HC Deb 16 April 1973 vol 855 cc179-202


11.15 p.m.

Mr. Pounder

I beg to move Amendment No. 9, in page 2, line 10, after 'who' insert: under the current electoral register as revised". I hope that as co-signatory to the amendment I am in order in standing in to move it.

The amendment is as simple as its phraseology. It reverts to a point raised on Second Reading by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and others, including myself. It arises out of a series of acknowledged omissions from the electoral register which became operative on 15th February and was used for the first time in the border poll a fortnight or so later. It is fully accepted by the Government, and, I think, by the electors in Northern Ireland, that there were some grotesque omissions. My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) mentioned the figure of 10,000. I would put it higher.

I know that the argument is advanced that there are always mistakes with the register and that it cannot be 100 per cent. perfect and that this is no more than usual. With respect, I am bound to express disagreement. I well recall that in the 1966 elections for this House there were some appalling errors on the register. Certain undertakings were given by my hon. and right, hon. Friends that procedures would be introduced to ensure that such a series of omissions and errors could not occur again. They have recurred. I will not cite a catalogue of examples but there were many people who had been on the register for years, had voted in every election for years, and had lived in the same house for years who suddenly found themselves off the register.

I know that it can be argued that the register is on display in the middle of December in every police station and post office. Let us be realistic about this. How many people go to the post office or police station to see whether they are on the register? It is easy to say that they should do so, but if a person has been on the register for years he assumes that he has remained on it. Because of the importance of the elections for the district councils and the new Assembly, surely something can be done, in the light of the number of people who have gone to the electoral registration officer and pointed out that they had been omitted. We are reasonable and responsible people, desirous of the maximum turn-out. Can we not say that those who applied since or immediately prior to the border poll—setting a limit of, say, 1st May—should be placed on a supplementary list, which may not be greater than 10,000 to 20,000 names? We are talking about a constituency's worth of bona fide voters who have been deleted from the register. This amendment is simply a last attempt to persuade my hon. and right hon. Friends that this election is so important that some device should be found to cope with those who have been wrongly disfranchised.

Rev. Ian Paisley

It is important that people of Northern Ireland who are entitled to a vote and have been eliminated from the register through no fault of their own should have the opportunity of voting. Their names were deleted as a result of a computer error. The Committee should not think that this is as a result of a change of population or that these people are not entitled to be on the list. These are people who are eligible and went through the motions to get on the register but discovered when the final list was published that their names had been deleted.

Streets of houses have been deleted from the register. People who have been on the list since 1920, when the first lists were made, have been dropped. A lady living in my constituency has been on every electoral list since Northern Ireland came into existence but she has been deleted from the present list. If that were the only case the matter would perhaps not be important to this Committee, but I can give example after example. A professional gentleman called at my home the other evening to say that his family had been deleted from the list and yet his name remained on the list. Another gentleman found that his wife and he had been taken off the list while the rest of his family were left on.

The Under-Secretary and the Secretary of State know that we are not carping about a few cases. The names of at least 10,000 people have been removed from the list because of incompetence in the electoral office. If the right information had been fed into the computer, the computer would have come up with the right results. Let there be no nonsense about this matter. These people resent the fact that they have been taken off the list when they have been on other lists. I wonder whether there is some conspiracy abroad to have people taken off the lists. This is a serious matter to which this Committee needs to pay careful attention. It cannot be wiped out with a stroke of the hand It cannot be said "It is too bad; we all make mistakes". If 1 million voters cannot be listed without 10,000 being dropped, there is something wrong with the system.

I am making a plea for people eligible to vote. The Secretary of State's office and the Under-Secretary know that I sent a telegram to the Prime Minister in the midst of the referendum because of the pressures put on me and other public representatives. I had a promise in writing from the Secretary of State that he would look into this matter and that he would ensure, if possible, that a supplementary list was published. We hoped that such a list would be published. We understand that it cannot be published in time for the local government elections. I have taken it upon myself to make inquiries at the local office of the people who compile the list, and I have been told that there is nothing to prevent a supplementary list from being compiled in time. That comes from one of the electoral officers responsible for drawing up the electoral lists in a certain area. I do not want to give his name; I shall impart it to the Under-Secretary if he wants it.

I therefore speak with some authority on this issue. It is terrible that 10,000 people—there might be even more—find themselves, through no fault of their own, not on the list. There is something wrong with the compilation of the list, and the matter should be looked into. When the election comes these people will feel very sore and sad, especially those who have been on the list for every other election.

I can anticipate the Under-Secretary's reply. He will say that there is no time to do anything about the matter and that that is the end of it. But one whole constituency has been disfranchised. It is not a question of our not bringing the matter immediately to the attention of the Secretary of State. Whenever a new list is compiled the political agents ensure that those whose names are not on the list fill in the necessary forms and go through the mechanics to get their names on the list. Names were put on the revised lists, but when the final lists were printed those names were not on them.

This is a very serious matter. It is not as though we were bringing it to the attention of the Secretary of State at the last minute; we brought it up at the time of the referendum. It should have been looked into, and something should have been done to change the situation. We now find ourselves approaching an election for the Assembly with the register not as it should be. If the House is to have any credence in Northern Ireland—and many complaints have been made about electoral lists in the past; the new electoral officer was appointed to deal with this special subject—surely the first list for an Assembly election should be made as watertight as possible.

I beg the Minister seriously to consider the implications of the matter.

Mr. Molyneaux

I support the request made by my hon. Friends. We agree that in the time scale available it would be difficult to go through all the motions of making claims, proving them in the election courts and going through the somewhat lengthy procedure which is normally involved in compiling a register. But there is the special category of case referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley); namely, where claims have been made in the usual way and substantiated in the electoral revision courts, and where records exist showing that those claims were granted, and yet where names have been omitted because of some computer error.

As the records exist, there should be no difficulty about establishing claims or about producing a supplementary list. If it can be done at short notice—as it was done—in the case of the register of postal votes, there could be no administrative difficulty in producing a supplementary list of names which were accidentally omitted from the register.

Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)

I want to say a word from a rather different standpoint in support of the amendment. During the border poll it was my impression that a considerable number of people, for one reason or another, had been omitted from the register. I have respect for the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux), but I did not connect these omissions with the errors of a computer, still less with any conspiracy. The reason which appeared to me most likely—and it is the most natural reason—is that there had been a large number of removals—far more than one would expect in this country, in a corresponding period between the compilation of one register and that of another.

I should not dream of challenging the figure of 10,000 advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley)—it may be more or less—but I must in honesty point out that the impression I got at the time of the border poll was that a number of people felt a grievance on this point— and, if they felt a grievance then, they will feel a grievance at the coming election.

But I doubt whether we can have it both ways. Some of those who have been pressing for the election at this date and for this Bill must bear in mind the remarks of my hon. Friend that we cannot have both an election at this date and a revised register. But if there is a way of looking into what could constitute a minor, but an important minor, grievance in the minds of some people, the remarks made ought not to be too readily dismissed. If some kind of compromise were available that did not delay the poll it would be worth searching for it.

Mr. Peter Mills

Obviously my hon. Friends have spoken to the amendment with a fair amount of force. Certainly they may be unhappy with my reply, but I can assure them that it was not without careful thought and a detailed examination of the matter that we decided that at present it was not possible to do what they want.

First and foremost, it is a question of time. We cannot have it both ways. We all want an election quickly. We want to get this political initiative going. We also want the Assembly. I have been assured that it is not possible for the supplementary register to be prepared in time.

Captain Orr

In the various things that my hon. Friend has examined, has he examined the possibility put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux), which seems to be a compromise?

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Mills

It is purely a question of the work load upon those who are carrying out these tasks. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked the Chief Electoral Officer to look into this, and he has reported back to me. He states that the number of errors is not abnormal, and, therefore, in view of the time and the number of errors, which my right hon. Friend does consider abnormal either, my right hon. Friend has decided that there can be no change in the register at the present.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

How long does it take to produce a supplementary list? If it is a question of work load, does this mean it could be done if extra staff were drafted in?

Mr. Mills

We have to accept what the Chief Electoral Officer has reported. He said that there simply is not the time to prepare a supplementary list before the elections in June. It is important for my hon. Friends to realise what is at stake here. We do not want to delay anything. We want the elections. The staff concerned and my right hon. Friend have looked at it very carefully and feel that they cannot accede to the requests of my hon. Friends at the moment.

Therefore, while I can appreciate the concern felt on this matter, I hope that hon. Members will see the other side of the argument. The register will be put right next year but that is too late for the forthcoming vote. I ask my hon. Friends to consider their position carefully, and I hope that they will not press the amendment.

Mr. Molyneaux

I think that we would all agree to the request by my hon. Friend the Minister if we could have an assurance on the narrow issue of whether claims had been established beyond all possible doubt where the records of the revision courts exist, and see whether it was not possible simple to compile a list of those claims, because there is no question of having to go through lengthy procedures, nor should there be any great burden on staff.

Mr. Mills

Much as I should like to help, I cannot give any promise about this, because of the practical position we are in. We must remember that there are two lots of elections—the local elections are coming along as well. I would ask my hon. Friends to consider once again what is at stake and what we are trying to do. I hope that they will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I understood that the elections under the Bill were to be on 28th June. I do not know whether I misunderstood the position. Is my hon. Friend the Minister saying that a supplementary register cannot be compiled when the names and addresses are already known? Is he saying that a limited supplementary register like that cannot be produced in two-and-a-half months? That may just conceivably be true, but it is so extraordinary that my hon. Friend in answering the debate should explain by what extraordinary combination of circumstances it is not possible.

I should have thought that two-and-a-half weeks would be ample. It is a mere printing job—some collation and then printing. How is it conceivably possible that this cannot be done for a polling day two-and-a-half months away? The House of Commons should not be asked to accept the ipse dixit of the Electoral Registration Officer. He is entitled to his view, but may we know the precise mechanics of the whole position? The Chief Electoral Officer may be wrong, and it is up to us to decide whether he is and to vote accordingly. Will my hon. Friend the Minister say what produced this extraordinary phenomenon of two-and-a-half months? If there were a war on we could get it done in two-and-a-half days, so what is the problem?

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I hesitate to intervene. If necessary, perhaps the Minister will put me right. Surely under subsection (2) persons entitled to vote would be those entitled to vote at polls held on that date for a General Election to the Parliament of Northern Ireland. We are, therefore, following the Stormont rules as opposed to the Westminster rules.

If we were following the Westminster rules, there would be no question of asking the Chief Electoral Officer whether he could do it. The law of the land says that there shall be one register a year. It is in the law of the land. It cannot be done any other way. This was carefully considered during the passage of the Representation of the People Act, I think it was, in 1969. There was a body of opinion which thought that there should be two registers a year. It would not be sufficient just to deal with those who, by some administrative accident, were off the register in order to carry out the law. It would be necessary—I am saying this for the United Kingdom Parliament —to go to every constituency in the country and not simply pick one part of it.

Is it the case that, because of Clause 2(2), the register for these elections is on the Stormont rules? Is there a law in Northern Ireland dealing with the collection of names for the register which is substantially different from the one I have just stated for the Westminster Parliament?

Mr. Ronald Bell

I was under the impression that we were in the Committee stage of a Bill. If we do this by statute, it can be done. What have the preexisting rules to do with it?

Mr. Rees

I was simply asking whether we were amending a Stormont rule or law or amending the Westminster rules.

Mr. Peter Mills

I think my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) forgets that there are two reasons. One was that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked the Chief Electoral Officer to look into this and the Chief Electoral Officer has reported and says that the number of errors is not abnormal. Therefore, my right hon. Friend, considering that very carefully, has decided that there is not a sufficient case for a supplementary register. My hon. and learned Friend may say that the interval seems to be a long time, but it is not, particularly when one realises that the Chief Electoral Officer has two elections to deal with.

Therefore, I simply ask my hon. Friends to consider the matter again, because we want to get the election under way and my right hon. Friend cannot at the moment see his way clear to agree to their suggestion.

Rev. Ian Paisley

This is a very serious matter and I certainly would not let it be dismissed by a newly-appointed electoral officer informing this House of Commons that it is impossible to have on a supplementary roll people who were deleted from the roll.

I am standing in this House of Commons for the rights of these people. If hon. Members here believe in the rights of the individual, they should take a stand tonight and say that, no matter what the cost, the people who through no fault of their own are not on the roll should be included on it.

The Minister cannot say that these people did not go through the mechanics, that they did not attempt to get on the list, did not fill in the forms, did not enter their protest and did not attend the courts of revision. These people did everything the law says they should do. Some of these people were even on the preliminary list but when the final list was printed, after the law had taken its course, they were cut off. Even a street of houses was completely deleted from the list.

When representations were made six weeks ago, we were told by the electoral officer through the Minister that the computer had made a mistake. I have to go back and say to these people "I am very sorry; the computer made a mistake and you cannot have a vote". These people are entitled to vote.

I can appreciate the Minister's difficulty because the person in charge of this in Northern Ireland is adamant. He has said "No"; that is his answer. This Parliament should say to him—after all, he is a servant of this House of Commons, or he ought to be—that people whose names were deleted from the list should be on the list. Something must be done to see that they are able to vote in the election. This is a very important matter.

Mr. Pounder

I should like, if possible, to follow the spirit of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, but this matter arose not today but at the time of the border poll six or seven weeks ago. It is not good enough to say that there is too little time between now and the end of May to produce a supplementary list. Double that time has elapsed since this first became a serious issue.

Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee said that we are seeking a fair result at the end of the day. I am not saying that rules have been broken all down the line—they have not—but they have been stretched. I cannot accede to my hon. Friend's request to withdraw the amendment. I must test it by a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made: —

Division No. 108.] AYES [11.43 p.m.
Bell, Ronald McMaster, Stanley Vickers, Dame Joan
Biggs-Davison, John Mills, Stratton (Belfast, N.)
Deedes, Rt. Hn. W. F. Molyneaux, James TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Fitt, Gerard (Belfast, W.) Orr, Capt. L. P. S. Rev. Ian Paisley and
Kilfedder, James Powell, Rt. Hn. J. Enoch Mr. Rafton Pounder.
McManus, Frank Simeons, Charles
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead) Hayhoe, Barney Reed, Laurence (Bolton, E.)
Atkins, Humphrey Hornsby-Smith, Rt.Hn.Dame Patricia Rees, Peter (Dover)
Benyon, W. Hunt, John Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Biffen, John James, David Ridley, Hn. Nicholas
Boscawen, Hn. Robert Kershaw, Anthony Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Bray, Ronald King, Tom (Bridgwater) Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Brocklebank-Fowler, Christopher Kinsey, J. R. Scott, Nicholas
Carlisle, Mark Kitson, Timothy Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)
Chapman, Sydney Knox, David Shelton, William (Clapham)
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Lamont, Norman Skeet, T. H. H.
Clegg, Walter La Marchant, Spencer Soref, Harold
Dixon, Piers MacArthur, Ian Speed, Keith
Drayson, G. B Maclean, Sir Fitzroy Spence, John
Eyre, Reginald Marten, Neil Stanbrook, Ivor
Fisher, Nigel (Surbiton) Mather, Carol Stuttaford, Dr. Tom
Fookes Miss Janet Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J. Tebbit, Norman
Fowler' Norman Meyer, Sir Anthony Thomas, John Stradling (Monmouth)
Fox, Marcus Mills, Peter (Torrington) Tugendhat, Christopher
Goodhew, Victor Moate, Roger Vaughan, Dr. Gerard
Gower, Raymond Monks, Mrs. Connie Waddington, David
Grant Anthony (Harrow. C.) Monro, Hector Warren, Kenneth
Gray, Hamish More, Jasper Weatherill, Bernard
Murton, Oscar Whitelaw, Rt. Hn. William
Green, Alan Noble, Rt. Hn. Michael Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Grylls, Michael Owen, Idris (Stockport, N.)
Gurden, Harold Page, Rt. Hn. Graham (Crosby) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Hall, Miss Joan (Keighley) Price, David (Eastleigh)
Haselhurst, Alan Pym, Rt. Hn. Francis Mr. Tim Fortescue and
Hawkins, Paul Raison, Timothy Mr. Michael Joplin.

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 11, in page 2, line 12, leave out subsection (3).— [Captain Orr.]

The Committee divided: Ayes 13, Noes 81.

Question put, That the amendment be made:

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 92.

Pym, Rt. Hn. Francis Shelton, William (Clapham) Tugendhat, Christopher
Raison, Timothy Shersby, Michael Vaughan, Dr. Gerard
Reed, Laurance (Bolton, E.) Simeons, Charles Vickers, Dame Joan
Rees, Merlyn (Leeds, S.) Skeet, T. H. H. Waddington, David
Rees, Peter (Dover) Speed, Keith Warren, Kenneth
Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Spence, John Whitelaw, Rt. Hn. William
Roberts, Wyn (Conway) Stanbrook, Ivor Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey) Steel, David
Rowlands, Ted Stuttaford, Dr. Tom TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Scott, Nicholas Tebbit, Norman Mr. Bernard Weatherill and
Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby) Thomas, John Stradling (Monmouth) Mr. Oscar Murton.

Question accordingly negatived.

Captain Orr

I beg to move Amendment No. 15, in page 2, leave out lines 35 to 37.

The Temporary Chairman (Sir Stephen McAdden)

With this amendment it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 22, in page 3, line 10, at end add: (7) Every Candidate at the election under this Act shall take an oath or make an affirmation of allegiance. No. 23, in Clause 3, page 3, line 21, at end insert: (c) if he has not been continuously resident in the United Kingdom for a period of 12 months prior to the date of the election. (d) if having been elected he declares his intention not to take his seat or fails to attend for a consecutive period of six months. No. 33, in page 3, line 21, at end insert: (c) if he has not been continuously resident in the United Kingdom for a period of 12 months prior to the date of the election. No. 36, in page 3, line 21, after "Act)" insert: (c) if he is a member of a proscribed organisation".

12 midnight

Captain Orr

Under the Bill as it stands the Secretary of State has power to make many provisions relating to the election, including the form of declaration to be made by a candidate, the contents of nomination papers and the taking of the poll. I accept that the wording of the amendments as they stand is defective, but I should like my right hon. Friend to deal with the suggestions made in Amendments Nos. 22 and 23.

Amendment No. 22 suggests that "every candidate at the election under this Act shall take an oath or make an affirmation of allegiance", and Amendment No. 23 says that a person shall be disqualified "if he has not been continuously resident in the United Kingdom for a period of 12 months prior to the date of the election". I prefer the new clause that I have put down to the group of amendments that we are debating, but as that has not been selected I shall address myself to the broad general argument.

The first point is the narrow one of whether someone who has not been resident in the United Kingdom for 12 months prior to the election should be able to be a candidate. The purpose of the amendment is to see whether my right hon. Friend has any ideas about whether the candidature should be left wide open; in other words, whether someone who has not been resident in the United Kingdom or Northern Ireland for 12 months should be able to stand for election to this Assembly.

This is a very particular Assembly. It is to deal very much with matters within the United Kingdom. I concede that if this were an election for Stormont instead of for this new Assembly which is being set up non-residence would not disqualify someone from being a candidate, but it ought to be a disqualification in this instance. I shall not make heavy weather of it because I should like to hear my right hon. Friend's views on the matter.

The other matter is more important and relates to the oath of allegiance. I should have preferred my new clause which makes the taking of the oath of allegiance obligatory before taking a seat, just as the oath or affirmation is obligatory before taking a seat in this House. The amendment as drafted would require the oath of affirmation of allegiance to be taken before someone stands as a candidate. I should be prepared to concede that that would not be necessary provided it was understood that the oath or affirmation of allegiance had to be taken before a person took his seat in the Assembly.

I imagine that the latter proposition would be acceptable to the House. I hope that nobody will argue that Members of an assembly such as this within the United Kingdom should not be required, as a condition of taking their seats, to take the oath or affirmation of allegiance to the Crown.

On that basis I am prepared to leave the matter there. I should like to hear what my right hon. Friend has to say about it.

Mr. McMaster

I should like to add to the argument which I have already advanced, but in relation to Amendment No. 36.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State answered the point I raised previously, which was that a member of a proscribed organisation should not be allowed to stand for election or to have his name and the name of his organisation added to the ballot paper. It is illogical that an organisation which has been declared illegal should be entitled to put up members as candidates for election. That is so particularly in the circumstances in which this election will be fought. It is not only the fact that the member's name—perhaps that of a well-known terrorist—may be added to the ballot paper, but also the name of the organisation which has been waging war on the community in Northern Ireland over the past three years.

If proscribing an organisation is to have any meaning, surely one of the penalties of its being a proscribed organisation is that it is not allowed to contest elections. That is perfectly consistent and straightforward as a proposition. To suggest otherwise offends against good sense and good reason in the community. Not only is it illogical but, from a purely practical point of view, one can imagine people entering a voting booth and seeing the name of a candidate with "Sinn Fein" added to it being so disgusted that they destroy their ballot paper.

We must remember that a large number of people in Northern Ireland are related closely to those who have suffered as a result of the violent campaign of the past three and a half years. Nearly 800 people have lost their lives in Northern Ireland. Ten thousand have been seriously injured. Many have been mutilated for life, including women and children. Ordinary people going about their ordinary jobs have been the victims of bombing and shooting in Northern Ireland. It has been calculated that one person in every 200 has suffered from the present campaign of violence.

For these people to be faced with the names of those responsible for this campaign and for the organisations to which they belong to be featured on the ballot paper is not only provocative but offensive.

The terrorists have made no secret of their aim, which is by seditious means to further their end that a minority in the community should prevail over the will of the majority. Not only have their actions resulted in many casualties but many homes of ordinary people have been destroyed. Businesses built up over years have been ruined. Thousands of jobs have been lost.

While this violent campaign continues —it is continuing at this moment—it is totally wrong that these people be permitted to fight the election and to fight it under the banner of the proscribed organisations to which they belong.

Mr. Kilfedder

I should like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider introducing an amendment on Report which would require it to be necessary for a Member of the new Assembly to take an oath of allegiance or to make an affirmation, as the old Stormont Parliament required of its Members and as the House of Commons requires. I see no objection to that reasonable request. If this requirement has been deliberately omitted—and I do not think it has—it would suggest that the Government are in reality treating the new Stormont Assembly as a glorified county council. I am sure that that is not their intention.

People in Northern Ireland will be gravely concerned if an oath of allegiance is not required of the newly elected Members of the Assembly. I hope that my right hon. Friend will agree with what I regard as a reasonable request, and will put forward on Report an amendment which requires Members of the Assembly to take an oath of allegiance.

Mr. Whitelaw

To make the change that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) suggests would be contrary to the practice of Westminster and Stormont. It would also, if carried, have some rather curious effects. It might well disbar a person who, although otherwise eligible, had spent any period outside the United Kingdom during the 12 months preceding the election. It might be a considerable difficulty if that were the case. It would, incidentally, disbar someone who had business interests or who had worked in Northern Ireland—for example, in Londonderry—and who happened at some time to live, for example, in Donegal. That might have an unfortunate result.

I do not think that on those two bases my hon. and gallant Friend would wish to press the matter. Of course, people who might for some reason have been out of the United Kingdom for a period in the last 12 months would be gravely upset if they were not allowed to stand on that basis.

It was made clear at the time of the debate on the White Paper that it was not the Government's intention to suggest that oaths should be taken by members of the Assembly. Equally, it was made clear that we believed it right that those who became members of the Executive should take an oath or affirmation. We made that differentiation. The Government's position has been made clear, and we are carrying out in the Bill what was said at the time of the debate on the White Paper.

The problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) raises is a fair one. I believe that all hon. Members wish that all those who desire to further their causes by constitutional means should have the opportunity to stand at elections. Equally, those who are bent on violence alone cannot expect to be able to do so. Nor can those who might be said to be violent one moment and constitutional the next.

I am convinced that it would be wrong to deal with this matter in the context of electoral law. I appreciate that there are strong feelings about the matter, but I do not believe that electoral law is the right basis on which to deal with it. Of course, there are criminal offences arising from membership of prescribed or illegal organisations.

Mr. McManus

I made the point which I am about to make to another member of the Government Front Bench and received no comment. The right hon. Gentleman says that it is the Government's intention not to allow people to use the ballot box one day and the gun on another. If that is the Government's position, will the right hon. Gentleman explain why it is that they do not take an across-the-board attitude? It is well known that the UDA, for instance, has been involved in violence, but there is no intention to prevent the UDA from taking part in elections.

Another example is equally clear. Mr. Craig and others have said categorically, unequivocally and in the clearest possible terms that if the ballot box does not succeed in achieving what they want they will use violence. They have said that they will take up guns and fight. That appears to me to be a further case where the stated intention is clear: "If the ballot box does not work with us, we intend to become men of violence". If the Government's position as stated by the Secretary of State is that this should not be allowed to happen, why should they not apply that principle to all concerned rather than restrict it to a small section?

12.15 a.m.

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not want to get further into the argument about proscription because this is not a matter for electoral law as such. I note what the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. McManus) said. I do not necessarily accept some of his arguments. We have to take into account the whole position of those who have conducted violence and what they are doing, but it is clearly right to deal with the matter in another context rather than in this Bill.

I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South will not press his amendment.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

I am not wholly happy with what my right hon. Friend has said about taking the oath or affirmation of allegiance. People in Northern Ireland will wonder why the Government have set their face against an oath or affirmation. We do not want the new Assembly to be closed to people of Republican views. There are people with Republican views in this House, and one such hon. Gentleman intervened in my right hon. Friend's speech. As no difficulty is presented in taking an oath or affirmation in this House to people of Republican views sitting here, it would be unfortunate if a precedent were set for the Northern Ireland Assembly as a departure from previous legislative assembly.

Mr. Whitelaw

This was made clear at the time of the White Paper debate, and no exception has been taken to the proposition. This Bill is carrying on what was said at that time.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

I abstained on the White Paper.

Captain Orr

Those of us who voted against the White Paper took exception to that, among other things, at the time. I very much regret the absence of the requirement for an oath of allegiance or affirmation on election to the Assembly, but I recognise that if we were to press this amendment to a Division we would create nonsense and would not gain what we wanted.

Therefore, on the understanding that I still believe an oath of allegiance should be taken, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I beg to move Amendment No. 20, in page 3, leave out lines 2 and 3.

I shall not detain the Committee long, for I deployed this argument during Second Reading. Paragraphs (a) to (f) of subsection (5) are most important provisions. Those provisions range from setting the intervals between the stages of the election to dealing with corrupt and illegal practices. In subsection (6) we see An order made under subsection (5) above— (a) may include any supplemental or incidental provisions, including provisions creating criminal offences. We are not quite sure what that means. Quite a big section of the Border Poll Bill contained such words, and the Secretary of State removed them during its passage. That makes us wonder whether the words here are necessary. It is the creation of criminal offences that concerns us.

I hope that the Secretary of State can justify the provision or remove it.

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman is very reasonable and correct. We have no desire to take any further powers or to create any offences if we can avoid it. We believe that it is necessary to have the provision, particularly in relation to corrupt practices. We shall seek to use it in the most limited way possible. Certainly we are most anxious not to create more than the very few offences in the order. There will be a chance to discuss this on another matter, but I can say that we shall do everything we can to keep the powers to the minimum. The provision is merely against corrupt practices, which it is normal to guard against in all elections, and which we are bound to guard against on this occasion.

Mr. McNamara

When dealing with the matter later, will the Secretary of State say what extra powers he might need over and above those that already exist in electoral law in this country? Obviously, we want to prevent corrupt practices, but what limits will there be on the punishments imposed? As we are talking about disqualification of a person in any part of the United Kingdom, the Secretary of State seems already to have the powers in subsection (5)(f).

Mr. Whitelaw

I am most sensitive to the views of hon. Members on the matter. I hope that when the order comes forward the House will see me to have been as good as my word. There must be safeguards, but I realise the great importance of the views expressed when we are talking about criminal offences, penalties and all the rest.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

I should like to say something about the new clause in my name which is being taken in this group—

The Temporary Chairman (Mr. Carol Johnson)

Order. We are simply discussing Amendment No. 20.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

The new clause is not being taken with it?

The Temporary Chairman


Mr. Biggs-Davison

I beg your pardon, Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

In view of the assurances given by the Secretary of State, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I beg to move Amendment No. 18, in page 3, leave out lines 9 and 10 and insert: approval by resolution of both Houses of Parliament".

The Temporary Chairman

With this Amendment we may discuss the following amendments: No. 19, in page 3, leave out lines 9 and 10 and insert: approval by resolution of the Commons House of Parliament". No. 21, in page 3, leave out lines 9 and 10 and add: an affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament".

Mr. Rees

Subsection (5) is the core of the Bill. Then subsection (6)(c) says that an order made under subsection (5) shall be contained in a statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament. We seek to use the affirmative rather than the negative procedure, thus giving greater control to the House of Commons.

This is a most important part of the Bill. Those of us that have been involved with Irish legislation have had experience this year of the problems of Governments in bringing orders before the House. That was under last year's Temporary Provisions Act. Important orders of this nature should be debated, and the Government should have to bring them to the House for debate.

That is the crux of the argument, and anything else I said would be superfluous.

Mr. Whitelaw

I accept the importance of these amendments and in normal circumstances would very much like to meet the point of them. I want to explain why I cannot do so. I believe, however, that I can help the Committee considerably, although I cannot, for reasons which I will give and which I hope the Committee will think reasonable, accede to the amendment.

To hold the elections on 28th June we are working to an extremely tight timetable. It is necessary, as soon as the Bill becomes an Act, and before these elections, to issue the instructions to pre- siding officers, order election stationery, receive the postal vote applications, finalise the polling station scheme and print the poll cards. The authority for all these steps will be the regulations.

If we change to the affirmative resolution procedure, inevitably the time taken before we can start doing all these things will be considerably increased. This is because we cannot start taking any steps under the affirmative resolution procedure until that resolution has passed through the House. Before it does that it has to go to the Statutory Instruments Committee. That in itself takes a considerable time.

The result of all this would inevitably be that if we went under the affirmative resolution procedure we could not start doing any of these things closely connected with the election until the resolution had been passed. Under the negative resolution procedure, as soon as the regulation is put down all these preparations can begin. I have examined the facts carefully. I am not just taking the word of those who are working the election. I have been into it most carefully. I am quite clear that if we proceeded by way of affirmative resolution it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to meet the 28th June deadline. I could not guarantee that the elections would take place on 28th June. I am not saying that it would be utterly impossible but there would be a risk that we would have to take and that is something we should not do. I hope that the Committee will agree that the negative resolution procedure on this occasion would be reasonable.

I have discussed this matter with my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, and he and I are perfectly clear that the House must have proper time to debate the matter under the negative resolution procedure. I will discuss this question with the Leader of the House. I give the undertaking that reasonable and proper time will be allowed to debate this issue as soon as it can reasonably be fitted in. I hope that on that basis the Committee will agree, in view of the urgency and the need to have the elections on 28th June, that I have put forward a reasonable proposition.

Captain Orr

My right hon. Friend has approached this in a most reasonable way. I agree with the case made by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees). Indeed, my amendment is drafted in terms almost identical to his. This concerns the "guts" of the matter, as he said. It concerns the important provisions.

My right hon. Friend has said that he does not want to jeopardise the date of 28th June, and I agree about that. Will he do one other thing for us? If the regulations are simply published and then subject to the negative procedure, the debate takes place after the event in a sense, after everything has been put in motion. There is then no question of amendment; we simply have to negative the whole thing or accept it. Will he, before he produces a resolution, undertake to discuss some of the problems with those of us representing Northern Ireland on the details he is presenting? We have a great deal of expertise to put at his disposal about running the elections. If he could indicate that it would be possible to have a discussion with us before he produced his draft, it would go a long way to enabling me to withdraw the amendment.

12.30 a.m.

Mr. Whitelaw

I see no reason why I should not seek to meet my hon. and gallant Friend's proposition. I shall do everything in my power, consistent with the time factor, to have the discussion my hon. and gallant Friend has in mind. Perhaps I can safeguard myself by saying that I hope that he would think it reasonable if, in certain circumstances, such a discussion took place with one of the Ministers of State and not with me if it were difficult for me to fit it in. I should like to say "Yes" to a discussion. I see no reason why it should not take place.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I thank the Secretary of State for the spirit of his reply and for the method he has suggested for meeting our point. Does his assurance apply to the orders arising from subsequent clauses? If so, I could withdraw certain of our later propositions.

Mr. Whitelaw

I see no reason why not.

Captain Orr

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. McMaster

I beg to move Amendment No. 34, in page 3, line 10, at end add: (7) The life of the Assembly shall be not more than five calendar years. I should like to hear from the Minister whether the life of the Assembly can be extended to five calendar years in order that the Assembly may have the same life as the Parliament in the rest of the United Kingdom. To allow for a period of only four years might well mean that the Assembly would run for two or three years, which would be insufficient for any Executive in Northern Ireland to plan properly.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

I appreciate my hon. Friend's point, but I should think that it would be much more important to provide that the Assembly could be dissolved before the period of years proposed. That would be a healthy discipline for the Assembly.

Mr. Whitelaw

These are matters which must arise on the main constitutional Bill and not on this Bill, which deals with the question of the election for the Assembly.

Mr McMaster

In view of my right hon. Friend's reply, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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