the police ombudsman, will come within the remit of the new chief inspector of criminal justice?
Mr. Browne: I thank the hon. Lady for that question. I cannot give her the assurance that she seeks today, but I can tell her that I am consulting 18 agenciesamong them the chief electoral officer and the police ombudsmanwith regard to their inclusion in the remit of the criminal justice inspectorate.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): We welcomed the announcement on 23 October 2001 that the Provisional IRA had put a quantity of arms completely beyond use. We now want to see further decommissioning by the IRA, and decommissioning by all other terrorist groups.
Mr. Murphy: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. She is aware, as am I, of the long-held belief that people who retain illegal arms do so to protect their place in the illegal drugs trade in Northern Ireland. That belief is strengthened by the activities of IRA members in Colombia in support of FARC, the terrorist and drug trafficking organisation. She will know that the issue has been raised in Congress very recently by US State Department officials. As part of the process of urging the decommissioning of illegal arms, will my hon. Friend ensure that pressure is also brought to bear on republican and loyalist terrorist to end their ownership of arms and their part in the illegal trade in drugs?
Jane Kennedy: I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured to learn that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State discussed that very matter with the American Government when he visited the US last week. There has been a credible start to decommissioning, but last October's event needs to become a process without further delay. We also want decommissioning to be undertaken by loyalists and by dissident groups that
Jane Kennedy: We have received no information from the decommissioning commission that any further event has taken place, but the old arguments for holding on to illegal arms are obsolete. We have lived up to our commitments, as set out in the Belfast agreement and at Weston Park. It is time for all paramilitary organisations to honour their commitments to decommission.
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): Does the Minister agree that the total decommissioning of paramilitary and terrorist weaponry and the disestablishment of paramilitary and terrorist structures are prerequisites to creating an environment in which our new institutions can thrive and prosper? Does she share my concern at the murder in my constituency a few days ago of Matthew Burns, for which local media reports claim that the Provisional IRA was responsible? Given that organisation's alleged truce, what action does she propose to take, and what inquiries will she make?
Jane Kennedy: I endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman says. There is a need for society to move away from violence and the culture of violence. The ceasefires that we have in Northern Ireland are not perfect, but neither is democracy in Northern Ireland. I condemn unreservedly the cold-blooded murder of Matthew Burns in Castlewellan on 21 February, but the investigation of the incident is continuing and it would not be appropriate for me to comment until it is complete. Obviously, my colleagues and I wish to join those who have expressed sympathy, because we have yet another bereaved family in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): Can the Minister recall the promises made at the time of the referendum in Northern Ireland, linking the ending of all terrorist violence and the decommissioning of all terrorist weaponry with concessions, such as IRA-Sinn Fein in government and the early release of terrorist prisoners? Does the Minister accept that, in Northern Ireland, people regard with horror the notion that the Government are considering an amnesty for terrorists on the run in the absence of any further decommissioning? Will she give an assurance to the House that no such amnesty will be forthcoming?
Jane Kennedy: I note the hon. Gentleman's position and he has expressed his concerns before. He may wish to listen to the answer that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will give to the next question. The decommissioning that took place in October last year was a significant event and a real shift in the republican mindset. But that event needs to become a process, which needs to be extended to other paramilitary organisations that continue to cling to their illegal weapons.
Jane Kennedy: I absolutely agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. It is not within the Government's power to promise a successful end to decommissioning, or to any other aspect of the Belfast agreement. However, we have come a long way. Much has been achieved, and our work will continue.
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): The Minister will be aware of the growing disappointment in Northern Ireland, as we approach the fourth anniversary of the agreement, that we have not had further progress on decommissioning. What steps are the Government going to take to apply pressure on loyalist and republican paramilitary organisations to complete the decommissioning process? Is she aware that if the Government do not act, we will?
Jane Kennedy: I hear what the hon. Gentleman has said. He will know that we continue to work tirelessly towards achieving all the objectives set out in the agreement. That is our intention and our work is focused on that.
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I wholeheartedly agree with the Minister that the Belfast agreement is the best basis for moving forward, and we all want complete decommissioning by both sides. However, after four years of unilateral and unlinked concessions in one direction, will the Government finally learn, after releasing all the prisoners without demanding any decommissioning at all and after crafting a special status for Sinn Fein-IRA MPs in this House and giving them the red carpet treatment in Downing Street, that making such concessions is not the right way forward, that appeasement does not lead to peace, and that there is a difference between the two?
Jane Kennedy: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. All aspects of the Belfast agreement must be implemented in full. None is conditional upon another. Everybody who has signed and is committed to that agreement needs to carry out their responsibilities under the agreement. Those paramilitary organisations that continue to cling to their illegal weapons need to learn that the only way forward is the true implementation of the agreement and the abandonment of weapons for good.
Mr. Davies: Does the hon. Lady realise that the fundamental lack of linkage is at the root of the problem of the Government's tactics and the reason why we have not made more progress? Does she accept that if her Government go forward with an unconditional amnesty for terrorists on the run, not only will there be revulsion, as the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) said, throughout both law-abiding communities in Northern Ireland, but the Government will reinforce the sense in Sinn Fein-IRA that they can get all the concessions they want while sitting on their hands and on their arms?