HC Deb 14 June 1993 vol 226 cc704-6

Order for Second Reading read.

8.26 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I shall explain the background briefly. Members of the Ulster Defence Regiment—the UDR—were regarded as part of the reserve and auxiliary forces and registered as civilian electors. Following the merger of the UDR and the Royal Irish Rangers to form the Royal Irish Regiment, the home service component of the regiment became part of the Regular Army. As members of the regular forces, the Representation of the People Act 1983 confers on those who now enlist as full-time home service personnel a service qualification; hence, they may register only as service voters. It is illegal for them to register as civilian voters.

As for part-time members of the home service battalions, it is possible to argue that their liability for call-out renders them part of a reserve and auxiliary force and therefore exempt from the provisions for service voting. All personnel serving our existing UDR engagements may continue to register as civilian voters.

Our concern is that, under the electoral system in Northern Ireland, canvassers who are not security cleared distribute and collect registration forms from households. Home service personnel who had enlisted since the merger would have to tell the canvassers that they were no longer eligible for registration on the standard civilian voter registration form and that, coupled with the eventual appearance of their names on the completed register, could lead to their identification as home service personnel.

I in no way wish to cast doubt on the integrity of canvassers, who do a very difficult job very well, but it is possible to conceive of a risk, and it is only prudent to take measures to remove it. After study, we concluded that it would best be done by amending the Representation of the People Act 1983.

A secondary consideration is that the service voter arrangements are meant to assist service personnel serving overseas and home service personnel serve only in Northern Ireland, except during some limited periods of training. The Bill provides for amendment to the definition of who constitutes a member of the armed forces in section 59(1) of the 1983 Act. Because of the exclusion of home service personnel from the definition, they will be able to continue to register as civilian voters. The reference to a member of the Regular Army means that officers and soldiers are included and the amendment extends to full and part-time home service personnel, thus removing any doubt about the position in law of part-timers.

In order that the changes may be put into effect before the annual registration round, which begins in August, we seek commencement on Royal Assent. I therefore commend this short Bill to the House.

8.29 pm
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

I congratulate the Minister on his new appointment. I understand that he was under fire on Friday and I look forward to doing battle with him, probably on Thursday, about Britain's defence policy—but not tonight.

It is not late at night, so we can spend a long time debating the Bill. Nevertheless, the issue is not contentious, and I therefore do not intend to delay the House. The Bill is one of those commonsense measures that should be dealt with administratively. I understand that the Government investigated that possibility but found that it was not possible. The necessary adjustments must, therefore, be put before the House. I understand that there is some urgency and that the Bill must be given Royal Assent by August, otherwise we will not be able to complete the necessary adjustments to the electoral register in Northern Ireland. The fact that the Bill must be rushed through shows that perhaps there was an oversight on the part of the Government.

I said earlier that the Bill is a common-sense measure, but it reflects the level of terrorism and violence on the Northern Irish scene in the past 25 years. It surely cannot be acceptable that soldiers serving their country must hide their occupation to avoid assassination, but that is the sad reality. In the 22-year history of the Ulster Defence Regiment, 244 soldiers or former soldiers were murdered by terrorists. Most of them were murdered off duty, and some of them in front of their families. Let us not forget that the Bill is necessary because of the failure of politicians on both sides of the House and on both sides of the Irish sea to deal with the problem of terrorism.

The Labour party supports the Bill and hopes that it passes all its stages tonight, but we look forward to the time when we can ask for its repeal and when there is peace in Ulster.

8.31 pm
Sir James Kilfedder (North Down)

I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box in his new capacity of Minister of State for the Armed Forces. It is a matter of regret that he has left the Northern Ireland Office, where he served the people of Northern Ireland well. We wish to congratulate him and hope that he will have further success in his new capacity.

The Royal Irish Regiment, the successor to the Ulster Defence Regiment, and its members face death daily and nightly and everything must be done to protect them from further hazard, which is why the Bill is welcome and should progress speedily.

As the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) said, the Ulster Defence Regiment has suffered great losses. Many of its members have been slaughtered by the IRA. That is what the people of Northern Ireland face. We must give every protection to those who serve the people of

Northern Ireland. Members of the Royal Irish Regiment show great courage in carrying out their job, which is why I give the Bill my full support.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole I-louse. —[Mr. Wood.]

Bill immediately considered in Committee; reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

8.35 pm
Mr. Hanley

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I thank the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) for his kind remarks and for his co-operation. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Sir J. Kilfedder) for his kind remarks and, on behalf of those who are served by the Bill, I thank the House for its co-operation.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.