HC Deb 06 December 1973 vol 865 cc1623-36

12.15 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mills)

I beg to move, That the Local Government Reorganisation (Consequential Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1973, a draft of which was laid before this House on 8th November, be approved. The reorganisation of local government in Northern Ireland came into effect on 1st October. As a result, the former local authorities were abolished and their functions transferred either to the 26 new district councils or to various Government Departments in Northern Ireland. This order, which is consequential upon the transfer of those functions, amends certain Acts of the United Kingdom to take account of this reorganisation. Among the amendments which will be achieved by the order, there are three matters to which I should like to refer in some detail.

First, as hon. Members will have observed, Article 2 makes the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland the electoral registration officer and returning officer for constituencies in Northern Ireland which return members to the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Before 1st October 1973, the statutory duties of electoral registration under the Representation of the People Acts were carried out by the Town Clerk of the County Borough of Belfast and the secretaries of each of the six county councils. As a result of the reorganisation of local government, these appointments no longer exist, and it is therefore necessary to make alternative provision. Since the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland already has the responsibility of preparing the electoral register for Northern Ireland assembly and local elections, it seems right that he should be given the duty of preparing the register for United Kingdom parliamentary elections. Indeed, the register prepared is in practice a combined register containing the names of all persons in Northern Ireland entitled to vote at United Kingdom parliamentary, Northern Ireland assembly or local elections.

The returning officers for the 12 Westminster constituencies in Northern Ireland are, under existing law, the under-sheriffs of Belfast and of the six counties. These officers are practising solicitors in private practice. I should like to take this opportunity to commend publicly the excellent work they have done as returning officers over the years.

However, since there is a chief electoral officer responsible for the organisation and conduct of Northern Ireland assembly and local elections, it is appropriate that this officer should also be entrusted with the task of conducting elections in the Westminster constituencies in Northern Ireland.

I turn now to Article 3 of the order which relates to the appointment of high sheriffs for the county boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry. Under present legislation, the procedure for the appointment of sheriffs for the county boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry differs from that in the counties. Nominations for office in the county boroughs were, prior to 1st October, made by the county borough councils—namely, the Belfast Corporation and, in the case of Londonderry, the Londonderry Development Commission, whereas in the counties nominations are made by the Crown judge at assize in each county.

In addition to the differing procedure for appointment of sheriffs, the period of office for sheriffs of county boroughs is different from that of sheriffs of counties. Although the term of office is one year for both, in the case of county boroughs the term runs from June to June, whilst in the counties the term is the calendar year.

As a result of the reorganisation of local government and the consequent separation of the new local government districts from the judicial areas of counties and county boroughs, it is felt appropriate to amend the law so that the method of appointment and period of office of sheriffs of county boroughs will be the same as that for the counties. This, then, is what Article 3 seeks to achieve.

Article 4 extends to Enterprise Ulster and three other public bodies those provisions of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 which prohibit discrimination in the public sector on religious or political grounds or the requirement of certain oaths and undertakings as a condition of employment.

The remaining provision of the order deals with the consequential and more technical amendments of United Kingdom enactments to which I have earlier referred.

12.20 a.m.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

This is the 54th item of legislation that we have dealt with since the temporary provisions legislation. I throw in that interesting statistic because it bears out some of the points that have been made from both sides of the House about the difficulties of discussing Northern Ireland legislation. I am sure that we all look forward to the legislation we shall have next Thursday. We hope to see the power being devolved, the Executive established and much that has been discussed in this House being discussed properly in the new Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland.

Therefore, though this is perhaps the last piece of legislation before the devolution order, it is one of the sweetest we have ever had and is certainly the sweetest of the three we have dealt with tonight. The first was obviously distasteful to all hon. Members. The second dealt with the "nuts and bolts" and, while important, was not easy to get excited over. This order is of great importance in that it extends the field of human rights. However, whether or not there was to be devolution, this order would still have had to be discussed in this House.

It is a consequence of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act which became law this year. As the Under-Secretary indicated, the order is in many ways a very technical matter, dealing with the provisions consequent upon reorganisation of local government in the Six Counties, particularly in Articles 2 and 3. I should like to take this opportunity of joining the Under-Secretary in not only congratulating the under-sheriffs for the work that they have done as electoral returning officers, but to congratulate the Chief Electoral Returning Officer of Northern Ireland and his staff whose work we have observed with admiration over the last year in connection with the border poll, even if we did not like the poll. We congratulate them too upon the fine work that was done for the elections to the Assembly, work which would have been good in any circumstances, but which in the particular difficulties of the Six Counties in the last few years is remarkable.

Article 4 is the most important part of the order because it deals with an extension of human rights and the prevention of religious and political discrimination. It extends Sections 19 and 21 of the Constitution Act. Section 19 deals with discrimination against any person or class of persons on grounds of religious or political belief. It is well worth reading again, because it is particularly important to the minority population. It says : It shall be unlawful for a Minister of the Crown, a member of the Northern Ireland Executive or other person … to discriminate, or aid, induce or incite another to discriminate, in the discharge of functions relating to Northern Ireland against any person or class of persons on the ground of religious belief or political opinion. Section 21 deals with the particularly contentious subject of oaths which have caused so much trouble in the past. It says, it shall be unlawful for an authority or body to which this section applies to require any person to take an oath, make an undertaking in lieu of an oath or make a declaration, as a condition of his being appointed to or acting as a member of that authority or body, or of serving with or being employed under that authority or body. These were things that many people in the north of Ireland and in this House have striven for. The provisions extend the area of protection, as the Under-Secretary indicated, to many important matters, but particularly to the four area boards for health and social services. The order does not mention the area boards for education and libraries. Has similar provision been made for members of those boards? If so in which piece of legislation is it contained? If no provision has been made, why not? If it is intended to introduce a further order why are two pieces of legislation to be brought in when one would do?

One of the purposes of Article 4 is to prohibit discrimination in the employment sector covered by the Health and Social Services Board. That is very proper. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Marlyn Rees) has been in correspondence with the former Secretary of State concerning allegations of possible discrimination in the Western Area Board in relation to the selection of administrative staff in the public health sphere. The allegation, basically, was that no member of the minority was given an appointment and that when the reorganisation was taking place no member of the minority was sent on a training course so as to become eligible for appointment. The right hon. Gentleman replied to my hon. Friend outlining the procedures followed and claimed first, that the area boards are reasonably representative of both communities and, secondly, that the proper procedures were followed and an independent assessor was present. He claimed also that the recommendation for attendance on the training courses was made by the Departments concerned within the board's area and there was no set procedure for selection.

The person who originally wrote to my hon. Friend has sent a further letter in which it is stated that, first, all members of the interviewing panel were non-Catholics, second, that the independent assessor had spent at least five years in a senior capacity at the Royal College of Nursing, Belfast, and, third, that all the people who had power to make recommendations for training courses were non-Catholic.

There the matter rests. Doubtless there will be further correspondence from the Secretary of State to my hon. Friend, with, perhaps, copies to me. There may be no substance in these allegations. I mention the case because it indicates the type of problem we are seeking to overcome. Because we are concerned about it we feel that a lot of the good work that has gone on, and a lot of the legislation we have enacted, may be observed in the letter but not in the spirit. The explanation in this case may be that this situation arose because of an accident of history, perhaps because there were no suitable members of the minority to go on these courses, perhaps because none applied or perhaps because the degree of excellence of the appointees justified, on any consideration, their being appointed. But the grievance is there and felt to be there.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

Will the hon. Gentleman accept my assurance that during the time I served with the Northern Ireland Hospital Authority I sat on many appointment panels and on those occasions when I took the trouble to check, I did not do so normally, I discovered that the minority was actually in a majority on the panel by 3–1?

Mr. McNamara

I can accept what the hon. Gentleman says. All I am saying is that we have a system which, apparently on the surface is fair—I do not doubt the Government's good faith over this system—but in looking at the mechanics of what happened it seems there were no set procedures for people to apply for training. It was left to local discretion, or so it is alleged. It is said that the independent assessor was not independent because of previous association with the Six Counties. Here is a matter which needs careful examination.

The lesson I was about to draw from this situation was that there must be a more careful examination of the procedures and the personnel taking part in these procedures to ensure that possible causes of grievance, which can be used and exacerbated by evil men, are not used to wreck the work that we in this House and the Executive-designate are trying to do for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Molyneaux

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the course he is advocating brings with it all the evils of the system we are trying to move away from? Is he not suggesting that we have to scrutinise all appointment panels, all forms of committees, assessors and so on and grade and balance them on grounds of religion? In other words, such persons would be appointed because of their religion when religion should not enter into it.

Mr. McNamara

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I do not want a "statutory Catholic", a "statutory Republican", a "statutory Provo" or whatever. We still cannot get away from the situation that we are trying to overcome some difficult history in this situation and in an area like the western area, which is peculiarly sensitive, we should take particular care. That is all I am suggesting. This arises purely and simply because although one can understand what is contained in Section 18, subsection (1), of the Act and Article 4 in this order, unless the spirit is followed as well as the letter we shall be in a difficult situation.

Some of the best constitutions in the world exist in eastern Europe, beyond the Iron Curtain, but I should rather live here without a written constitution than in any of those countries. We are making an important point. Article 4 concerns important matters of human rights, but between Sections 19 and 21 in the Act comes Section 20 which establishes the Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights to which Mr. Victor Feather has been appointed Chairman. This is an important body and we congratulate the Government on their wise and imaginative choice.

There is no greater believer in fairness, respect for the proper and correct administration of the law and the importance of human dignity than a trade unionist, and Mr. Feather will be quick to advise the Government on any political or religious discrimination which he suspects is being perpetrated against any section or person in the community of Northern Ireland.

Similarly, with the appointment of Mr. McGonagle as Commissioner for Complaints. He has a distinguished history in the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union—

Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)

Can the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) relate this to the order?

Mr. McNamara

With the greatest respect, I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman was the last person to suggest to others that they might be outside the rules of order, but in any event, I expect you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to call me to order, not the hon. Gentleman.

This is an important matter concerning human rights and an important point on that is the appointment of the Advisory Commission on Human Rights. The Chairman of that Commission is Mr. Victor Feather and we are now concerned, if I may finish my compliment to the Government—a thing I rarely pay to a Tory Government—that they have, in the appointment of Mr. McGonagle, again shown imagination. He will be a serious loss to his own trade union in Ireland as I know because I spoke to the General Secretary last Mondey, but he has all our good wishes.

Now we have a chairman of the Advisory Commission, when will the other members be appointed? When is the Commission due to start work? In the Queen's Speech it was also announced that there was to be legislation on discrimination in private employment in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister tell us when we are likely to see the Bill?

We all know how difficult it is to reorganise local government. We should like from this side of the House to congratulate the Ministers concerned and all the officials in Government and in local authorities in Northern Ireland on achieving the reorganisation of local government so smoothly in spite of the difficulties and on achieving it well in advance of England, Scotland and Wales.

Finally, a new Minister is going there, Mr. Austin Currie, a friend of many hon. Members. We know that he is going into a good department and that he will acquit himself well. We hope that he will be a distinguished Minister in the most important enterprise that he and his colleagues will be undertaking.

I support the order.

12.35 p.m.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

We would all willingly give our support to any method likely to deal competently with legislation as an alternative to the Order in Council procedure, but the new vehicle on which some had pinned such high hopes at Stormont has been having a stormy running-in period and we may be excused for having doubts.

Article 2 gives the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland power to take over the function of the former electoral registration officer in each county. I do not wish to criticise the electoral officer, his deputies or his staff, and I subscribe to much of what has been said by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, North (Mr. McNamara).

I understand what the Government are trying to do. For example, for the first time they are providing in the register the street and road numbers, which is an even more complicated operation in the new lists and registers. This will undoubtedly be of great help to the political parties when they are engaged in electioneering. In a much wider sense it may provide a comprehensive directory for each constituency in Northern Ireland.

On the minus side there has been some confusion, possibly because too much has been attempted. One example is the reliance placed upon the return of registration forms in a year when the electorate are weary of postal voting and the complicated apparatus involved. I know of constituents who, when asked whether they had completed their forms, said "We are having nothing to do with this postal voting ; we burnt ours." Only about two-thirds of the forms were returned, and when it became necessary to augment the system and return to the original system of canvassers it was impossible to include the additional names in the electoral list published on 30th November. The additional names appear in supplementary lists which are held at the office of the appropriate deputy registration officer.

Because of this the chief electoral officer is reluctant to issue individual claim forms and prefers that party agents and other interested people should take lists of persons omitted to the various offices to check them against the supplementary list. It is necessary to furnish the people who have been omitted with a claim form, which will have to be completed and returned to the deputy registration officer by 15th September. As one who had the chore of seeing that this was done in former years, I doubt whether this added complication will make it possible for the returns to be in by the required date. I hope that the Minister responsible will allow some latitude to take account of this complication.

This system might possibly work in a city constituency, but it presents problems in a large rural constituency. When the Unionist agent for South Antrim called for his lists he was given only 18 names for an electorate of 130,000. Is it possible to issue the claim forms on a less restricted scale, possibly by placing some in each Post Office?

Article 2(b) makes the chief electoral officer the returning officer for each constituency. I assume that that in practice means that the deputy electoral officer would be the returning officer in the constituency in which he operated. The problem is that the returning officer's area does not coincide with the boundaries of the deputy electoral officer. The requirement of the Representation of the People Act 1969 is that the local boundaries shall not be broken unnecessarily except in special cases.

It is the local authorities which have made nonsense of the constituency boundaries. With the reorganisation they have in practically all cases completely disrupted the old lines of demarcation. It might have been a far happier solution to have retained the well-tried organisation which is based on the Westminster constituencies which were drawn up by a commissioner appointed by the House.

Bearing in mind that presumably the registers will be published every year in their parliamentary form—that is, showing the old polling areas and boundaries as defined again by Westminster—I imagine that the new local government register with the new-look areas will be published only once in four years. It seems strange that the interests of Stormont and Westminster should be subordinated to those of local authorities composed, it is true, of many worthy people but with limited powers.

I hope that in due course the teething troubles will be overcome and the priorities sorted out.

12.42 a.m.

Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)

I do not intend to keep the House long. As the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) chose to mention the extension of the provisions of Sections 19 and 21 of the Constitution Act, and made heavy weather of doing so, I draw the attention of the House to the fact that we have had the Ombudsman in Northern Ireland and he has looked into complaints of the sort to which the hon. Gentleman referred for a number of years.

The Ombudsman, the same person who performed the same function in the United Kingdom, is a highly respected ex-senior civil servant. He found that few cases were referred to him. In a negligible number of cases was there any decision. I feel that the hon. Member for Salford, West has made heavy weather of the order. Perhaps unwittingly he has added a little to the undermining of the establishment in Northern Ireland. I personally regret that we have had to listen to such an extent to a matter which has such little substance.

Mr. McNamara

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) should not heap my sins upon my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme). My constituency is Kingston upon Hull, North. The very point which the hon. Gentleman was making about undermining the system and the dangers involved was the point which I was seeking to make.

12.44 a.m.

Mr. Peter Mills

I should like to reply to some of the points which have been raised in this short but interesting debate. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) say that he welcomed the order. I am sure he is right, as is the whole House.

Having listened to the various points which have been raised, I am most disappointed that no hon. Member has asked about the sheriffs and their duties, because I was longing to mention that these are set out in the Sheriffs (Ireland) Act 1920, which states that one of their functions is exercised in connection with oyer and terminer—that is, to hear and determine. I was sorry that the point was not raised, but I have made the duties quite clear. It is important that people should know.

I also welcome what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North said about congratulating the various staff—he is right about this too—and also what he said about the chief electoral officer. It is important that all of us should look upon this as a new start. There is no going back to the past in this whole field. There is new registration and a new chief electoral officer. He has a full-time staff, he is completely independent, and he has a full complement of staff to deal with the problems. I am sure we congratulate the chief electoral officer on what he has done already.

I turn to Article 4, which my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) was right to bring forward, and the extension of human rights. I welcome what my hon. Friend said about Article 4. As regards education and libraries, the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 provides for the education and library boards to be added to Schedule 1 to the Commissioner for Complaints Act (Northern Ireland) 1969. Since this article of the order came into effect on 20th March 1973, the boards are clearly within the scope of Section 19 of the Constitution Act. It is, therefore, already in operation.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North touched on the question of the Western Health and Social Services Board and a personal problem. I should like to make a few general points first. My experience in Northern Ireland is that these things are most carefully looked into, certainly in the Ministry with which I have been concerned. We take into account very much the minority. I know that all Ministers watch this point carefully. I am sure the hon. Member would agree that appointment must be made on merit. It does not matter what a person's label is.

I know that there are sensitive areas and sensitive people about this. We have to watch this carefully so that there is no misunderstanding. I only hope that in this new, shall we say, climate many more people will come forward from the minority to offer themselves for these appointments and that we may work together in the future irrespective of our religious label.

I have looked into the case that was mentioned. I do not know whether the hon. Member wants me to go into it in a little more detail, but the article provides that health boards are within the scope of Section 19 of the Constitution Act and the Commissioner for Complaints may, therefore, be asked to investigate a complaint concerning discrimination. I do not think that it happened in the case in question. If the hon. Member wants me to pursue the point further, perhaps he will let me know. I assure the House that we have looked into the matter carefully and that my right hon. Friend has given a reply to the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) on this point.

Mr. McNamara

There has been further correspondence by the person concerned with the Secretary of State—correspondence which perhaps has not yet percolated through to the Under-Secretary of State.

Mr. Mills

The correspondence has not yet reached me, but I am certain a detailed reply will be sent in due course.

Reference has been made to the Chairman of the Advisory Council, and I was asked what other appointments would be made. We are seeking to press ahead with this matter. The matter of a Bill in the private sector is entirely a matter for the Leader of the House and for the Government, and it is not for me as a mere Under-Secretary to enter into those realms.

Mr. McMaster

Will the Under-Secretary accept from me, as somebody who has studied this subject very carefully, that if appointments are made or refused to be made as a result of pressure, then this itself can cause resentment and can do far more harm than good?

Mr. Mills

That may be so, but I can assure my hon. Friend that in my experience in Northern Ireland I have come to realise that people are very sensitive about these matters. The greatest care must be taken, and there is a long history involving people who have these fears.

Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South)

On both sides.

Mr. Mills

Yes, I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) that the fears are on both sides. Therefore, we must tread carefully, but we welcome this as a step forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) made a lot of rather technical points about claim forms, lists and local boundaries. I think that at this late hour I shall not attempt to deal with those matters in detail, since my hon. Friend is an expert on those matters and I am not. I promise to write to my hon. Friend and give him the information he seeks.

In commending the order to the House, it only remains for me to thank hon. Members on both sides for their kind remarks to me. I cannot say that I am always happy to be here at this time of the morning, but it was pleasant to hear those things said.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Local Government Reorganisation (Consequential Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1973, a draft of which was laid before this House on 8th November, be approved.

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