HC Deb 04 August 1972 vol 842 cc1135-58

12.15 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Channon)

I beg to move, That the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Order, 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 18th July, be approved. On Monday we had a full and wide-ranging debate on the general subject of electoral law in Northern Ireland, and in those circumstances I am sure that hon. Members will not expect me to go again into detail on all the matters that were debated then. I think it is fair to say that Monday's debate showed that certain issues were non-controversial. One of these was the establishment of an independent centralised electoral office under a Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland.

I accept, of course, that far more controversial and important is the proposal that the elections this year for Northern Ireland's restructured form of local government is to be conducted in accordance with the principle of proportional representation. Although there was not unanimity about this—there were the dissenting voices of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Douglas) and others—I think it is fair to say that the majority of the House was in favour of this experiment.

In view of the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West cast doubts on whether this procedure was to be for one occasion only, I must re-emphasise that that is the position. If the House accepts the order, the procedure to be adopted will be for this one occasion only. If Parliament wishes to go further in the future, that will be a matter for decision. The House may or may not wish to go further, but no one is pre-judging the issue today. The procedure in the order will be adopted this autumn only.

I should like to confine myself very briefly—I made far too long a speech on Monday, but it was not altogether my fault—to two important points raised by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) and others. Most of the points raised were dealt with by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State in winding up the debate. If any matters have not been dealt with at the conclusion of today's debate I shall get in touch with hon. Members about them.

The provisions contained in the order are extremely urgent. If the House accepts that there must be local elections in Northern Ireland, and if it accepts that they must be conducted on the basis of proportional representation—the single transferable vote, if I may refer to it as such in the absence of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English)—it must be plain at the start that we must provide as soon as possible and practicable the enabling legislative power to enable the elections to be held. The councils for which the elections are to be held have been established by the provisions of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 and were created as a major part of the previous Northern Ireland Government's planned reconstructed system of local government, which the majority of the House thought to be appropriate and suitable.

The timetable is extremely tight. These are exceptional circumstances. We live in exceptional times in Northern Ireland. I accept that there are legislative and other inconveniences because of the way that our business is being conducted at the moment, but I fear that these are inevitable under the wholly extraordinary circumstances which prevail in Northern Ireland.

I have carefully considered the views expressed during Monday's debate. The hon. Member for Leeds, South drew attention to the provisions in Article 4(12)(b) which deals with by-elections. This provision envisages that, to deal with the situation which may—and indeed probably will—arise after the new councils are elected and during their statutory period of office when a casual vacancy arises and a by-election is necessary, the Secretary of State will be empowered to provide by regulations that each candidate elected at this year's local election, as one of the members for a district electoral area, will be elected to a specific single ward which, with other single wards, has been grouped to form the electoral area.

The purpose of this administrative ward unit allocation to individual elected council members was that if an individual member ceased, through death, illness or for other electoral reasons, to be a member of his district council the resultant vacancy would be filled as for the ordinary type of single-member ward election procedure and system by holding an election for the one seat. Such an election would be based on the majority system vote as in the rest of the United Kingdom and not on the single transferable vote system.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North) rose—

Mr. Channon

Before I give way to the hon. Member perhaps he will let me finish outlining the position as the order is at present drafted. I am trying to say how I am taking account of the views expressed in Monday's debate.

The possibility of casual vacancies occurring amongst the elected councillors of any of the new district councils during their life period is a difficult problem which must be faced. There is no easy answer. The decision to conduct elections in accordance with the principles of the single transferable vote increases the complexity of such a problem and makes it essential and more difficult to find an acceptable and a practical solution for filling such casual vacancies. When there is a by-election and there is only a single member to be elected for an area the principles of proportional representation are not applicable and such an election can only really be held, with some difficulty, using the single majority vote system.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

What about the next man on the list?

Mr. Channon

As the right hon. Gentleman says, we could take the next person down on the list, but this is open to serious objections also. It is a possibility—[Interruption.]—it is quite a common one, if I may be allowed to proceed amongst the general exchange of views now going on.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State thought it preferable, rather than adopt that procedure which would be open to considerable objections in Northern Ireland, that each member returned to a district council should be allocated a designated ward so that if a member should retire the by-election would be concerned with a casual local election contest for a single seat. That was the proposal as outlined in the draft order. It was hoped that newly-elected council members would be in a position to determine amicably amongst themselves the administrative designation of wards to each individual member for casual vacancy purposes.

If difficulty arose the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland would determine the poll in accordance with rules of such allocation as might be laid down for these particular procedures. Of course, there are a number of alternative solutions to what, we would all agree, is a difficult problem. As the right hon. Gentleman said there are a number of systems. The next person down the list could be elected but even if the retiring member had represented and had been elected by a minority interest, the resultant by-election held on the basis of the original multi-member electoral area would give the political party holding the majority of seats an additional seat. This happens in countries using the proportional representation methods, but it would be wholly unsatisfactory in Northern Irish conditions.

Equally it also could be submitted that where the members of an elected body have been elected for a particular electoral area and by a method of voting, then it is wrong to consider, during the life period of such a council, electing other members to fill casual vacancies. There might be a system where there were no by-elections at all.

Another suggested alternative might he that the unsuccessful candidates at the first election this year, should be graded, in descending order, on the basis of the total votes each had then received. Any casual vacancy arising would then be filled by electing the first such "reserve" candidates and so on down the list. Yet a further alternative could be to provide that the political party to which the retiring candidate belonged would have the right to nominate his successor to be elected to the council for that electoral area. Another possibility might be to provide internal by-elections held amongst the councillors themselves.

Some of the solutions are bad, some are good and some are in between. I am seeking only to show how difficult and complex the matter is. But as I sensed the mood of the House on Monday it was not happy with the proposals in the draft order. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State therefore considers that the method of filling casual vacancies requires further expert study in some considerable depth. It is a matter which he feels could be referred to the Electoral Advisory Commission on Northern Ireland electoral matters which is shortly to be established for their urgent consideration and recommendation. The Commission will comprise distinguished citizens of Northern Ireland and I will ensure that the chairman is asked to give this matter priority. Consequently I can give the House an undertaking that no action will now be taken to include any provisions on this subject in the rules for the conduct of these 1972 elections. The problem will be referred to the Advisory Commission and naturally my right hon. Friend will wish to consider carefully the points of view they express on this issue.

The other very important point raised by the hon. Member for Leeds, South related to the provisions of Article 4 as to the necessary proposed grouping of the new prescribed single ward unit into suitably sized district electoral areas in each district council. The hon. Member pointed out that no provison had been made to provide that the designating Regulations were to be subject to consideration and approval of Parliament. I well understand that point of view and would like to meet it as far as I can, bearing in mind both the urgency of the situation and the need to ensure that these first local elections are held before the end of this year, as they must be by statute. The House will realise that to enable these 1972 elections to be held it is essential that this grouping of wards into suitable proportional representation electoral areas should be proceeded with at the greatest possible speed.

The ward units, which in the envisaged grouping will form the proportional representation district electoral areas are the already approved wards which have been most carefully drawn by the independent Local Government Boundary Commissioner, after public provisional proposals as to their boundaries, public hearings, revision hearings to deal with and determine objectives to the original provisional proposals. These final proposals, approved by my right hon. Friend, have been laid before this Parliament. With few exceptions these final proposals have met with general approval from the public and the majority of all political opinion in Northern Ireland. I would emphasise that the proposed grouping of these wards into suitable and equitable district electoral areas for this 1972 election in no way whatsoever interferes with the boundaries of any designated ward or district boundary and I see no reason why such grouping should prove to be, in any way, contentious but in Northern Ireland one can never be sure.

Rev. Ian Paisley

In the debate it was mentioned that there might be the possibility of having a group including urban wards and rural wards. Under such an arrangement those members elected in urban wards would have a higher percentage of the vote than the rural members. Therefore, would it not be possible under the proportional representation system and also in the seven-ward constituency that the urban vote would be so heavy that there would be no one to represent the rural district? I pointed out in the debate that Rathlin Island was one such area in my constituency which should be considered alone as a separate ward with a very small population.

Mr. Channon

There are greater experts in this matter than I in the House. I would have thought that the whole arrangement of the single transferable vote provided that the proportion of members was right and that where the seven-member areas and seven districts were grouped together the single transferable vote system would achieve a situation in which the result suggested by the hon. Member would be very unlikely to happen.

I suppose the hon. Member is envisaging a situation in which two strands of political opinion would be equitably represented according to the single transferable vote pattern but a circumstance can be found in which nevertheless all the members for the area might come from the urban rather than the rural part, even though that might accurately reflect political representation in the electoral area as a whole. That is a possibility, but it emphasises what I said earlier that although there is no real reason why the grouping should be contentious, it may be. I shall say a word about that in a moment.

I draw the attention of the House to the procedural provisions of paragraphs 4, 5 and 6 of article 4. These already require the Chief Electoral Officer to publish his provisional proposals as to suggested grouping of wards. These proposals will be available publicly throughout Northern Ireland and a minimum period of at least 28 days will be allowed for persons who wish to submit thereon their observations, objections and counterproposals, all of which will be most carefully considered before any final recommendations are made and the grouped electoral areas are prescribed by my right hon. Friend by way of regulations.

In view of the opinions expressed by hon. Members in Monday's debate, I have arranged that when the Chief Electoral Officer makes his provisional grouping proposals, hon. Members will receive, for their information and consideration, a copy of these detailed proposals. This will then permit any comments by any hon. Member to be brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who will consider them and bring them to the attention of the Chief Electoral Officer. Under paragraph 6 of Article 4, my right hon. Friend will ultimately prescribe the district electoral areas for each local government district when the final proposals are made. The views of hon. Members will be carefully considered.

I have noted the point about the siting of polling stations for election purposes. This is very important. A new comprehensive polling station scheme will be produced at an early date by the Chief Electoral Officer. It will be produced initially in provisional draft form so that it may be considered by all interested parties who may then, if necessary, make their views, observations and objections, etc, known to the Chief Electoral Officer. The Chief Electoral Officer designate, with whom I have discussed this matter, is fully aware of the many problems involved and the need to provide for adequate and suitably sited polling stations easily accessible, so far as is possible, to all sections of the public. He would be at this stage pleased to receive informed suggestions as to the siting of polling stations in any particular area.

The rules for the conduct of these 1972 local elections and the count will be prescribed by my right hon. Friend as soon as possible. These rules will be procedural in character and, I hope, will not be in any way contentious. However, hon. Members know that in a first election of this type counting procedures and methods to be used are of great importance. My right hon. Friend considers that the method of counting known as the "senatorial counting rules" is the fairest way to proceed. I can let hon. Members have detailed information about it, although we discussed it on Monday.

An election of this kind, and especially the efficient and speedy conduct of the count, can produce many administrative problems. Arrangements are being made for the holding of comprehensive staff training instructional courses for the staff who will be responsible to the Chief Electoral Officer for the organisation and conduct of the count.

Arrangements have also been made for the preparation and publication, again at an early date, of a re-arranged edition of the current 1972 Northern Ireland Electoral Register, on which these local elections will be conducted. This rearranged register will be published on a ward and district council basis and, I hope, will be helpful to the public and the candidates. Additionally, in view of the reorganised local government areas and the creation of district electoral areas, arrangements will be made for the issue to all registered electors of an electoral information card giving details of the person's registration, register number, ward, district council area and the polling station in the district electoral area in which the elector should cast his vote.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Very good.

Mr. Channon

It is also the intention as soon as possible to issue to every household in Northern Ireland a detailed and clear guide to the basic principle of PR and to follow that up with an intensive graphic public information educational campaign using the mass media.

In debate some hon. Members said that they would have preferred the life period of a council to remain, as existing, at three years rather than be extended to four years as now proposed. The four-year period was a recommendation made by the Macrory Committee on Local Government and I would draw the attention of the House to the fact that the provision of a four-year period is presently being considered in relation to local government in Great Britain.

This order is designed to meet the pressing needs of the present period of changes in Northern Ireland's affairs. It provides for some important measures including the provision experimentally for this 1972 election only of its conduct on a single transferable vote basis. I have done my best to meet as many of the points as I could that were raised in the debate on Monday. I hope that the House, having had that full debate, will now allow the order to go forward.

12.36 p.m.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

As the Minister said, we debated the order at some length on Monday. We have been able to ask for rather more time than the normal one and a half hours for debating an order and we have done so because of the PR form of the order, the single transferable vote. Perhaps in the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) I may call it PR, although pedantically that is not correct. We agree with the principle of PR in this instance and with what the Government are doing, and of course it is not our intention to vote against the order this morning.

By the detailed way in which he has explained how he is to give information to the electorate of Northern Ireland, the Minister has clearly shown that he listened attentively to Monday's debate. He said that on the thorny question of byelections and the various methods to be used he intends to get the opinion of the Electoral Advisory Commission, and we are glad about that. Of course the elections are for this year and of course one hopes that there will not be too many byelections too soon. I assume—perhaps we may be told—that it would need only a simple amendment to the rules to be issued by the Chief Electoral Officer to bring in that scheme and that the process will not be long and involved.

There are a number of important matters in the order which I should have liked to mention, but I will not repeat what I said in our debate on Monday, and I should like to concentrate on article 4 and the procedure. The hon. Gentleman said that he would send details of the Chief Electoral Officer's proposals to hon. Members who were interested. He will recall that I asked for a Statutory Instrument under the affirmative or negative procedure on the ground that when one was arranging areas and methods of election, in Northern Ireland or anywhere else, it was important that the proposals should be debatable in the House of Commons. However, the Minister explained that at this first time round that would not be possible because of the time involved. I hope that he will bear in mind that the next time round, when we are making permanent arrangements—this order is just for the one election—we shall need to look far more carefully at a Statutory Instrument for making arrangements although I accept that we do not yet know how this system of election will work in the context of Northern Ireland.

I thought that the Minister entered into the spirit of our suggestions on Monday, but I am not happy about his sending proposals only to interested Members. I should like to make a counter proposal and first to explain it. A number of documents are laid before the House of Commons. A House of Commons Paper has printed on the front page the words "House of Commons Paper" and I gather that that is because it has to be provided by Statute. Other documents are presented by the Secretary of State concerned and they have a Command number. Whichever way is used, the paper is presented to the House of Commons as a whole, and that is to the advantage of all Members and not just small groups who may be interested.

The only difference from the Minister's point of view is that of expense. But there is another factor. A Command Paper is studied by the media and thus arouses interest among a wider community, but a document which is sent only to those who are interested does not command that wider audience.

There is also a matter of principle. Last year I was considering Government working in the public sector and I was reading reports about well-nigh every nationalised industry, public corporation and a wide variety of organisations of which then I knew nothing, or if I did, which I had not regarded as being part of the public sector, which is much larger than most people realise. I found that some had a Command number, some had a House of Commons Paper number and some were not laid before the House of Commons. No wonder it had not come my way, although we get the pink order form in the Vote Office and can see what is available. When an important document is given to a Secretary of State then, as a matter of principle, it should he laid before the House of Commons.

The order deals with elections in a part of the United Kingdom which is troubled, to put it euphemistically. We are concerned to try to achieve a democratic life in the face of bombing. Consequently we have this order, concentrate a lot of parliamentary time on it and consider proportional representation.

According to the Secretary of State, we shall be faced with a similar matter which the House will have to consider, namely a plebiscite. I shall not go into whether that is desirable. I am trying to concentrate on the method of dealing with it. I accept that a plebiscite will require a Westminster Act of Parliament. I was courteously informed by the Minister that a plebiscite is not a matter which is reserved to the Northern Ireland Parliament. Methods of elections are reserved for the Northern Ireland Parliament, but a plebiscite will require the consideration of this Parliament. When that question arises questions similar to those which arise from this order will have to be discussed, such as the location of polling booths, the grouping of areas, the problem of rural and urban areas, the percentage of the people voting in those areas, and the question which was raised by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) a short while ago.

It is vital that we put our minds to the questions which will arise. I have always argued that on a large-scale vote there can be only one question with a simple answer of "yes" or "no". But is that desirable? We shall have to look at the areas, at how the votes are to be collected and, in considering the plebiscite, how the votes are counted and the functions of the parties. If we are to consider a plebiscite, it is important to get the principle right in this order or in any Measure concerning the Northern Ireland Parliament whose powers have been taken over by this House. The Chief Electoral Officer is working to that end, and will be publishing his proposals. We are arguing that they should be laid on the Table as a Command Paper. If we get the principle right now, we shall get it right when we come to the wider issue of the plebiscite. We want to get the principle right now in dealing with the methods of election in the North of Ireland, and a document should be laid before the House of Commons which can be looked at and can be aired.

We have not had last Monday's HANSARD for reasons which everybody knows. Consequently I was not able to check—I do not think that the Under-Secretary of State dealt with this point—on the question of excess of votes and the method of counting them. It may well have been dealt with on Monday. It is true that something was said about the matter. As I say, I was hoping to read HANSARD but it has not been possible for me to do so. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will tell us the Government's intentions on that matter.

The hon. Gentleman has dealt with the areas and byelections which will be looked at by the Commission. Ballot papers are vitally important, and I am astonished when I hear how other people vote in other parts of the world. There are vote machines in the United States to deal with long ballot papers, and one is on somebody or other's "ticket". We are not used to that. We are used to going to the booth with the name of one man or woman in mind and putting a cross against that name on the paper. The last Administration made a change in that ballot papers now include the name of the candidates political party. I hope that the Chief Electoral Officer will think carefully about the arrangements for ballot papers, and have them arranged horizontally under the names of the political parties.

I looked in the Library to see what I had said on Monday about ballot papers and my remarks look as though they were most rude to the Chief Electoral Officer. They certainly were not meant to be. When I made the aside that somebody from Her Majesty's Stationery Office would be able to look, it appears as though it was meant to be rude, but it was not.

We support the order and we hope that it will allow moderate parties to come to the fore in this year's local elections. It may not come to much the first time round, given the strong feelings which prevail in Northern Ireland, but eventually I hope that that will be the result. We support the order because ultimately we want to see a democratic society developing in Northern Ireland.

12.49 p.m.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

It was a fortunate coincidence that the general debate on electoral law took place last Monday after the Army had taken action by moving into the Bogside, the Creggan and other no-go areas. It looked as though a new phase was begin- ning in Ulster's history, when people might be able to lead an ordinary life, go about their business and hold elections without fear of intimidation.

In the midst of bombing, murders and other acts of Republican terrorism, which are wantonly waged against decent people in Northern Ireland, both Protestant and Catholic—and it is worth mentioning that such terrorism affects both sections of the community, it is salutary to remember that the present war of devastation developed from the so-called Civil Rights movement—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Ronald Russell)

Order. This comment is getting rather beyond electoral law. The hon. Member must not stray too far from the order.

Mr. Kilfedder

I sometimes err, but, subject to your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I think that I am entitled, when discussing electoral law, to deal with the background.

Rev. Ian Paisley

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Surely it is right that the background to the holding of the proposed elections should be considered. When the hon. Member for Leeds. South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) introduced the matter of the plebiscite, of which there is no mention in the order, he did so because of the background of the situation in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is all right. The hon. Gentleman seemed to be going into the history.

Mr. Kilfedder

I call it background, but background and history are much the same. It is worth remembering that the present war of devastation developed from the so-called Civil Rights movement which demanded initially, "One man, one vote". We heard incessantly that once that reform had been granted, the people of Northern Ireland could live in peace with one another. I well remember—and still sadly reflect—that the excuse then for demonstration and violence and conflict with the police was the fact that local government elections were conducted on a restricted franchise which had long been abolished in the rest of the United Kingdom. From everywhere came the cry that the Ulster local government elections should be brought into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Stormont Government introduced what was popularly known as "One man, one vote" and at the same time local government was reshaped, certain central services being transferred to central bodies. Those bodies would come under the supervision of Stormont. We are entitled to ask whether those radical reforms brought the clamour and the violence in Northern Ireland to an end. We known that they did not. Like some evil monster, the deliberately misnamed Civil Rights movement, made up of members of the IRA, Communists and anarchists, fed and grew on the news media, particularly on the biased BBC reporting of the Ulster situation. As soon as a lie could be fabricated or wild allegation made, it was broadcast.

So today, after hundreds of lives have been lost and people maimed, and millions of pounds worth of damage caused, Ulster is still being forced, without any reference to the electorate, to go through various contortions in an attempt to appease, without any realisation yet by the Government that appeasement only feeds the flames of terrorism and insurrection. Local government elections are being forced on Northern Ireland while Stormont, which was to be the hub of the new local government system, is suspended. Proportional representation is to be used for the local government elections, making Ulster different—and that is deeply regretted—from the rest of the United Kingdom. That was the complaint in the first place—that there was a difference in the franchise.

I have an open mind on proportional representation, but we ought to face the fact that there are minority problems in Britain, too, for instance, coloured people who should, perhaps, be entitled to the benefits of proportional representation. I wonder how many coloured people have been elected councillors in Britain. I believe there are few in relation to their number.

Would this Government and the Labour Party pledge themselves to introduce proportional representation in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is certainly out of order.

Mr. Kilfedder

I accept that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I urge the Government to delay the local government elections until after a decision has been made about Stormont. That Parliament has been suspended for a year and it is unlikely that it will be restored at the end of the year, if indeed we ever see the old Stormont Parliament return. It is ridiculous to go ahead with local government elections until a decision has been made about Stormont, and acted upon, because Stormont was meant to be the vital heart of the new local government structure.

It is to be regretted that it is not possible to move amendments to this order. All that we can do is to examine the provisions in detail, and even that does not give much satisfaction because all we have from my hon. Friend is a statement that what we say will be carefully considered. I listened to what he said about the filling of casual vacancies, and I welcome his statement that the Government are looking for a satisfactory method. I do not accept the view of the Leader of the Liberal Party who, much to my surprise, was here today, although very briefly. He said that casual vacancies should be filled by the next man down the list. That would produce an extraordinary situation because, moving it outside the context of Northern Ireland, if that is possible, if there were three Conservatives elected for three seats and the fourth man was a Labour candidate, it would be ridiculous, if when one of the Conservative members died, the next man down, a Socialist, should be put on to the council. This would be wrong, and I hope that my hon. Friend will come up with a more sensible suggestion.

The Secretary of State has chosen to experiment with proportional representation and it is right to display caution, because there are so many variations. The method proposed, the single transferable vote, is alleged to be mathematically more equitable. Every method of voting has its defects and disadvantages, and proportional representation is no different from existing methods in this respect. The single transferable vote system for electoral areas returning from four to eight members could hardly be bettered as a mathematically accurate system of representation. However, it has its dangers and it is no use trying to cover them up. It is far better to investigate them fully.

The most obvious danger is the loss of the close relationship between the councillor and the local elector. At present the councillor gets to know the people and the people know to whom to go for help and advice on local matters. The very fact that the Chief Electoral Officer selects the ward which the successful candidates are expected to represent means that there is no meaningful association between a councillor and a ward. Under the single-member system, people knew for whom they were voting and who their local councillors were likely to be. The people know the candidates in the ward and because of that a good candidate has a better chance of success in an election for that neighbourhood because electors can evaluate his worth. However in the multiple-member electoral area the same candidate would be virtually unknown in many of the wards. This means that a good local candidate could lose out to a candidate with a publicity machine or party organisation behind him.

The advocates of proportional representation allege that it favours the moderates as against the extremists. I have seen no evidence of this in the Republic of Eire. The system throws up able men such as Conor Cruise O'Brien and Garrett Fitzgerald. It also produces notorious anti-Semitics such as Steve Coughlin, a Labour Member of the Dublin Dail; and IRA apologists such as Doctor David Thornley. There are dangers in this system of proportional representation.

There are administrative difficulties as well. The plebiscite and local government elections will place a tremendous strain on local authority staff, who will have to be trained to carry out proportional representation elections. What arrangements have been made to train them? The Government would certainly need to start now on that job. Moreover, these radical changes are coming at the worst possible time, when the whole system of local government is being restructured. It would be unfortunate if the sheer volume and pressure of work on local authority staff resulted in the elections being a fiasco. This could come about if the staff were unable to cope with all the election complications as well as their other work. Perhaps my hon. Friend will say whether there have been consultations with the National Association of Local Government Officers about this matter.

Proportional representation on the single transferable vote system was introduced in the United States for the same reason as the Government are introducing it in Northern Ireland, namely, with the intention of giving greater representation to minority groups. But the experiment in the United States showed that proportional representation did not help the situation; in fact, it made it worse. It was introduced widely in the municipalities in the United States in the late 1930s, but it did not work. It produced a large number of racial and sectarian candidates who were elected to the local city councils. New York City abandoned the system of proportional representation, followed closely by Chicago and other cities throughout the United States.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Mayor Daley.

Mr. Kilfedder

Yes, but I should be in trouble with you Mr. Speaker, if I were to talk about Mayor Daley.

The only American city which clings to the proportional representation system is Cincinnatti and four or five municipalities in Massachusetts.

That was the end of the great American experiment in proportional representation. It gave representation to the minorities but not to the minorities whom the liberal-minded people had hoped would be represented. It gave representation to racialists and extreme ethnic groups—we hear about the Poles, Czechs, Irish and Italians in various American cities—but it did not produce, unfortunately, a consensus of like-minded people across the racial divide. That is what worries me.

I fear that proportional representation will not help the Ulster situation, and that is unfortunate since we are all, even in the midst of the campaign of terror, looking forward to a happy future for Northern Ireland.

1.3 p.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I do not propose to detain the House long because we have been over this ground previously, when I had the opportunity of making a contribution. However, I am interested in some of the matters mentioned by the Minister. I am sure that we are all delighted that he is to have a second look at the by-election procedure, but I do not think he took my point, and I wish to stress it because it is a constituency matter.

There is one island in Northern Ireland—Rathlin—which has people who have votes living on it. It is to the north of North Antrim. It is famous because it was there that the Scottish nationalist movement had its first impetus when King Robert the Bruce saw a spider and went back to Scotland to conquer the English invader and to declare Scotland to be a separate kingdom. I do not propose to discuss the merits or demerits of Scottish nationalism because I should be called to order if I did.

Under the ward system in the new Moyle local government district, Rathlin island was to be a separate ward. While the population of Rathlin island would not justify it, the special circumstances of the island fully justify it. If there were seven wards in the Moyle area, or even four or five, linked together, Rathlin island would come into one of the amalgamations. If a person stood for election in that area, what opportunity would the people in Rathlin have of electing a representative?

I always thought that the Liberal Party was the champion of proportional representation, but its members are conspicuous by their absence in these debates. The Leader of the Liberal Party stated, with pontifical power, that what we on this side of the House said was a lot of nonsense. I contend, and I defy anyone to refute it, that Rathlin island would have a fair chance of getting a representative on the council under the proposed system of proportional representation. Is the Minister prepared to make a distinction for Rathlin island and to allow its people, not to be in a group but to come within a separate ward? They are entitled to that as they are a special case.

The Minister made a very interesting point about by-elections. He said that the Chief Electoral Officer or the people responsible for the amalgamation of wards might decide which ward should be vacant in the event of the death of a councillor. When the councils are elected, why cannot their members make an agreement among themselves about which areas they should represent? Then when a death occurred there would he no trouble. This would get over the valid point made by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) when we last debated this matter and by myself—that there was a tendency to destroy the relationship between the electors and an individual under the proportional representation system.

Can the Minister give us more information about the Electoral Advisory Committee? How many members will be on it? Who will be the members? Will the local political parties in Northern Ireland have the opportunity of putting their point of view to the committee about the matters which it should discuss?

I am delighted that the poll card system is to be introduced. This will be a great advance in election procedure in Northern Ireland. On behalf of every member of the electorate, I welcome the fact that they are to receive an official card from the electoral officer in their district stating the date of the election, where they should vote and their number on the register. This will be a great help to people.

1.8 p.m.

Mr. Rafton Pounder (Belfast, South)

I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Minister of State for saying that he will reconsider the by-election procedures. As they stood, and as they came to light last Monday, they were the height of nonsense. I am glad that they are to be re-examined. I echo the sentiment of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) that the elected representatives should work out among themselves which ward they would be attached to. Councillors in the Belfast Corporation decide among themselves who will serve on which committee. I see no reason why a similar principle cannot be implemented in this case, without leaving it to the Chief Electoral Officer to decide.

I can understand the concern about and importance of the design of the ballot paper and putting down the names either alphabetically or grouped according to parties. One idea which I should like to mention is this—I do not know whether it makes sense, but I mention it for what it is worth. I understand that it is operated in elections in Cleveland, Ohio. In each ward the ballot paper is different. If we started with candidate A in one ward, we would start with the next candidate down in the next ward so that there would be no benefit in people having their names automatically in a high position on the ballot paper.

It is well known in this country that there is advantage if one's name is either top or bottom of the ballot paper and that if it is sandwiched in the middle one loses out. The system in that American city is that in each ward the paper alternates so that if there are 10 polling stations and 10 candidates everybody in the same ward at some stage will come to the top of the paper. This may be something which could be considered. I do not know. I throw the thought out for what it is worth.

1.10 p.m.

Mr. Channon

I am grateful for the reception which this order has on the whole received in the House today, though I note the objections of my hon. Friend the Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) to the whole principle and idea of the single transferable vote.

I am a little confused about the situation about by-elections because both my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Pounder) and my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) have suggested what I had thought was the original intention of the Government, that, if possible, the members themselves should amicably decide which part of the area they should represent, and that only if agreement could not be reached should the Chief Electoral Officer be called in to determine what would be the fairest solution.

Having been so severely criticised about this on Monday and having withdrawn it, I am in the difficulty of being pressed to introduce it again when I have withdrawn it under pressure from my hon. Friends. Nevertheless, it would be wise that this matter be considered by the Electoral Advisory Commission.

Invitations to this Commission are now going out. I think it will be a fairly small body, about 10 in number. I cannot now say who its members will be, because the invitations are now going out, but in due course I could be in touch with my hon. Friend about that matter.

I will, of course, also draw to the attention of the Chief Electoral Officer designate—although I need hardly do so because he will read the report of this debate—the concern expressed by my hon. Friends and by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) about the arrangement of ballot papers—their design, and all those other matters. I cannot send every hon. Member a real ballot paper, because I do not know what the nominations will be, but if I can arrange such a thing I will send hon. Members a sample ballot paper, if the Chief Electoral Officer designate is able to arrange that. I have already discussed this matter with the Chief Electoral Officer designate. I have seen a sample paper for a fictitious election which might occur, but with a not very large number of candidates. I may be able to construct one with a larger number of candidates and in a larger area, and will show it to hon. Members who have expressed a particular interest in this matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Down, North asked about training. Of course there will have to be extensive training of staff in this business. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is an important matter that they should be well trained in order to be able to conduct the count and the election efficiently.

As regards the question about Rathlin Island, I understand the point which my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North made about that. I am not sure whether I can meet him about it, but I will discuss the matter with the Chief Electoral Officer designate and draw his attention to my hon. Friend's point. When he sees the proposals he will be able to make what representations he sees fit at that time.

As to the other question raised by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, South, he was quite right in saying that it will be a quite simple counting under the rules required for by-elections if agreement can be reached. I hope that these can be determined and the rules made before the local elections themselves, because that would meet any difficulties which might occur shortly afterwards.

As to the question of counting, I said briefly that this would be under the senatorial counting scheme. I will briefly give an explanation, as the hon. Gentleman wished to know exactly how it would work. The senatorial counting scheme is probably the best way of dealing with the actual counting of the votes. The rules allow all of a candidate's votes to be transferred to the other candidates, and each vote then has a proportionate percentage vote value below the unit of one. This obviates the complaint arising in the standard rule count where the transferred votes are each worth one unit but only a proportion of the total votes are transferred and the numbers concerned in the actual transfer are simply chosen by the returning officer.

This may be a somewhat inexact explanation, and I am not sure that I have explained it as clearly as I should, but if the hon. Gentleman has any queries I can send him an extremely learned thesis on the matter which I have had some difficulty in understanding myself but which, I am sure, will be crystal clear to his sharp and intuitive mind.

As to the publishing of a Command Paper, I will look at this again. There are considerable difficulties. It would entail double printing, printing in London as well as Belfast, and that might cause some delay. I will undertake to make sure that hon. Members will have given to them the grouping proposals, so that they can make their representations. I will look at the matter again, but I cannot give any commitment because it has been considered before and it is a complicated matter and may be too difficult to achieve, but if it can be done I will try to see that it is done. It is difficult, but if I cannot meet them on that I will make sure hon. Members have at the earliest possible date copies of the proposals, and they will be able to make representations.

I think that this experiment will be extremely interesting and, indeed, an extremely important one. I hope that after the elections people will feel the experiment to have been a success, but no one can tell. It will be for the people of Northern Ireland to make the important decision which they will have to make at that particular time. None of us knows what the decision will be, but I think it is common ground in this House that they should be given such an opportunity to make a decision about local government elections in the not too distant future. I hope the experiment with PR, included as part of the order, will prove to be successful.

I commend it to the House, and I hope that, in view of the urgent need to pass this order, so that arrangements for local elections can be made, hon. Members will agree to pass it today.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Order, 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 18th July, be approved.