HC Deb 26 November 1997 vol 301 cc956-7
2. Mr. Mackinlay

What responses her Department has given to reports published by the Northern Ireland Forum. [16232]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy)

The forum has produced 17 reports since its inception, of which 13 have been submitted to the Government.

One report, on electoral abuse, has not yet been formally received. Two reports, on long-term unemployment and on integrated transport policy, are under consideration. All the other reports submitted have been carefully considered, and Ministers have responded in writing or met a delegation from the forum.

Mr. Mackinlay

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. When he receives the report of Standing Committee A of the Northern Ireland Forum on electoral abuse, will he examine it closely, bearing in mind the fact that its findings and recommendations demonstrate the urgent need for electoral reform, both in the preparation of the register and lists and in the use of the register in relation to proxy voting and postal voting? Hon. Members of all parties are concerned about the integrity of electoral arrangements in Northern Ireland, and their concerns are buttressed by an important BBC "Spotlight" programme a few months ago, prepared by Stephen Walker. All that requires the Department to recognise the need for a root-and-branch look at the electoral arrangements.

Mr. Murphy

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We take allegations of electoral abuse extremely seriously. All parties in Northern Ireland have been asked to make submissions to the Government, and we have our own internal review of the matter in the Northern Ireland Office. In addition, my hon. Friend will know that the House's Northern Ireland Select Committee is examining that important problem. We take it extremely seriously, and we look forward to receiving both reports in the new year.

Mr. Forsythe

Is the Minister not concerned that, when the matter was investigated by Standing Committee A of the forum, the committee produced more than 20 recommendations or suggestions for improving the electoral system in Northern Ireland? Surely we must be concerned that, after all these years, there are so many problems with the electoral system in Northern Ireland, and nothing appears to have been done about them. The matter must be looked at closely, and something must be done as soon as possible.

Mr. Murphy

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He must bear with us, as we have been in office only since May, but all parties share his view that there are extremely serious problems. Every party in Northern Ireland, without exception, has written to me about the difficulties that they have encountered in respect of electoral abuse. I look forward to meeting the chairman of the standing committee of the forum and other members on the matter which, as I said in my previous reply, is extremely serious.

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