HC Deb 03 July 1973 vol 859 cc355-80
Mr. Molyneaux

I beg to move Amendment No. 20, in page 21, line 36, leave out paragraph (a).

I am not sure whether the remark made by my right hon. Friend a few moments ago will have any bearing upon the succession if at some time he leaves and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) moves up the bench a little.

Many reasons have been given for adopting the single transferable vote system in the first Assembly elections. I have no doubt that one objective implicit in the original direct rule decision was the destruction of the power and cohesion of the Unionist Party, and to a certain extent and for a strictly limited term that may have been achieved. The cohesion of what, after all, was a coalition party has suffered, but the result is probably not what was planned or intended. The power of unionism—with a little "u"—is greater now than ever. The parties which incorporate the word "Unionist" in their titles have a combined strength of 50 seats out of the 78. If one adds the other pro-Union parties the total becomes 59 out of 78. This is not calculated to bring joy to the manipulators noted for their bitter hostility to Ulster.

I suspect that another reason for the single transferable vote system might have been a hope that it would benefit some of the smaller parties in Northern Ireland—the Northern Ireland Labour Party and others. Here again, that has not happened. On the minority side, the smaller parties have been completely obliterated. I have no doubt that this has brought great pleasure to the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), but there will be many hon. Members, particularly on the Opposition side of the House, who will feel disappointed that he was unable in his hour of victory to be a little more generous towards those who suffered defeat.

The argument over who should represent a single-member constituency is one which generates a certain amount of heat at the time of an election, during the brief period of the campaign, but it lasts for only a very short period, and it is of little or no importance to the electorate, who are properly much more concerned about the quality of service which the member elected will provide. The fact that this issue of service to one's constituents is paramount, in their minds at least, leads to the conclusion that the single-member constituency is definitely preferable to the multi-member constituency, where there can never be the same close contact between the representative and his constituents as there is in the single-member constituency.

It is particularly regrettable that this now is the situation in Northern Ireland, where the Stormont representatives from now on, from 1st October onwards, will have to act in the rôle of local or county councillors in many matters because now they will have to deal with matters that were formerly dealt with by county councils and other local authorities—very important matters of health and welfare and education. Perhaps this would have been quite possible in the context of the former Northern Ireland single-member constituencies, but I have the feeling that an elector with a welfare problem will feel very remote, perhaps neglected and insignificant, knowing quite well that he is only one of 150,000 persons in the supposed care of eight Assembly members ranging over an entire constituency very much larger than any constituency in the rest of the United Kingdom, its members having no clearly defined areas of responsibility or oversight.

There is a wide choice of other systems. There is the well-tried simple majority system employed in elections to this House; there is the limited vote system; the culminative vote system; the points system; the list system. I do not propose to elaborate on them or to deploy arguments in favour of them because I am well aware that the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) has made a study of several of those systems, and I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will be successful in catching your eye so as to make a contribution to the debate.

However, whatever may be said for any particular system of voting, it is difficult to see or understand the reasoning behind the decision that all future elections to the Assembly shall be on this one system. The hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) and his colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench have been very realistic and over and over again, today and on other occasions, have been saying that no one can possibly foresee what will happen in Northern Ireland in the next 10 years.

8.45 p.m

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his colleagues have refused on many occasions to prophesy or to give any estimates about future events. Why then is there this determination to saddle the new Assembly and the people of Northern Ireland with one specific system of elections and voting? I cannot understand it. I know that it has been said in this Chamber in defence of the intelligent electors of Northern Ireland that they have managed well in the local council elections and the Assembly elections to make the thing work, but that assessment is based on the number of spoiled votes. That simply means the occasions on which the elector has perhaps spoiled his vote by writing an obscene remark upon it or spoiling his paper in some other way. It does not take into account the enor mous number of errors which were made and about which we all know.

Many of my constituents came to see me the day after the poll saying they had voted for particular candidates and asking whether they had done right. I told them that it was not for me to tell them how to vote but I pointed out that they had scattered their votes over four parties, some of which were at loggerheads with the policies that those constituents professed to support. They seemed to feel that because they put their final vote against a candidate's name that was enough to down him. They felt that if they voted for someone with their second vote, that was the equivalent of putting that candidate on a par with the chap to whom they gave their first preference.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Does my hon. Friend not agree that the fact that the Government have spent thousands of pounds on full-page newspaper advertisements telling people that to make their votes effective they must vote for as many candidates as possible has led to many people casting more votes than they were entitled to?

Mr. Molyneaux

I readily confirm that and I can confirm also that the advertisements saying that PR was "as easy as 1, 2, 3" misled a lot of people into doing just that. I have evidence of a tally room which discovered after two hours of polling that people were voting for the first four candidates—the Communist, the true blue Tory Unionist, the SDLP and then the Labour candidate, so there was no possible question of everyone understanding the system. But that fact is not shown up in the spoiled votes. It did not work out as well as some would have us believe.

It may be too late for the Government to change their mind on the Bill, but I hope that they will find some way of reviewing this matter, and that in the light of experience and changes which will undoubtedly come once my hon. Friends the Members for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) get their Assembly working and modified, which is even more important, we shall then see a much more realistic approach to the system.

Mr. English

On the occasion of the Northern Ireland Assembly Bill I pointed out my objections to the proposed system of election. I explained them in the context of the fact that, after all, this was not a new proportional system of election but was invented between the 1832 and 1867 Reform Acts in this country by people who were frightened by the prospect of democracy when our electorate increased by a massive 2 per cent. In the Republic on the last occasion when there was an election the previous Government's percentage of the votes went up so that they lost; the present Government's percentage of the votes went down compared with the previous election and they won.

I think that in the election some of my forecasts have proved true. I am sure that the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) will be fascinated to learn, for example, that the SDLP has a higher percentage of the seats than its votes entitled it to have. I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman will think when he learns that his party has a higher percentage of seats than Vanguard although each of them received exactly the same percentage of votes. He may come at that point to consider that the system has its merits, even if he will not say so in public.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Will the hon. Gentleman remember that the Democratic Unionist Party fielded 17 candidates and that Vanguard fielded 27 when he makes his remarks?

Mr. English

It should not influence the result of the electors' decision that their representation depends on whether a party alters the number of candidates. That is one of the things which are wrong with the STV system. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, but it has nothing to do with the question of whether the electors' wishes are carried out by their representation in the Assembly.

It is possible to alter the representation in the Assembly according to the number of candidates who are put up under the STV system. That is not possible under the proportional representation system. I know that many hon. Members opposite would like to see the old and simple British system which, as I said on the last occasion when we discussed these matters, I approve of for the United Kingdom as a whole. I know that some hon. Members would like to see that system restored.

Apart from the fact that the STV system is not a proportional representation system and that it deliberately reduces, as does the British system. the percentage of seats compared to votes of the smaller parties—for example, the Republican Clubs, which we hear are associated with the official IRA, could currently say that in a proper proportional representation system they would be entitled to at least one representative and that in fact they have not one—is even more important and of great concern.

I warned the Secretary of State that it seems that the clause goes back on an assurance which he made on 17th April. I think that the matter is important enough for me to quote the whole of the relevant paragraph. The right hon. Gentleman was replying to my amendment which suggested a list system—that is a proportional representation system—instead of the STV system. The right hon. Gentleman said: We had someone in my Office working on the list system. A great deal of work was carried out in considering the list system on the one hand and the STV system on the other. I must admit that at one time I was convinced that the list system was the better of the two. The Secretary of State was saying that he was convinced. He continued: After careful consideration of both systems and listening to the argument one way and the other—they are narrowly balanced—I came to the conclusion, with my colleagues, that it was right to go for STV, which was the system favoured by those who had spoken to me. I consider that the right hon. Gentleman's next words represent the important point. He said: Therefore, I can give the assurance that the work has been done and that there is no reason for not changing if at a suitable time it is thought right that such a change should be made."—[OFFICIAL REPORT 16th April 1973; Vol. 855, c. 164.] The word "assurance" is the Secretary of State's word. At that time he could give that assurance because the Northern Ireland Assembly Bill related to one election. It is only if Clause 29(a) is passed that that assurance will be broken.

Knowing the right hon. Gentleman, I am quite sure that he was entirely honest in giving that assurance. I think that this provision has possibly crept in, even perhaps without his knowledge, but certainly without adequate thought. If it is allowed to go through, it will undoubtedly break his specific assurance. I know that one can always say "I only meant that one could change an Act of Parliament", but that was not the case at the time of the assurance. Without attempting to redraft it on my feet, I suggest that the provision relating to future elections should say, in effect, "There could be another system of election with the approval of the Secretary of State and this House."

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I take it that the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) is reading from a paper he proposes to quote in a speech I may call him to make.

Rev. Ian Paisley

It is the results of the elections that I intend to quote, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Hon. Members are reading photostat copies. Coming from Ireland, I have a proper copy.

Mr. English

I do not know about copies coming from Ireland, but I managed to persuade the Library to produce enough copies for my colleagues and myself. I may point out that in North Antrim the system was demonstrated by the fact that on the fifteenth count Mr. Craig—the other one—was elected without reaching the quota, which makes an interesting possibility under the single transferable vote.

I suggest that if Clause 29 is passed as it is, it is a direct reversal of what the Secretary of State said quite clearly at the time of the Northern Ireland Assembly Bill. I do not now wish to suggest any particular system for Northern Ireland. I have no doubt that people in Northern Ireland may wish to discuss it, particularly in the light possibly of the election results. I believe that it would be desirable, as the Secretary of State at one time apparently thought desirable, to introduce a real system of proportional representation into Northern Ireland, but other hon. Members may have different views. But I am certain that we should not rigidly impose this archaic system, which is used nowhere except in Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned people elected without reaching the quota. In North Down four candidates were elected without reaching the quota—Brownlow, Campbell, Dunleath—a noble lord—and McConnell.

Mr. English

There are only a few people in Northern Ireland, and the hon. Member for Antrim, North and the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) are amongst the few, who can claim to have been elected on the first vote. But I accept that this is yet another example of the peculiarities of the system. I think I can legitimately say that I anticipated these peculiarities. What I am saying now is that we should not rigidly pin this very unusual system of voting, which is used only in one sovereign State, the Republic of Ireland, on Northern Ireland. We should not pin this system, which is not a proportional representation system, on Northern Ireland by Clause 29. If we do, it will be contrary to the Secretary of State's assurance. Any change in the system, if we do impose it, should, I suggest, have to be approved by this House and the Secretary of State. Perhaps some hon. Members would wish it to be approved by the Assembly as well.

I am not normally one to give greater powers to Ministers but in order to carry out his assurance the Secretary of State should change the Bill in another place, specifying that an order to change the system can be put down for approval by this House. The assurance was given, and we passed the Northern Ireland Assembly Bill in the light of the assurance on the basis that it applied only to one election and could be changed in future. Now, an archaic system invented in an undemocratic age has been pinned on to Northern Ireland for ever, and that, in my view, is wrong.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Maginnis

The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) said that this is an archaic system. I do not know whether he had the privilege of attending the recent Assembly elections, but I wondered what sort of election was taking place. The bookmakers' men appeared to be outside the polling stations taking the odds or trying to get people to back various candidates.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), who has the election results in front of him, will discover that the first preference results in County Armagh exactly predicted the end result. After a day and night of counting, the result was exactly the same as was brought out in the first preference voting. After all that work and expense we arrived at the same result.

To hold this first election we had to have proportional representation, because we had no single constituencies. In any future election there should be single constituencies for representation on the Assembly. The people of Northern Ireland desire above all to have a member representing a single constituency to whom they can go in time of need. In Armagh there are seven seats, one in the extreme south, one in the extreme north and the others in the centre. How my constituents will work out where to go for advice is beyond me. They will probably end up by coming to me and leaving the other boys alone.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, West is right in saying that the system is archaic. On two occasions the system has been the subject of a plebiscite in Southern Ireland. The then Prime Minister wished to get rid of the system but failed to do so. Inherent in the Irish make-up is a love of voting. The more times the Irish can vote the happier they are. The system is designed to produce a weak Government. The latest Assembly elections have thrown up three major parties, none of which has gained any advantage. How can we make political or legislative progress if we cannot throw up a Government with a majority?

Mr. English

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that the inventor of this system—the father of Rowland Hill, who invented the penny post—specifically designed it to increase the influence of individual personalities against parties. I am not sure whether increasing the influence of individual personalities in Northern Ireland is necessarily the solution to its problems.

Mr. Maginnis

The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) is absolutely right. As I observed in the Assembly election, there were more personalities than there were parties. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) said that proportional representation threw up some odd cases. It is time that people were not interested in voting for a party; they voted for a personality in a party and then proceeded to scatter their votes to the four winds, with the result that there some very funny turn-ups. The Government must realise that before any further elections in Northern Ireland are held they have to get down to the task of working out the single-member constituencies and seeing that all these things are put into operation before another election is held.

Let us consider the situation that will exist when the next Westminster election takes place. The local council elections were conducted by STV, and the Assembly elections were under the same system, but when the next Westminster election comes along electors will have to switch to the straight voting system. We are throwing confusion upon confusion. Let us not imagine that all the people who vote at polling stations in Northern Ireland are university graduates, because they are not. I believe that by causing confusion we shall bring about surprise results in the Westminster election. What will happen is anybody's guess. Therefore, I ask the Minister to try to meet us on this point and give an assurance that he will ask the Secretary of State to do something about this provision. If he cannot change the situation here tonight, I hope that he will do something to put the matter right in another place.

Mr. Stratton Mills

The debate has ranged from the Irish love of voting to Rowland Hill. It must be said that the political spectrum in Northern Ireland has been fairly well mirrored in the new Assembly. It cannot be denied that it is a fairly accurate mirror of current divergencies of view. It is also obvious that well-known individuals are at a fairly substantial advantage.

Mr. Kilfedder

What about the leader of the Alliance Party—a party to which the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills) belongs—Mr. O'Neill, a well known political figure in Northern Ireland over many years, a former Minister, and all the rest of it? He did not get many votes.

Mr. Mills

He obviously is not as well known as is the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) as far as the voting tally is concerned. I thought that I was paying the hon. Gentleman a compliment, but he seems not to have taken it in that sense.

I wish to make a point about ballot papers. The present system has produced curious freaks. The names of candidates are set out on ballot papers in alphabetical order: Adams, Butler, Cassidy, Donald, and down the list in that way. This has produced some curious results. It was shown by a fairly instant university survey taken during the local government elections that a person whose name is Adams and who finds himself at the top of the list has a substantial advantage over other members of his party who happen to come further down the list. I shall be interested to know whether the Government have any views on this peculiar situation and will give us their comment.

I was interested to know that in the constituency of Antrim, North, William Craig, the leader of Vanguard, to ensure that he was slightly above his colleague, James Craig. put his name on the ballot paper as "Bill Craig". Therefore, he appeared earlier on the ballot paper than did James Craig, which had certain tactical advantages.

Rev. Ian Paisley

In all fairness to Mr. William Craig it should be pointed out that he does sign himself as "Bill Craig". We should be absolutely fair and make that point.

Mr. Mills

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out. That is not the connotation which I have seen expressed on the matter. If the hon. Gentleman assures us on the point then I gladly note it.

The point I am making still stands—that the alphabetical system seems to have some advantage. I would like to ask the Government whether, for any future occasion, there might be a better way of doing it, perhaps by drawing the names out of a hat.

Mr. English

I have heard of this point about the names being in alphabetical order but I do not know whether anyone can explain to me the situation in Belfast, West. On the first count a Unionist and a member of the SDLP were elected. If one looks at the distribution of the Unionist's surplus votes one sees that the Communist got rather more from the Unionist than he did from the SDLP. but the Communist's name was Stewart.

Mr. Mills

I am introducing a topic which has endless ramifications and so I had better end my remarks by asking again whether the Government are giving any thought to the question whether in the future it will be better to draw the names from a hat as to the running order, rather than use an alphabetical basis.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

I intervene briefly to make a number of points. The first arises particularly from what was said earlier in the heat and fury of the main debate, that the Northern Ireland Labour Party requested this system of election, that we pressed for it and that this is something for which that party should be grateful, in that it has at least one member in the Assembly——

Captain Orr

It did not do the Northern Ireland Labour Party much good.

Mr. McNamara

The hon. and gallant Gentleman said that it did not do it much good. Had there been a system of a single constituency it may not have had even one member to put its views. This is important, but it is also important to see that the Alliance Party has the number of representatives that it has, none of whom were elected by having a quota on the first count. We are seeking to find an Assembly that would represent a broad spectrum of politics in Northern Ireland rather than two huge power blocs.

Captain Orr

As a matter of record, did the Northern Ireland Labour Party recommend the STV system as once for all, or for perpetuity?

Mr. McNamara

I am not clear on that point, but they recommended the STV system. The Northern Ireland Labour Party at first represented to us that that was the system it wanted. Looking in terms of what the Government have proposed in this clause, whilst we are not wedded to any particular form of representation, be it STV, a list system, or anything else, it would nevertheless appear to be very strange if we were to start at such an early stage tinkering about with the particular form of proportional representation or single transferable vote which we are using at the moment.

We have a system that seems to be working. It has given us a broad spectrum and enabled us not only to have moderate opinions represented but different voices and attitudes in Northern Ireland politics. We welcome this. We would have liked far more representatives of the Northern Ireland Labour Party to be elected. But that was the electors' choice and not ours, and under the single transferable vote system, regrettably, the party won only one seat. We hope it will do better at the next election.

9.15 p.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I must agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills) that the outcome of the election, whatever the voting system, reflects pretty accurately how the people of Northern Ireland feel at present.

Many of us opposed proportional representation, for different reasons. In a speech in this House I said that it would not be a panacea for the evils of Northern Ireland and that, no matter what system of elections we had, the will of the majority of the people would be reflected at the end of the day.

I was under the impression that the Northern Ireland Labour Party wanted not STV but the list system, which is nearer to proportional representation, as I understand it. Certainly in its representations to my party when the Bill was going through this House, the Northern Ireland Labour Party made it clear that it felt that the list system was a system which actually was proportional representation and that the STV system was not really proportional representation.

In any event, the people of Northern Ireland have spoken. I am sure that we are all amazed at the interesting transfer of votes, with members of the Alliance Party gaining Democratic Unionist Party votes and even Communist votes, and the SDLP finding some votes from the DUP going to it. I do not know whether many of its votes came to my party. But certainly it is a most interesting study. What is more, I think that in almost every constituency there were those who did not reach the necessary quota. They were elected because at the end of the count they had the largest number of votes.

My view about the system is that it is definitely difficult for people going to the polls. Every party in the election was very eager to ensure that people going to polling stations had cards instructing them how the party wanted them to vote. In a place like North Antrim, where there were 18 candidates, it would have been very easy for the people to be confused. I saw a great many cards issued in the election. I stood outside one polling station where there must have been people handing out six different cards. The litter laws were broken, because a person who did not want a particular card simply threw it at his feet and stamped on it, having already made up his mind.

The people of Northern Ireland are to be congratulated on the way that they adapted themselves to the PR system. In my constituency where 72,000 people voted there were only 1,000 spoiled papers, and it was clear from many of those that people had made genuine attempts to vote for their parties but, instead of putting down 1, 2, 3 and so on, had used the old X system. Of course, in Toome, where there is a strong Republic element, there were a lot of destroyed papers. Even so, 1,000 spoiled papers out of 72,000 in a new voting system is not too bad.

The one feature of the system which I dislike is the fact that no Member has a specific geographic territory to call his own. That I feel is its great weakness. As a public representative, I find that I meet people of all shades of opinion and of all religions simply because I happen to be the Member for a specific geographical area, whereas now in North Antrim, with a spread across the board, people will be inclined to go to the representative of their party or of their religion. That is the weakness of the system.

The other thing is that one would need to have the patience of Job to continue through the count. The count in North Antrim started at 8.30 a.m. and finished at 8.30 a.m. the following day. The hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) and myself were elected not long after the first count started. But for those who were waiting and yearning to see the transfer of votes it was certainly an endurance test. That was so not only for the candidates but for the returning officer and his staff.

The House should be grateful to the returning officer and his staff for the way that they carried out the counts. They carried out my count with great ability. They were prepared to answer candidates' questions so that they could understand what was happening.

The weakness of the system, however, is that it removes the benefit of one particular person representing a geographical area. In all elections, the person whose name tops the ballot paper gets a certain number of votes. Even in the system operated by this House, if one is well up, the first, or even the last, one gets a few hundred votes. Ultimately, however, I do not think it alters the position.

I am opposed to the system because it destroys the link between the person and a particular geographical area. It is mostly for those reasons that I object to the system.

Mr. McMaster

I echo what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) in congratulating the people of Northern Ireland on the way that they coped with the system of proportional representation. My constituency has an electorate of about 80,000. On polling day the electors were faced with a list of 23 names. It looked more like a betting card for the Grand National than a polling form.

If we have to have proportional representation, at least we should have much smaller constituencies, as my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) said. Very large constituencies, such as mine in East Belfast, mean that each of, for example, 23 candidates is obliged to project himself in a quarter of Belfast to an electorate of about 80,000. It is an enormous job. It is impossible for the electorate, if they are to vote conscientiously, to carry in their minds, the differences between 23 people. It is impossible also for those 23 people, within the limits of publicity, time and expense, to conduct a proper campaign.

Therefore, if we are to have PR we should have not only smaller areas but also shorter lists, if possible, and people should be obliged to vote in order of preference for the entire list. I am not as expert on this matter as is the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). If people are able to plump for three or four candidates from their own party, that destroys the effect of PR.

The results of the election bear out that proposition and very much reflect the feelings in Northern Ireland. But the results did not benefit the people from small minority parties. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, said that the Labour Party has only one representative in Northern Ireland, and that only by the skin of his teeth. A well-known Labour Member—I much regretted the attack made upon him by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt)—deserved to come in much higher up.

Mr. Fitt

I made it quite clear that my remarks were directed towards the Labour Party and not against the individual. Mr. Vivian Simpson. I also regretted that he lost the election, but I said nothing at all about that.

Mr. McMaster

I understand why the hon. Member was not attacking Mr. Simpson, as many of the hon. Member's votes, particularly in the Ardoyne area, were drawn from Mr. Simpson's supporters.

Therefore, I should prefer the ordinary system that applies in the United Kingdom, the single-Member constituency. It maintains a much better relationship between constituents and Members. The constituents know, even if the Member belongs to the Opposition party, to whom they can go with a problem. In the case of this election, in my constituency people will have a great problem in knowing to whom to go with particular difficulties.

Secondly, if we are to have proportional representation we should have smaller constituencies, so that a good relationship is preserved; so that candidates can get around more easily and project themselves in that limited area, so that election expenses are kept within reasonable limits, and so that people who are voting have an appropriate opportunity to exercise their vote intelligently over as a large part of the list as is possible, instead of what happened in the election. I saw it for myself.

People went in with their minds already made up and voted for their own party's candidates.

The net result in Northern Ireland as a whole is arguably much the same as if there had been single-Member constituencies. This defeats the whole object of the exercise. I regret to say that, with the benefit of hindsight, I do not think this experiment, which was very expensive, has been particularly successful. I ask my hon. Friend to deal with this and to reassure the House, and those in Northern Ireland who are concerned, that the system is not immutable, that it will be considered again, and that improvements may be made.

Mr. Kilfedder

Under the local government legislation which we passed, proportional representation was a once-only venture, as far as I am aware. The Government ought to allow this amendment and leave open the question of how the next election will be held for the Assembly.

It is a matter of some regret that the members of the Assembly cannot be allowed to decide the type of system under which the next election would be conducted. They are not allowed to decide whether there should be a referendum or a border poll. Surely they could be entrusted with a decision in respect of their system of election. I find it strange that the Government can advocate PR for Northern Ireland, yet it is a system which in their opinion is not good enough for Great Britain. If it is good enough for Northern Ireland I should have thought that the Government would be able to assure the House that they will endeavour to see that it is introduced in the remainder of the United Kingdom.

I wish to pay tribute to the returning officer for North Down. I do not know about other constituencies but I saw how Mr. Worseley and his staff worked. I am waiting for the staff to write to me asking for extra pay for their arduous work! I do not know how many hon. Members watched the count in Northern Ireland, but it was clear that the staff had a difficult task and I do not think that they were paid sufficiently for the work. Certainly they should be given full credit for the efficient way in which they carried out the count.

9.30 p.m.

One of my objections to the system of proportional representation is the way in which, according to STV, people are inclined to vote in alphabetical order, certainly for particular political parties. If one's name begins with A or B, one is far more advantaged. In my constituency, Mr. Brooke got more votes than the remaining Unionist candidates whose names began with letters further down the alphabet.

Many electors were confused. I must rely only on my own experience, but in my constituency, some electors were deliberately confused. One Unionist candidate told people that if I received too many first preference votes—he was trying to get them to vote No. 1 for him—they would put in the only Republican candidate. This was manifestly untrue, since, unless they gave their second preference votes to the Republican, he would not have benefited from my surplus. But because of the complicated system, many people believed this claim. They came to me with their concern about this matter. I was able to put it right, but it is because the system is so strange and complicated that it is possible to deceive people in this way.

Fortunately, it did not deceive many people. I was elected in North Down on the first count. The second candidate was successful on the second count, but the third candidate was not successful until the twelfth count. That took some time, and he had to wait until the following day to discover whether he would get in. The remaining four seats were filled without those candidates reaching the quota at all. The two Alliance candidates who were successful depended for their success on the transfer of votes from the Republican candidate. It is a bizarre situation in which one party can benefit from or depend indirectly for its success upon the support of another party as diametrically opposed as the SDLP ought to be to the Alliance Party——

Mr. Fitt indicated assent.

Mr. Kilfedder

I see that the hon. Member agrees with me.

Throughout Northern Ireland the majority of the candidates were elected without reaching their quotas. This means that the votes of those of us who got quite a number of votes on the first preference count mean no more than the votes of those who scraped home without even reaching the quota. Is that democratic? I should have thought not. Therefore, I cannot accept this sort of electoral system for Northern Ireland.

There are seven seats in my constituency. The electors will lose the close identity that they had with their Stormont Members. However, I shall continue to represent all the people in my constituency, irrespective of which part of the constituency they may live in. I never turn anyone away, but I share the opinion and the criticism expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) that the system means that some electors will go to those representatives who belong to the same political parties or the same creed as themselves. Constituents should go to their Member as such, and this system will contribute to further polarisation in the community. In that respect, it is bad.

I have expressed my opinion about STV. I find it unacceptable, and I hope that the Government will have second thoughts.

Captain Orr

We have had a fascinating debate upon the workings of the single transferable vote system and I will not labour the point further. I ask my hon. Friend whether he can show some degree of flexibility. The Government have pleaded for a flexible approach, yet it seems that on their part there is a degree of inflexibility which I had not expected. This was a point which we missed in Committee. I understood it in the same way as the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English); namely, that this would be something which would be left open for future discussion.

We are not talking simply about an Assembly election which might take place in the next six months; we are enacting legislation which will last for the foreseeable future. As I understand it, we are saying that all subsequent Assembly elections must be held under this system. I had thought that perhaps in Section 2 of the Assembly Act there was a power for the Secretary of State to make statutory instruments altering the system. I am not a lawyer and I may be wrong, but I do not now read it in that sense.

I believe that the Bill requires an amendment along these lines if we are not to tie the hands of the Government for the foreseeable future. If my hon. Friend can tell us that between now and the passage of the Bill in another place the Government will look at this and see whethere there can be some flexibility I would be happy to let the matter go now.

Mr. David Howell

We have had a number of useful comments during the debate on practical experience in working the single transferable vote system. The effect of this amendment would be to ensure that Section 2(3) did not apply to future Assembly elections; in other words, that the single transferable vote system was no longer used.

Captain On

With respect, does it not mean that the STV system need no longer be used?

Mr. Howell

Yes, that follows. It means that there would be no provision for any system. If we were to go back to the simple majority vote system, of which a number of hon. Members have spoken with nostalgia, it would be necessary not only to delete STV from Clause 29 but to specify some other voting system in its place and to amend the Northern Ireland Assembly Act. We would have to redraw the constituency boundaries to create 78 single-Member constituencies.

Mr. Molyneaux

This was not the intention of my hon. Friends and myself. The intention was simply to leave this option open. It seems that there is provision in this Bill and the Northern Ireland Assembly Act for the Secretary of State to take wide powers to make varying arrangements for holding elections in Northern Ireland, including, in the words of the Assembly Act, provision for "the method of voting" to be employed. All we are asking is that this discretion should be preserved.

Mr. Howell

This is not quite the position. That was the position under the Northern Ireland Assembly Act which provided for only one election, that held on 28th June by virtue of the Northern Ireland Assembly Polling Day Order 1973. But in this Bill subsection (1) provides that certain sections of the Northern Ireland Assembly Act would continue in force. Here we are dealing with Section 2(1), which provides for a single transferable vote system of proportional representation. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) questioned the use of the term. This gives effect to the decision that the single transferable vote system should be the system used in elections to the Assembly, but if it were decided that the overall system should be replaced it would not be possible to make a change by subordinate instrument. In other words, legislation would be necessary.

It is quite true that under Clause 2(5) of the Bill the Secretary of State can by order make all kinds of provisions for the conduct of the poll but I am afraid they do not include the overall system, and if my hon. Friend had that impression it was wrong. Any order that my right hon. Friend makes can provide for an election timetable, form of declaration to be made by candidates, content of nomination papers, taking of the poll, getting the votes in and counted, the procedure on the death of a candidate, procedure for election petitions and the constitution of electoral courts. This would cover the kind of points made by my hon. Friend the Member _for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills) about the way nomination papers were made out, and so on. So an order could also indicate disqualifications to be imposed for corrupt and illegal practices in the election. But as far as the actual system is concerned, if one were contemplating going back to the system of single majority, legislation would be needed and this could be done.

Let no one assume that what is being said, that this means a single transferable vote system in perpetuity, is correct. All we had so far are two elections, the local elections and the Assembly elections. Obviously, it is very early days to comment in depth and draw on any deep and profound analyses of the results of the 28th June elections; but some general conclusions have been drawn by hon. Members in this debate. It was said, for example, that there was a very high poll, and that, although the hon. Member for Nottingham, West, said, or I believe I heard him murmur, that it must have given a less accurate mirror reflection than the Pearce system for proportional representation, the system he favours, it can be said that it gave a more accurate representation and a better reflection than the single-member system. That seems to be the case at a first glance at the figures and results.

A number of hon. Members have talked of confusions and difficulties. We have been round this issue in the past in this House. Personally I did not, after the local elections, share the rather gloomy view that the complexities would confound the people of Northern Ireland, and I do not share it now after the Assembly elections. The voters of Northern Ireland may not all be graduates—to use the phrase of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr)—but they are not fools, either; and the very high poll and the small proportion of spoiled papers, despite the systematic campaign of pressure to do so, demonstrates that this is a system that has not been found overall confusing, and that the precept of putting candidates in the order in which one likes them has been one which the people of Ulster have been ready to master and have mastered in very large numbers.

Coming to the question of flexibility and the future, the White Paper said in paragraph 39 that: It has been decided that there shall be an Assembly of about 80 members, and that the system of election best suited to this occasion"— referring to the 28th June elections— is the single transferable vote (STV) method of proportional representation …". Obviously, the Government had to make a judgment on this matter and they have done so, and this is reflected in the Bill now before the House. All we are saying is that this power should be preserved, that on balance, drawing on such experience as we have, we believe that this form of STV, this form of PR, is the most equitable and effective method of ensuring that persons returned to serve in the Northern Ireland Assembly genuinely and individually represent the electorate.

9.45 p.m.

It is quite possible—although I must confess that at present, because these are rather early days, I should have thought it unlikely—that when the experiment of proportional representation has been fairly and fully tried it may be necessary to modify the system or change it altogether. What it would be wrong to do is to assume either that we can now scrap the whole STV system and leave ourselves without any legislative framework to ensure that there is a system of voting or that the Government are totally inflexible on the matter and deny that there may be any need for change. We do not deny that. There may well be such a need, but the need for change and the extent of that change can be judged only in the light of experience. It is premature to make any change now. It would be wrong—indeed, it would be foolhardy—for the Government to put themselves in a position where they had no legislation to provide for a system within which voting could take place and on the basis of which my right hon. Friend could make the necessary orders.

If there were to be a change, it would be a major change. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said, it would be to risk piling confusion on change, rushing into yet a further change for the people of Ulster before we have had time to judge what is before us. It would have to be planned very carefully, and obviously would take a good deal of time, possibly many months. The proposition that we should rush into a further change must be one that we should consider with great hesitation.

Mr. English

I do not think that anyone is disputing any of the points the Minister has so far made. The real question is whether the Government should pin themselves to being able to make any change only by another Bill. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to say that he would answer my point. Is he, as I think we all understood from the Secretary of State's remarks on the Northern Ireland Assembly Bill, going to make it possible to have a change—perhaps to a simpler PR system, because none could be more complicated than the present system—simply by an order with the approval of the House?

Mr. Howell

The Government's view is that to proceed on that basis would be wrong. We must have legislation on the statute book providing a system. My right hon. Friend has said that there is no reason for not changing if at a suitable time it is felt that a change should be made. But to go on from there and imply that any assurance was given that we could hop by order after order from one system to another was piling too much on the assurance given by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Maginnis

Surely the overwhelming majority in this country and in Northern Ireland favour the single vote which we use in normal elections in this country? Why on earth the Government should go to all the trouble to change the system is beyond me and everybody else.

Mr. Howell

My hon. Friend is opening up wider issues, which are hardly raised by the amendment, as to why the idea of proportional representation was introduced into Northern Ireland. We have had many debates on the matter, many of them turning on whether it is true to say that conditions in Northern Ireland are exactly the same as they are elsewhere in the United Kingdom, or whether, using the evidence of our eyes, we can say that conditions are different and that the requirements to make the political system work are different. It is the Government's view that they are different, and that is why PR in this form was introduced. That it has been introduced in the single transferable vote form is the fact before us; and the Government feel that it should be embodied in legislation. If my hon. Friends or hon. Gentlemen opposite ask whether that means no change ever, the answer is "Of course not". It would be absurd to use the word "never" in this context.

Mr. English

It is the nearest that one can come to it in English law. It is a breach of an assurance.

Mr. Howell

If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a further intervention, let him stand up and make it. I am saying that the matter is in the Bill. The Government are not inflexible.

Mr. English rose——

Mr. Howell

The hon. Gentleman wants to say it again.

Mr. English

At the time that that assurance was given a Bill was before us which created a system for one election. The Secretary of State then used the phrase, which both the hon. Gentleman and I have quoted, that it would be possible to change it if, at an appropriate time, such a change was desirable. This imposes the maximum rigidity that English law can impose, and it seems to me that that was not the implication of that assurance.

Mr. Howell

The hon. Gentleman takes one view, and I must take another. I believe it to be right that my right hon. Friend said what he did, that there was no reason for not changing at a suitable time if it was felt that a change should be made. The Government had to come to a judgment on the matter, having brought forward the Northern Ireland Assembly Bill. The judgment had to be that it would be a dereliction of duty for a system to be given statutory force for the future. If, as a result of looking back on these two elections, it is found that there are disadvantages which outweigh the benefits, it will be possible to make changes. That is the fact of the matter, and I cannot see that there has been any dire deviation from the commitments made by my right hon. Friend and by my hon. Friends about the way in which elections should be conducted.

I know that the hon. Gentleman does not agree, and that he is a considerable expert in this matter, particularly in the complexities of PR, and he feels that STV is not the purest form, but he must face——

Mr. McMaster

My hon. Friend said that conditions are different in Northern Ireland. Am I right in paraphrasing him and saying that his view is that the most desirable system is that which we have in this country, namely, single-member constituencies, but because of the peculiar conditions in Northern Ireland we must have something that is slightly less desirable; in other words, that we have to make some concession to the pressures prevailing in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Howell

My hon. Friend will not be surprised if I say that he is wrong in paraphrasing in that way what I said. I think that he knows that very well.

I come back to the main point made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, and it must be right. It would be wrong to rush into law further changes and tinker with a system that has been tried twice and produced remarkably high polls, and for which there have been certain benefits that will not have escaped the notice of hon. Members.

I do not believe that there has been overwhelming confusion. We may have a certain amount to learn in the details, and there is flexibility in the way in which my right hon. Friend can make future orders for the conduct of the poll, but, by and large, it would be wrong at this stage to start talking of changing the whole statutory framework within which future elections for the Assembly in Northern Ireland should be conducted. I believe that it would be wrong for my hon. and gallant Friend to press the amendment, and I must ask him to withdraw it.

Captain Orr

One could, of course, take what the hon. Gentleman said——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Is the hon. and gallant Member going to make another speech? If so, he needs the leave of the House.

Captain Orr

By leave of the House, may I just explain what I propose should be done about the amendment? I could, as I was saying, argue with the hon. Gentleman about his reasons. All I would say is that we regret that he cannot meet the spirit of the amendment. However, since the amendment, as he said, would leave us with no system written in at all I could not advise my hon. Friends to vote for it. On the other hand, to mark the fact that I am not satisfied with the hon. Gentleman's failure to meet the spirit of it I feel that it cannot be withdrawn.

Amendment negatived.

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