HC Deb 27 February 1985 vol 74 cc389-411

  1. '(1) Schedule [Special polling stations in Northern Ireland] to this Act makes provision for those—
    1. (a) whose circumstances on the date of the poll at a particular parliamentary election in Northern Ireland will be or are likely to be such that they cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person as electors at the polling stations allotted or likely to be allotted to them under the parliamentary elections rules, but
    2. (b) who on that date will be in Northern Ireland.
  2. (2) The Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument bring that Schedule into force if he is satisfied that it is necessary to do so in order to prevent serious abuse of the system of voting by post in the case of ballot papers for elections in Northern Ireland sent to addresses there in pursuance of applications granted under section 7(1) of this Act.
  3. (3) That Schedule shall cease to be in force if the Secretary of State so provides by order made by statutory instrument (without prejudice to his power to make a further order under subsection (2) above), and an order under this subsection may include such transitional provisions as the Secretary of State considers necessary or expedient.
  4. (4) No order under this section shall be made unless a draft of the order has been laid before and approved by each House of Parliament.
  5. (5) While that Schedule is in force, section 7(5) of this Act shall have effect as if it required a person applying under section 7(1) of this Act to vote by post at a particular parliamentary election in Northern Ireland to provide an address in Great Britain as the address to which his ballot paper is to be sent.'—[Mr. Mellor.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following: Amendment (a), in subsection (2) after 'instrument', insert 'not later than three years after the commencement of this Act.'. Government amendments Nos. 16 to 44, 54 to 59, 61 to 63 and 66 to 71.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I raise with you a matter that has not been covered in the selection that is being debated tonight? I refer particularly to a debate on an amendment on the multiple registrations of electors that was withdrawn in Committee on the basis that we should return to it on Report. That point has been covered by a number of new clauses, notably new clause 1 which stands in the name of the Opposition. That matter has caused concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House. There was a defect in the amendment that was tabled in Committee and that was why we sought to withdraw it and to return to it on Report. Now that we do not have that opportunity we are in difficulty.

Mr. Speaker

The mere fact that a new clause has been withdrawn in Committee on the Floor of the House does not entitle it automatically to be selected on Report. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the general principle is that if there has been a debate on an identical new clause, it is highly unlikely to be selected again.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the course of consideration of the new clause and amendments that we are about to discuss I hope that you will consider the point raised by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley). No one assumed that that subject would automatically be selected for debate, but there was a general feeling that an opportunity should be given for the issue to be brought back, particularly as there was agreement on both sides of the House that the Government should look again at the matter. The unusual feature of the debate was that there were representations from the Opposition Front Bench, from this Bench, from the hon. Member for Caernarfon and from Government Back Benchers because of dissatisfaction that the Government had failed to move on that point. The desire to return to it on Report was far more widely shared than on any other issue that has come up under the Bill.

Mr. Speaker

I have considered the matter carefully. A virtually identical amendment was debated for about an hour in Committee. The Government gave no guarantees, and I do not think that I can change the selection.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I make two submissions in relation to this group? I have no doubt that you would accept that amendment (a), standing in the name of my hon. Friends and myself, raises a major matter of principle and that in due course we would wish that to be put to the House separately so that we, and possibly other hon. Members, can go on record in support of it.

The second submission is by way of a complaint that amendments have been grouped together which by no stretch of the imagination relate to the same subject. May I give as examples amendments Nos. 18, 21 and 25? Some of them may be drafting amendments, but on the most generous construction they cannot be regarded as hanging together with the subject matter of new clause 6. I make this submission because it is obviously in the interests of the House that vigilance should be exercised in ensuring that amendments relating to different matters are not grouped together so as to deprive the House of the opportunity of considering them separately.

Mr. Speaker

I give the right hon. Member a guarantee that there will be a separate Division on amendment (a) if he so wishes.

The right hon. Member knows that on the grouping of the Government amendments I am guided by the Government. As he has raised the matter, I shall look at it again to see whether there is any way in which I can possibly help him.

Mr. Mellor

Whether special rules should apply to Northern Ireland has been a matter of intense discussion during the course of deliberations on the Bill. In Committee it was determined that changes would be made that left the provisions on the face of the Bill common to Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. But it was made clear that it was the Government's wish to make proposals that allowed a change to be made if evidence arose subsequently that gave rise to the suspicion that malpractice on a large scale was likely, which was the reason for the difference in the first place.

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All the matters contained in that grouping go to the issue of those arrangements and the bringing in of new machinery. The amendment by which, very properly, the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) sets great store lays down a time limit on that. I believe that it would be wholly artificial to consider a time limit on proposals separately from the proposals themselves. In previous discussions, the proposals have always been regarded as a package because they replace matters which previously we agreed to remove from the face of the Bill.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is not often that the Minister fails to take a point. It is probably my fault if he has failed to do so in this case.

I was not complaining that amendment (a) should be debated in the context of new clause 6. I do not think that it could otherwise have been debated properly. I am inviting the Minister to give his attention to the fact that a number of amendments, not all of a drafting character, which are grouped together in the block comprising amendments Nos. 16 to 24 will be found on examination not to be consequential upon or coherent with the major proposal enshrined in the new clause and our proposed amendment to it.

In view of what you said, Mr. Speaker, I hope that it will be sufficient and avoid taking up more of the time of the House if the Minister ensures that the greatest severity is used in future in distinguishing amendments which go to different subjects.

Mr. Mellor

I take the right hon. Gentleman's point. In our consideration, what weighed heavily with us was that these arrangements emerged as a result of a growing consensus, and it had not been anticipated that any difficulties would be encountered. Perhaps we took a more generous view of the grouping than might otherwise have been the case.

If the right hon. Gentleman will accept this grouping on this occasion, I shall have regard to what he has said on future occasions.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

On a further point of order, Mr. Speaker. It has to do with the Report stages of Bills in general.

I have noticed in recent years — and it goes back before your time—that amendments selected for Report seem to cover large areas that have already been discussed fully in Committee. Going back several years, it used to be the accepted rule that if an amendment had been reasonably discussed in Committee, it was not allowed to be rediscussed—except very exceptionally—on Report.

It is the change in this form of selection so that we are now getting debates in Committee repeated on Report that is increasing the number of amendments selected and, therefore, the time that the House is given to discuss Bills on Report.

We are not discussing new matters. We are regurgitating what has been discussed already. I should appreciate it, Mr. Speaker, if you would look at that in future. It is a matter for you, and I am only suggesting a point of view that I have and that other hon. Members may have. We are extending Report stages too widely.

Mr. Beith

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hope that in considering that matter you will not only assess carefully whether the description given is a true one of the trend over the years—I suggest that it is not—but that you will also bear in mind, especially in respect of Bills which are not considered in Committee on the Floor of the House, that the position must be safeguarded of hon. Members who have matters to raise which they were not able to raise because they were not members of the Committee.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding (Sir K. Lewis) is very experienced in these matters and should have no criticism tonight that amendments have been too generously selected by me. That is just the point made by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), because in his view I have not been generous enough. Hon. Members w ill see from my provisional selection that all the amendments except three, and amendment (a), are Government amendments.

Mr. Mellor

This large group of amendments makes a number of inter-related changes to the absent voting provisions. It follows clear indications of the Government's view that I sought to give in Committee when, as hon. Gentlement representing Ulster constituencies know, the Government made many major concessions about any differences in the exercise of absent voting between Ulster and the rest of the United Kingdom. The Government went even to the point of restricting the entitlements of voters in Great Britain to have postal ballot papers sent out of the jurisdiction in order that common rules could apply. Such an entitlement would have been impossible in Northern Ireland because of the special position of ballot papers sent to the Republic of Ireland.

Effectively, we are able to say now that the absent voting arrangements for Northern Ireland are the same as those for Great Britain. That represents a major change from the Bill as it was introduced. I welcome it, Mr. Walker, because that was agreed to in the spirit of sensible discussion and compromise which rightly informs all our deliberations. It should inform a measure that changes the basic rules of elections which should, if possible, he the subject of the very minimum of partisan argument.

As I sought to make clear in Committee, there is a genuine fear on the part of my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office that electoral malpractice might arise on such a scale that the House could with hindsight have been considered imprudent to have made the changes in Committee that it did and that it would be appropriate to have a fallback position which could be introduced speedily, subject to proper consultations and the will of the House, in order that the threat of malpractice on a large scale might be acted upon readily.

It is that which underpins most of the changes of substance contained in this group of amendments, and I shall go through them in the hope that, having set the overall framework and reminded the House of the exchanges which led up to them, I can throw some light on the details. Mr. Walker—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would refer to me by my official title. We are not in Committee now. We are on Report.

Mr. Mellor

I had become aware of that as you rose, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

It is better than "Mr. President."

Mr. Mellor

It is better. I can think of all kinds of titles that would be inappropriate. However, if that is the worst mistake that I make this evening, I shall be well pleased with myself, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I deal first with postal ballot papers outside the United Kingdom, which are the subject of amendments Nos. 18, 20, 28 and 44. These amendments prevent postal voters, including postal proxies, from having their ballot papers sent outside the United Kingdom. In Committee, several right hon. and hon. Members voiced their concern about the provisions of the Bill which would have allowed postal ballot papers from Great Britain to be sent to addresses outside the United Kingdom. I undertook to raise the matter with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, and that I have done. It remains our view that all absent voters, whether inside or outside the United Kingdom, should have the choice of postal or proxy voting. But we bow to the general view of the Committee, and under these amendments an elector may vote by post only if the address to which he applies for the ballot paper to be sent is within the United Kingdom. Overseas electors and other absent voters who are outside the United Kingdom during the election period have to vote by proxy. I know that that change will be widely welcomed by members of all parties.

I turn to what has become the important issue of uniformity within the United Kingdom. This is covered by amendments Nos. 16, 19, 21 to 26, 29 to 43 and 67 to 71. Most of these amendments have a somewhat technical appearance, but their main purpose is to give Northern Ireland electors the same right to apply to vote by post or proxy at a particular election as electors in Great Britain, if they cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at their allotted polling station.

As I said in Committee, this change is subject to a reserve power, to which I shall turn in a moment. I suspect that it will be the most fully considered aspect of the amendments during the debate. We have also taken the opportunity to make some further improvements to the original Bill, which I hope to weave into the main thread to persuade the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) that the decision to group the amendments together was not as unfortunate as he initially thought it to be.

I shall now deal with postal proxies. We made some changes to the right of a proxy to vote by post. The Bill as introduced allowed proxies to vote by post for an indefinite period only if they were themselves entitled to an absent vote for an indefinite period, for example on the grounds of physical incapacity. In Great Britain, proxies could apply to vote by post at a particular election if they could not reasonably be expected to vote at their elector's allotted polling station, and in Northern Ireland if their address was in a different district ward from their elector's qualifying address. The amendments allow proxies throughout the United Kingdom to apply for a postal vote if they cannot reasonably be expected to vote at the polling station. That is the fulfilment of a commitment to the right hon. Gentleman. He asked for something less, but we have managed to find arrangements to make the rules the same in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the United Kingdom.

In addition, the amendments restore the right, which proxies have under existing law, to vote by post for an indefinite period if they live in an area different from the elector's qualifying address. Service voters and others sometimes have difficulty in appointing a proxy in their own constituency, and it is all the more important not to create unnecessary difficulties for proxies if service voters and overseas electors are not to vote from abroad by post. "The same area" has, in this context, the same meaning as it has at present, with the exception that in Greater London and the metropolitan counties parliamentary constituencies are to be used as the basis for determining whether the proxy's address is in the same area as the elector's address. That is because electoral divisions will cease to exist in Greater London and the metropolitan counties if the Local Government Bill is passed. In the metropolitan counties, parliamentary constituencies are bigger than electoral divisions, and in Greater London they are the same size.

I now turn to a further refinement. Some of the amendments clarify the right of an absent voter, including a proxy, who is on the permanent list to have a ballot paper sent to a different address for a particular election only. It may happen that a person who is entitled to be sent a postal ballot paper for an indefinite period is away from home at a particular election—for example, he may be on holiday. The amendments make it clear that he may apply for a ballot paper to be sent to a different address, or to vote by proxy at a particular election without prejudice to his right to be sent a ballot paper to his usual address at subsequent elections.

That may sound a small point, but it is part of our commitment in the Bill, not only to address the larger issues but to make improvements and refinements of detail, which will bring clarity and sense to some of the smaller areas of our electoral law. Amendments Nos. 17 and 27 are purely minor drafting amendments.

I now turn to the central matters of the debate, and first to applications in person. Amendment No. 66 is the first of the reserve powers, which I mentioned at the outset. The representation of the people regulations must be drawn up after the Bill has been passed to allow some of the measures on the statute to be given a proper light. The regulations will flesh out those provisions and make them workable.

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The amendment allows the representation of the people regulations to include provisions requiring electors, who apply to vote by post or proxy at a particular election because they cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at their allotted polling station, to apply in person with proof of identification. I gave notice in Committee of the Government's intention to move this amendment. Effectively, it is a quid pro quo for the major concessions that the Government made by removing from the Bill the absent voting restrictions on Northern Ireland. In the first instance, we do not propose to exercise the power in any part of the United Kingdom. The power is exercisable in many parts of the United Kingdom and is not a specific arrangement for Northern Ireland. That makes it marginally more palatable to right hon. and hon. Members from Ulster.

However, it has been suggested that clause 7 would make it easy for a person who was intent on fraud to submit an absent voting application in an elector's name and, in effect, to steal the elector's vote by having the ballot paper sent to a distant address where it could not be traced. The amendment confers a reserve power to require applications to be made in person with proof of identity, should vote stealing in clause 7 become a serious problem in any part of the United Kingdom.

New clause 6, amendments Nos. 54 to 59, 61, 62 and the new schedule, which is amendment No. 63, give the Secretary of State—in practice it will be the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but as in all statutes "Secretary of State" is undefined — the power to make an order entitling Northern Ireland electors who would otherwise vote by post under clause 7 to vote in person in special polling stations throughout Northern Ireland, if they are in Northern Ireland on polling day. Unlike the earlier amendment, this applies specifically to Northern Ireland. The power may be exercised only if the Secretary of State is satisfied that it is necessary to exercise it to prevent serious abuse of postal voting. The rules for the conduct of the poll at the special polling stations are set out in the new schedule. So long as the schedule is in operation, Northern Ireland electors may not apply to have a postal ballot paper sent to an address in Northern Ireland at a particular election. The right hon. Member for South Down has put down an amendment under which the power to introduce these amendments would lapse three years after the commencement—by which I assume he means the passage—of the Bill.

New clause 6 contains the power that enables the Secretary of State to bring the new arrangements into force. As I have indicated, the power may be exercised only by order subject to the affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament. It may also be exercised only if the Secretary of State is satisfied that it is necessary to do so to prevent serious abuse of postal voting in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State undertakes to consult the Northern Ireland parties before any order is laid before Parliament under this provision. Perhaps I could emphasise that it may be necessary to bring in the safeguards on the basis of an assessment of the likelihood of substantial abuse without waiting for a bad experience at an election. Subsection (3) enables the Secretary of State to make a further order restoring the full rights to vote by post given by clause 7 and, indeed, to make a subsequent order or orders to bring the schedule back into operation. However, it is not envisaged that these powers would he exercised at frequent intervals. Obviously, I hope that it will not be necessary to exercise them.

The order-making power does not affect the rights of those who apply to vote by post or proxy for an indefinite period under clause 6, for example on grounds of physical incapacity or the general nature of their occupation, service or employment. Nor — I stress this — does it affect the right of an elector to apply to vote by proxy at a particular election under clause 7, or to vote by post, if the address provided is an address in Great Britain. The only absent voters potentially affected by the implementation of the arrangements are those who have been brought into the absent voting arrangement by the new provisions. They are those who cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at their allotted polling stations, and who would otherwise apply to have a postal ballot paper sent to an address in Northern Ireland. The Government are thinking mainly of those who have moved house since the qualifying date or who are on holiday in another Northern Ireland constituency. Instead of voting by post, the schedule enables them to vote in person at a special polling station in the constituency where they will be on polling day.

The arrangements for the designation of special polling places, the conduct of the poll at special polling stations and the proceedings at the close of poll are set out in the new schedule. We have resisted the perhaps tempting possibility of leaving the detailed arrangements to regulations. Although the schedule is long, complex and technical, much of the content is familiar because the draftsman has applied, with modifications, the provisions for the conduct of the poll in the parliamentary elections rules in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 — the so-called "Ballot Act rules" which the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) sought to raise in a different context at an earlier stage. I hope that that, at least, commends itself to the right hon. Member for South Down in that we have not taken what might on the face of it seem the easier course of waiting for regulations, but have sought to put these matters on the face of the Bill, albeit in a schedule.

The new arrangements, if introduced, would be facilitated by the particular way in which elections are organised in Northern Ireland. In Great Britain, the conduct of parliamentary elections is the responsibility of an officer appointed by a local authority which is wholly or partly contained in the parliamentary constituency. In Northern Ireland, as hon. Members from there know all too well, responsibility for the conduct of elections in each constituency, and indeed for the registration of electors throughout the Province, is in the hands of a chief electoral officer appointed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He would arrange for each special polling staion to be supplied with ballot papers from other constituencies in Northern Ireland and for the ballot papers to be sorted and sent on to be counted under his supervision at the close of poll. That is essentially what the schedule requires him to do.

If a Northern Ireland elector cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at his allotted polling station, paragraph 1 of the schedule gives him the right to apply to the chief electoral officer to vote in person at a special polling station. The provision of special polling stations and the designation of the special polling places in which they are situated is a matter for the chief electoral officer, as is the designation of polling places under the present law. Public notice is given of the special polling places designated under subparagraph (5). The number of polling stations provided will depend on the number of electors who apply under the new arrangements.

Instead of providing an address in Northern Ireland to which a postal ballot paper is to be sent, the applicant provides the address at which he will himself be on polling day. If the application is successful, the chief electoral officer sends the elector a notice telling him where he can vote in person at a special polling station. The elector than votes at the special polling station in the usual way, producing the identification required by the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985.

Most of the schedule from paragraph 2 onwards is needed to ensure that the proceedings at the special polling station are similar to the proceedings which apply at ordinary polling stations under the elections rules. An important difference is that instead of the polling agents appointed by the candidates to detect personation the chief electoral officer has power under paragraph 5 to appoint what we have called "observers" who under paragraph 10 have all the powers and duties of polling agents, so in fact they are more than mere observers. It would plainly be impractical to allow each candidate in each constituency at a parliamentary general election in Northern Ireland to appoint polling agents to attend at each polling station. The schedule allows the chief electoral officer, after consultation with the political parties, to appoint a reasonable number of observers for each special polling station.

At the close of poll the ballot boxes are sealed up and the other documents put in separate packets in the usual way. They are then taken to the chief electoral officer, who in the presence of the candidates sorts the ballot papers and other documents into separate packets for each constituency, verifying the ballot paper account before he does so to make sure that no ballot papers have gone astray. That is in paragraph 6 of the schedule. The ballot papers are then sent on to the places where the votes are being counted for each constituency. The returning officer conducts a further verification of the ballot papers that he receives from the chief electoral officer to make sure that all is still in order. The ballot papers from the special polling stations are then mixed with the postal ballot papers and the ballot papers from polling stations in the constituency. From that point on, the election proceeds in its usual way.

I have gone through the provisions with some care but without, I hope, taking excessive time. As I have said—it bears repeating—it is greatly to be hoped that those powers never have to be used. The purpose of the arrangements is to put the procedures for absent voting in Northern Ireland on the same footing as in Great Britain and this is a fallback position in the event of a threat of serious electoral malpractice emerging.

In conclusion, I hope that the House will feel that in the amendment we have responded genuinely and fullheartedly to the debate in Committee and have done our best to meet the points raised by Members in all parts of the House on Second Reading and subsequently. I shall, of course, listen with great care to what the right hon. Member for South Down says about his amendment. For our part, the Government see no reason why the power to introduce the new schedule should lapse after three years. The new clause makes it clear that the power can be exercised only in specific circumstances, which I have carefully tried to set out, and the Secretary of State would clearly have to account to the House through the procedures laid down as to why he was satisfied that the power should be exercised. Indeed, he has undertaken to go into the matter with the parties beforehand so that the arguments can be considered before it reaches the Floor of the House. As for the detailed provisions, the schedule is before the House and now is the time to debate it. I do not wish to anticipate what the right hon. Member for South Down has to say.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

My hon. Friends and I are not at all disposed to take back any expressions of satisfaction that have fallen from us during earlier proceedings on the Bill at seeing Northern Ireland and its citizens placed on the same footing as their fellow citizens in the rest of the kingdom. We acknowledge that the Home Office and Ministers in charge of the Bill have been open-minded in that respect, but it is only fair to acknowledge the support that we have had from the Opposition from the very first publication of any suggestion of differentiation. My only cavil at the Minister's words of introduction concerns his use of the word "concessions". We do not regard it as a concession that the people of Northern Ireland should be treated on the same basis as those of the rest of the United Kingdom, and we regard it as an outrage to be defended against and avoided if any proposal for differentiation is suggested or included in legislation, as would be the situation under the Bill without the new clause and schedule.

This day will be remembered in the annals of constitutional history and future students will find in their textbooks reference to this day's business and to this debate, because a most important constitutional innovation is being made by the new clause and the schedule. My hon. Friends and I strenuously object to it and hope that we shall receive widespread support from the House because what is proposed is essentially a derogation of the rights and powers of this House.

The new clause represents a power of suspension—a power to suspend what is in an Act of Parliament by means of an Order in Council. It enables a Minister, by making an order and passing it through the House, to suspend the operation of part of an Act of Parliament. That is a most remarkable innovation and one which will attract the attention not just of the present Government in subsequent years but of their successors. It is a Government benefit clause, enabling a Government to write into a Bill a clause which provides, in effect, that if they turn out to have made a mistake and the legislation is not working they can make an order and alter what Parliament has passed.

Mr. Kaufman

Would the right hon. Gentleman regard that as research on a legislative embryo?

Mr. Powell

The right hon. Gentleman tempts me into a contemporary subject of debate. It certainly means that the legislation is declared to be tentative and I question the right of any Government presenting legislation to the House to treat it in that way and to ask that certain provisions be specifically subject to suspension at the will of an Administration acting by Order in Council.

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This House has always been jealous of the suspensory power. We have always maintained that matters which are regulated by legislation must be dealt with by legislation if those provisions are to be changed. If this Order in Council is made, rights and opportunities of voting which have been conferred by an Act of Parliament will be withdrawn by subordinate legislation. That is a constitutional innovation which should be marked by the House, and it should be resented—and not only by hon. Members on one side — because it runs counter to the powers and traditions of the House in legislation and evokes echoes of the suspensory power which the Crown sought to exercise centuries ago, only to learn better when it made the attempt.

We are told that the purpose of this suspensory power will be to avoid an apprehended serious abuse of the system of voting. I shall explain to the Minister exactly why that motive is irrational in this context, and in doing so I am not blaming him or the Home Office for having cooked up this suggestion. I do not believe that a Department with the experience and outlook of the Home Office would want to write this sort of stuff into its legislation.

The Minister was candid and said that it was part of a deal with the Northern Ireland Office. My hon. Friends and I do not believe that any deal is required in respect of Northern Ireland for what, in any case, is its right as part of the United Kingdom. That is not a privilege for which we should be called on to pay in the form of constitutional innovations, even if what is proposed is — I shall argue that it is not — well conceived for the purpose aimed at and practicable in its execution.

The notion is, and must be, that if postal ballot papers are sent to addresses in Northern Ireland outside the constituency to which they relate, the Provisional IRA, I assume—or perhaps the INLA —will organise a system of dispatch riders who will travel through the length and breadth of Northern Ireland calling at all the addresses on the postal voting list and counting up the ballot papers.

I assure the Minister — if it would accept my assurance, I would assure the Northern Ireland Office—that this is a chimera. The notion of any such process taking place is an absurdity. If the Government are looking for circumstances—it is not our object to bring them to their attention — in which postal votes could be abused, let them look through the cases, which they do not propose to suspend, where ballot papers are sent inside the constituency and where, therefore, those who aim at electoral malpractice will have the matter, so to speak, under their control and in their towns and villages, wherever they live and wherever they may be able to carry out their malpractices.

The picture, the cartoon, which is presumed by the provisions of the schedule is wholly unreal and irrational and it leaves undisturbed the only marginal circumstances in which it is conceivable that postal voting could be used for the purposes of electoral malpractices. But it is worse than that. The practicability of the whole show is open to serious doubt.

I believe that there was a stage in the gestation of these proposals when the idea was that in each constituency there would be one special polling station. I can understand that that was laughed out of court. I have a constituency of 600 square miles with two big mountain ranges in the middle. The notion that any one special polling station could, within screaming distance, serve the purposes of a person who was temporarily staying in any part of my constituency — unless he happened to be on the top of Slieve Croob—is unrealistic.

Thus, the schedule leaves the number of special polling stations undetermined. The Minister was candid enough to say who will determine it. It will not be determined by orders which, even in the negative form, could be brought before the House. It will be determined by the very person who has a vested interest in minimising the trouble to which the arrangements put him — namely, the chief electoral officer. I make no criticism of any individual, but in the nature of the matter his interests are not the same as those of the electors. Yet he will decide whether in my constituency of South Down there shall be three, six or 12 special polling stations.

I do not know which of those alternatives the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), the Under-Secretary, would be inclined to accept. I mention his constituency because it must be difficult for him — having a constituency similar to my former constituency, across which he can walk in perhaps 25 minutes in any direction—to conceive a constituency of 600 square miles with enormous geographical features interrupting communication.

Even in present circumstances — with, in my constituency, 80 polling stations — we receive well-founded complaints in some parts of my constituency about the distance that people have to travel to get to the nearest polling station which is allotted to them. That a fraction of that number of polling stations could be anything but a crying injustice to the electors, and treated by them as an insult, is clear. As an insult they will treat it. They will say, "You have allowed me to vote in person. Thank you very much. But I am staying in such-and-such a place and you have told me that I am to vote 20 miles away. What sort of an opportunity to vote is that intended to be?" In many cases we are dealing not with 20 miles down a motorway but with 20 miles of rough country and cross-country travel, often by people who do not themselves possess the means of transport.

I ask the Minister, who has been open-minded about this, to accept — I am putting it on the record in the hope that the House will support our protest — that this notion of special polling stations, unless there are to be almost as many special polling stations as there are allotted polling stations, is not a starter and will cause vast irritation, disappointment and annoyance, and will be regarded as a mockery.

I want the Minister to envisage what will be the situation in these special polling stations. There is the presiding officer. He is in a different situation from a presiding officer in an allotted polling station. He has anything up to 16 sets of ballot papers; I hope that he will succeed in ringing the changes on them accurately. I say anything up to 16, but the Minister may say that there will be a computerised system which will ensure that he will be sent only the ballot papers for those particular constituencies from which electors are resident in that constituency where the polling station—[Interruption.]

I notice that on the Government Benches there is now taking place a conference between the Minister and the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) which possibly calls for a suspension, if not of the sitting, at any rate of the flow of my argument, as I am anxious to bring the considerations that I am putting forward to the attention of the Minister. I shall continue, therefore, when he has fixed up for the hon. Member for Antrim, North to find his place in the debate.

I want the Minister to envisage the situation of the presiding officer. He has certain duties under the law before he holds out a ballot paper. In an ordinary polling station, his duty would be to satisfy himself that the person to whom he hands the ballot paper is the person who appears in the register of electors.

We had the misfortune earlier to pass a piece of legislation, which will be much regretted, which enforces in Northern Ireland a procedure of self-identification which will take place in those circumstances. The new schedule states in part III, paragraph 11: References to the register of parliamentary electors for an election shall be read as references to the special polling list for that election. "Ah, you have spotted it," says the Minister, "All that the presiding officer has to do is to thumb his way through the sheets which he has received from the chief electoral officer and say, 'Who are you, my man?' The elector will say, 'I have a permit to vote. I am on the list of those allowed to vote at a special polling station. My electoral number is 2056'." He will do that in accordance with paragraph 4 of the schedule, if I am not mistaken.

The Minister is purporting to enact something which will meet the danger of electoral abuse. I want him to consider the difference between that action in a special polling station and what takes place in an ordinary polling station. In an ordinary polling station, the elector presents himself, the presiding officer flicks through the register and there is the entry to which the person asking for the ballot paper purports to correspond.

In doing that, the presiding officer places himself in a strong position to form a view on whether personation is taking place. He and the polling agents in that polling station know that part of the ward very well. The presiding officer has probably lived near there all his life. Therefore, the announcement that the elector lives at No. 28 Ballynamaghery road, Castlewellan, means something to everyone who is in that polling station. The same would not be the case in a special polling station in East Londonderry, for example, if an elector made the assertion, "I am No. 2045. You will find my name on that list and that is me."

If we are still jealous, as we were a few months ago, of preventing personation, let me tell the Minister that he is creating a new type of opportunity for personation unless he takes an alternative course. I have no doubt that the alternative was canvassed, only to be dismissed as impracticable. The alternative is that the presiding officer should have copies of the registers. Alas, my hon. Friends and I would have suggested that but for its total impracticability. The electoral registers for my constituency stand about 2 ft high. There would consequently be an Egyptian pyramid of registers which would be in a special polling station if we were to enable the presiding officer to have the chance, which other presiding officers have, of verifying on the register the identity of a person to whom he hands a ballot paper.

It is wrong for the Government to do in this way what they want to do. If at any time they wanted to withdraw the voting rights of people in Northern Ireland there is only one proper way to do it — by legislation, the way in which voting rights are being conferred in this Bill.

Even there we have sought, in the spirit which the Minister was describing, to meet the Government by saying to the Minister, "Your friends in the Northern Ireland Office are a bit hysterical about electoral malpractice. In that case we will allow this to be put to the test. We are so convinced about the advice which we are giving you that we are not afraid. Let this run to include the next general election. If you do not think that three years are adequate for that purpose, substitute another wording, but do not write permanently into the law of the country a suspensory power for withdrawing rights which have been conferred by legislation."

That is the first plea which we make to the House and to the Government. If the deal is so compelling upon the Government, let them make it an experimental option which can be tested against experience and practice. If we are wrong, we shall be proved to be wrong and the Government will then have firm ground under their feet for amending legislation, if that is necessary.

We also contend that the method proposed in the schedule is inherently impractical in the real circumstances of Northern Ireland. It will be regarded by the electors concerned not as the granting of a facility but as a withdrawal of a facility. It will be regarded as a means of pretending to give a facility which they will not have a practicable opportunity to exercise.

On top of all that, rather than remove the theoretical and abstract possibility—it is no more than that—that postal ballot papers sent outside a constituency could be used by an organisation within that constituency for electoral malpractice, it widens the opportunities available to voters for personation.

8.15 pm

The Minister has given a lot of time and thought to the Bill. He has shown himself alive to the situation as hon. Members representing Northern Ireland seats have described it to him. We ask him to take what has been said this evening as meant not to interfere with the purpose that has been achieved of putting Northern Ireland in the same position as the rest of the United Kingdom, but to take it for what it is, an attempt to avoid the Government unconstitutionally putting an absurdity upon the statute book.

There will be opportunity in the subsequent stages of the Bill, if our arguments carry weight with the Government and with the House, for this suspensory power to be limited. The Minister may well say, "I have gone to all this trouble to excogitate a suspensory power in all this detail. I went into detail specially for your sakes so that it should not be in orders. Now you want me to scrap it." We are so modest that we are not even asking him to scrap it. We are asking him to treat it as experimental, which it should be. That is the purpose of amendment (a) which will be moved in due course on behalf of my hon. Friends and myself.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

At an earlier stage, when we were considering the position of Northern Ireland under the Bill, the Minister gave great encouragement to us all and showed that he was aware of the case made to him by hon. Members on both sides of the House. At that time due credit and the necessary praise were given to him, but we also gave him warning that when he presented the appropriate amendment we would reserve the right to deal with it as we saw it in relation to our constituents.

I am amazed to learn that responsibility for getting the amendment on to the Amendment Paper really rests with the Northern Ireland Office. As a representative of Northern Ireland, I must go beyond the Northern Ireland Office. I deplore the action of the chief electoral officer of Northern Ireland, who seems to be in a position to dictate to the Northern Ireland Office and now to the House. I do not think that any electoral officer, or the chief electoral officer, of Northern Ireland has any right, for his own convenience and desire, to do away with the basic elementary rights of the citizens of one part of the United Kingdom.

I must put on record the fact that I deprecate the representations made to the Northern Ireland Office by the chief electoral officer and the fact that the Northern Ireland Office, instead of considering those representations, weighing them properly in the balance, putting them under close scrutiny and consulting the elected representatives of Northern Ireland about them, proceeded to do the deal that we have heard about. I in no way blame the Minister who is presenting the Bill. I lay the blame on the Northern Ireland Office and on the chief electoral officer, who is the parent of this unwanted embryo. This will bring much cause for alarm and actual alarm to the people of Northern Ireland.

It would appear that the House puts the citizens of Northern Ireland on a par with those in the rest of the United Kingdom. However, the Government propose that part of the Bill, when enacted, should be suspended, and suspended when the Minister thinks that it should be. When will the Minister think that it should be suspended? Whose advice will he take? Will he take the advice of the chief electoral officer? The person who sponsored the schedule will justify himself by saying to the Minister, "It is about time that the schedule was put into operation."

I recognise the force of amendment (a), and I think that it offers a solution. The Government will be able to say, "Let us put this matter to the test. Let us have an election in Northern Ireland that is conducted in the same way as elections in the rest of the United Kingdom. If we find that the fears of the chief electoral officer and the Northern Ireland Office are realised, we shall consider the matter." To do that without any experience would suggest that the Northern Ireland Office is being led by the nose by the chief electoral officer and that pressure has been put on the Minister so to amend the Bill.

The Minister should meet us on the sensible amendment that has been tabled to the new clause by saying that he is prepared to let us have the experience for which we have called. I can see far greater difficulties in Northern Ireland with people voting in their own areas than in the circumstances that have been the cause of the schedule.

It is proposed that we should have special polling stations. I do not know what our elections will be like. A special document will have to be presented before someone in Northern Ireland can be given a vote, and now we are to have special polling stations. As the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) said, there is enough trouble with polling stations in Northern Ireland in trying to satisfy the people and to prevent certain voters from having to enter areas which they think are unsafe. The way round the problem is for the Minister to accept amendment (a) and to say, "Let us have an election and see how it works out. If it works out all right at the next election, we shall not have to call into action the proposed schedule."

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

I feel that I must reinforce what has already been said by Back-Bench Members in this debate. I feel that the House is treading on dangerous ground. It will certainly be doing so if we go down the road that is suggested without us protesting and issuing warnings that a mistake is being made and a bad precedent is being set.

When part of a Bill is drafted by the Northern Ireland Office, it usually has the unique feature of a self-destruct fuse. I think that that is a term used by spacemen; perhaps they were "spacers", as it were, who suggested the incorporation of this feature in the first place. The Northern Ireland Act 1982 contains a self-destruct fuse in the section that provides that, if it appears to Her Majesty that no proposals from the Northern Ireland Assembly will be forthcoming, she may take certain action. I wonder how many times Her Majesty has turned over in her bed uneasily when something is to happen under that legislation to which she can give her attention and she is left wondering whether she will be called upon to pull the lever and operate the self-destruct fuse.

I am concerned by the mention of a special polling list. I understand that the Minister intends that it should be to some extent a replacement for the register, but will it be recognised in legal terms as a substitute? What will be the position if the presiding officer in a polling station feels that he has to put the statutory question by reason of the lists of identity papers which have been produced? If the proposed provisions were in force, would he say, "Are you the person whose name appears on the special list as John Brown?", or would he say, in the terms of current legislation, "Are you the person whose name appears on the register as John Brown?" It seems that there will be a fundamental change in the law.

There is another curious feature which I assume has been considered by those who inspired the Bill. I do not blame the Minister for this, because it is my experience and that of my colleagues that he has far too much common sense ever to suggest that which appears in the proposals which are now before us. It appears that the ballot papers will have to be sorted into little packets to be dispatched to the appropriate place of count for each of the 17 constituencies. They can be sorted only if they are placed upwards in the presence of those representing the candidates, and it appears that they will be permitted to appoint representatives. Those who have attended counts know what nail-biting occasions they can be. They will be aware that it is required that ballot papers should be kept face down when they are being verified along with the totals. Under the provisions that are before us, they will be placed face upwards, as there will be no other way of defining, deciding and identifying which belongs to which constituent. The secrecy of the ballot will go for a burton at the beginning of the process.

We must remember that the object of the exercise is to deal with those who have a reputation for being unscrupulous. The parties that are represented in this place would never stoop to the practices of those with whom the Bill seeks to deal, but there are unscrupulous parties in Northern Ireland and one or two on this side of the water who are not represented in this place. It would not be beyond them to seek to identify the voter who was at a seaside resort on a particular occasion and who cast his vote for a certain candidate or party.

I hope that the Minister will ensure that the Home Ofice considers the arguments which I and others have advanced. I hope also that he will be persuaded by our arguments in this short debate. If we must try out that which is proposed, let it be done on an experimental basis. It should not become a permanent feature of this legislation. I think that it will be seen in due course as a nonsensical proposal by us all. I do not exclude you from that remark, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for we have all participated in the fighting of elections.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I do not believe that the constitutional right to exercise a franchise in any part of the United Kingdom should be capable of being varied by means of subordinate legislation at the behest of a Minister. I do not think that it is satisfactory that the Bill should be amended in the manner proposed by the Government, apparently as a result of the influence of a member of the Government who is not even present in the House this evening.

I understand the convention in these matters, and I recognise that this is a Home Office Bill, but the provisions before us relate specifically to the problems of Northern Ireland, and it seems that they have been included at the behest of the Northern Ireland Office. It would therefore have been appropriate to invite a Minister from the Northern Ireland Office to be present to answer questions about the Government's thinking on this matter. The Under-Secretary has been discharged from any personal liability for the monstrosity that he is commending to the House. I am happy to discharge him from any culpability, but the Government as a whole should not be so discharged.

We cannot approve these measures without closely analysing the mischief which they are apparently designed to correct. The most compelling part of the speech of the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) was the deployment of the argument that the mischief which the measures appear to be designed to correct is probably a lesser mischief than the one that is likely to be caused by their implementation. That being so, the new clause seems like a last gasp from the Northern Ireland Office wishing to set its stamp on the Bill so that if matters do not go right at the next general election in Northern Ireland the Northern Ireland Office can say, "Well, we tried." That is an unsatisfactory way to proceed.

8.30 pm

I part company from the right hon. Member for South Down when he speaks about the difficulties faced by his constituents in a constituency of 600 square miles having to travel perhaps as much as 20 miles to a special polling station. In my constituency of 2,800 square miles, many of my constituents have normally to travel more than 20 miles to the polling station.

I strongly resent the suggestion that this proposal should be included in the Bill. I and my Liberal colleagues will not support the Government. We cannot accept that a bargain was struck by the House on this issue. I understand what the Minister said about the bargain that he has struck with his colleagues within the Government, but that is not a bargain to which we are party and, therefore, we cannot go along with it.

Mr. Kaufman

I shall not join in the general plaudits for the Minister, because I have done him enough damage in that way during the earlier course of the Bill. I share the opinions of all hon. Members who have spoken since the Minister moved the new clause. It is a great pity that, if the Government have their way, we shall enshrine in the legislation a legislative anomaly which flaws the other change in the Bill.

I have tried to work out what kind of legislation we shall get as a result of the Government's proposal. So far as I can see, we are pioneering in legislative form, because if we pass the changes that the Government want, against the will of those who have spoken, we shall be indulging in prospective, retrospective legislation. We shall be looking forward to going backward on something that the House of Commons has decided to do this evening.

I do not believe that that is sensible or good legislative practice or that it accords with the will of the House in wanting to achieve parity of absent voting arrangements for the whole of the United Kingdom. I say that because for several months now, as the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) has been kind enough to point out, since the publication of the White Paper we have been trying to achieve parity of absent voting. Apart from that major flaw, we are extremely gratified by what we have achieved. The Government amendments, which in two places remove the words "in Northern Ireland", are important because they provide parity of absent voting arrangements.

I am pleased that the Government, having accepted that arrangement, have achieved parity on the basis of limiting absent votes cast by post to within the United Kingdom. I have had great misgivings — it is one of the many reasons why I opposed the expatriate vote — about the idea of ballot papers being sent outside the islands of this kingdom to other parts of the world—firstly, because of the unreliability of such an arrangement but, much more, because the secrecy of the ballot cannot best be preserved if ballot papers are floating around all over the world liable to be tampered with by people outside this country.

I am therefore pleased that the Government have, after listening to arguments, yielded to the proposal that we made, with the agreement and support of others, that absent voting by post should be confined to within the United Kingdom while those who go outside the United Kingdom exercise it more safely, more reliably and more secretly by proxy vote.

There is a good deal to welcome in this group of amendments. That being so, it is a pity that there is a—I will not say fatal — damaging flaw in the Government's fail-safe proposal. We do not like that and we support the amendment spoken to by the right hon. Member for South Down.

Mr. Mellor

I am, of course, sad that the only voice that has been raised in support of this proposition should have been mine. I am sensitive enough to the atmosphere that we have created in this legislation to know that that is an increasingly unique event and one which, all other things being equal, I should not have wanted to happen.

A whole line of argument has not been fully deployed this evening, but it needs to be considered. It is that, of course, in any democracy, and in any part of the United Kingdom, there could be potential electoral malpractice. We cannot blind ourselves to the reality that where there are difficulties and stresses within a community, prospects for electoral malpractice are that much greater. That has been the unhappy lot of Northern Ireland, and it is something which I, having no contact with the Province, regret as profoundly as those who bravely lead a public life in the Province, when to lead a public life exposes them to far more risks than any of us on this side of the water can contemplate.

The House was minded to agree, only a few months ago — of course in the teeth of opposition; not from the official Opposition, although I do not criticise them for that, far from it — to introduce special arrangements in relation to voting in person that reflected the difficulties that many people believed arose because of the stresses and strains within Northern Ireland.

Having introduced those special arrangements to make even more sure than we have customarily been able to do that the person presenting himself to exercise his vote is the person whose vote is being claimed, we should not ridicule or underestimate the force of the argument that it would be unfortunate — to put it no higher — if the consequence of the provision to extend absent voting was to allow people to circumvent the provisions which Parliament had approved for voting in person. Therefore, in the view of the Government, in the shape of my right hon. Friends at the Northern Ireland Office, in whose place I stand, this is not a matter that can be lightly discounted, although there is room for argument.

As a consequence of those arguments, a legitimate accommodation has been reached whereby the Government have been pleased to agree that the arrangements should apply throughout the United Kingdom. I do not say that in a spirit of concession, because it was meant, not as a concession to any part of the United Kingdom, but as a change from the Government's original view. We have not hesitated to change this area of our thinking, any more than we have hesitated to change others.

However much one might change one's approach to the position, one cannot put out of mind the residual fear that there are those who will exploit any opportunity for malpractice. The Government having taken the view which they did only a few months ago that voting in person and the regulations attaching to that needed to be tightened up, it might be said that the two are inconsistent and that the opportunity that was denied to malefactors a few months ago is being reopened to them now. That is why the Government believe firmly that it would be wrong not to take the opportunity to be able readily to change these arrangements in the event that cogent evidence is brought forward that malpractice is likely. No prudent Secretary of State would want to go forward with an election without availing himself of the opportunities presented by the amendment that I now propose.

I am sad that this should be seen as a constitutional monstrosity. It gives me no pleasure to hear it so denounced. However, I believe that it represents a proper basis on which the House can proceed. It demonstrates that we have listened and responded to the genuine feeling of a substantial minority in the House that we should endeavour not to be deflected from the course of common arrangements any more than is absolutely necessary, and that, although the evidence is not wholly conclusive of that now, that evidence may become available. It would be foolish not to have the opportunity readily to hand to make certain changes, provided that the House was satisfied that that should be done.

I have to say to the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) with considerable regret that it is not open to me to state that we believe there can be any time limit on these powers. Who is to say what changes may occur between now and any point in the future in the increasingly difficult situation in Northern Ireland, mitigated by the fact that in one substantial respect the power to do this applies throughout the United Kingdom? As the right hon. Gentleman properly said during our earlier consideration of the Bill, I am not one to underestimate the potential for abuse anywhere in the United Kingdom. Electoral abuse is not a monopoly of any one part of the United Kingdom. In this instance I cannot assist the right hon. Gentleman as much as I have tried to assist in earlier stages of the Bill. Even if he cannot agree with me, I hope that he understands why that must be.

An accommodation has been reached which is perhaps unsatisfactory to both sides of the question. There are those who believe that there is no evidence of malpractice to justify these arrangements and that, even if there were, it would be wrong to introduce those arrangements because the system has to be able to stand as a whole. That I understand. Others take the view that we cannot protect the integrity of our democracy unless, to face exceptional circumstances, we are prepared to take exceptional measures.

I therefore commend the amendment to the House. With regret, I cannot commend acceptance of the right hon. Gentleman's amendment.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

I have listened to the entire debate and to some of the previous discussions on the Bill. I think that the Minister's reply is a quite inadequate defence of an innovation that has been explained by other hon. Members who described exactly what the Government are doing constitutionally in their proposal. Even if the hon. Gentleman were defending the immediate proposition, the reply would be insufficient, but it is certainly insufficient if it is to be a defence of the major innovation involved. The hon. Gentleman has not sought to reply to that.

I fully accept that the Minister has done a great deal through discussion and negotiation to try to produce a Bill which commands general assent in the House. It is right that the Government should do so, especially with a Bill of this nature.

I make a final plea to the hon. Gentleman to look at the matter afresh. He does not have to slam the door now, particularly on the basis that he does so. He talks of an accommodation. If it is an accommodation, as has been indicated, it must be one between the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office. If that is the accommodation, it is wrong that no representative of the Northern Ireland Office has attended the debate. In order for the House to have a real debate and chance of reaching a fresh accommodation — that is what Committee and Report stages are for—the Northern Ireland Office should have been present to hear the representations not only of Northern Ireland but of every other hon. Member who has spoken in the debate.

Mr. Mellor

I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman, but I must make clear that in my references to an accommodation I meant an accommodation between the various views put forward in Parliament on which the Government have only one view, that is, the view that I have put forward. It is in that spirit, considering what changes have been made, that I use the word accommodation.

Mr. Foot

I am eager to accept that explanation because, if that is the case, the Minister can easily make a further accommodation which unites the House. It is very easy for him to do this. From what he says, he has plenary powers, and I am glad to hear that. He does not have to worry a fig about the Northern Ireland Office—to hell with the Northern Ireland Office. That, I am sure, will unite considerable sections of the House. We are gratified to know that the hon. Gentleman has the plenary powers at his disposal. All he has to do now — and I say this seriously — is to recognise the present mood of the House on the subject. Now that Parliament has considered the matter carefully and had the first opportunity to debate the question, it is evident that not a single voice, not a single inflection of a voice, supports the Government's proposition for the good reason that the Government have no case.

The Minister was much more persuasive in his first speech than in his last one. In his first speech he defended the general arrangements that have been reached. In his last speech, he had to defend the Government from attack.

I plead with the hon. Gentleman, and we have a right to plead in consideration of the Bill, as I am sure he will acknowledge. If the Bill had been left in the form in which it was originally introduced by the Home Office, it would have caused ructions and opposition throughout the country. However, it has been altered and transformed in its passage through Parliament by my right hon. Friends and other hon. Members who have engaged in the negotiations and discussions. The Bill has been transformed into what all Representation of the People Bills should be, that is, Bills which can command general assent in the House. I plead with the hon. Gentleman not to slam the door now. Other opportunities remain in which the matter can be discussed and there are other places in which it can be altered.

Just as we have made huge improvements in other parts of the Bill, so should the Minister listen to what we are now saying. I hope that he will not insist that what he said is the final word, and that he will consider the amendment afresh. It would uphold the constitutional arrangement instead of damaging it, as has been clearly described.

Mr. Kaufman

With the leave of the House, I should like to add a further word. A possibility has occurred to me. While not dealing with the constitutional argument that has been put forward, to which I adhere and which I support, it might at any rate provide uniformity of the sort that we have seen in the discussions of the Bill. Therefore, I put to the Minister—I do not expect him to respond now — the possibility that in the House of Lords the Government might consider making the new clause a new schedule, so that the change would not single out Northern Ireland but be potentially applicable to the whole United Kingdom.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause accordingly read a Second time.

Amendment (a) proposed, in subsection (2), after 'instrument', insert 'not later than three years after the commencement of this Act.'.—[Molyneaux.] Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes, 84, Noes 168.

Division No. 136] [8.52 pm
Ashdown, Paddy Corbett, Robin
Barron, Kevin Cunliffe, Lawrence
Beggs, Roy Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly)
Beith, A. J. Dixon, Donald
Bell, Stuart Dubs, Alfred
Bermingham, Gerald Eastham, Ken
Bidwell, Sydney Evans, John (St. Helens N)
Boyes, Roland Fatchett, Derek
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E) Fisher, Mark
Bruce, Malcolm Flannery, Martin
Buchan, Norman Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M) Forrester, John
Campbell-Savours, Dale Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim)
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) George, Bruce
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Hamilton, James (M'well N)
Clarke, Thomas Haynes, Frank
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.) Home Robertson, John
Cohen, Harry Howells, Geraint
Hoyle, Douglas O'Brien, William
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) O'Neill, Martin
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S) Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Paisley, Rev Ian
John, Brynmor Park, George
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Penhaligon, David
Kennedy, Charles Pike, Peter
Kilroy-Silk, Robert Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Kirkwood, Archy Prescott, John
Leadbitter, Ted Redmond, M.
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Robinson, P. (Belfast E)
Loyden, Edward Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
McCrea, Rev William Shore, Rt Hon Peter
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Steel, Rt Hon David
McGuire, Michael Strang, Gavin
McKay, Allen (Penistone) Taylor, Rt Hon John David
Maclennan, Robert Tinn, James
McWilliam, John Wainwright, R.
Madden, Max Walker, Cecil (Belfast N)
Maginnis, Ken Wallace, James
Maxton, John Wareing, Robert
Meadowcroft, Michael
Michie, William Tellers for the Ayes:
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James Mr. William Ross and
Nicholson, J. Rev. Martin Smyth.
Alexander, Richard Garel-Jones, Tristan
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Goodhart, Sir Philip
Ancram, Michael Gower, Sir Raymond
Arnold, Tom Gregory, Conal
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Gummer, John Selwyn
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Batiste, Spencer Harris, David
Bellingham, Henry Henderson, Barry
Bennett, Rt Hon Sir Frederic Hicks, Robert
Benyon, William Hind, Kenneth
Best, Keith Hubbard-Miles, Peter
Bevan, David Gilroy Hunter, Andrew
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Blackburn, John Irving, Charles
Bottomley, Peter Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Jones, Robert (W Herts)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Knox, David
Bright, Graham Lang, Ian
Brinton, Tim Lawler, Geoffrey
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Lee, John (Pendle)
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Browne, John Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Bruinvels, Peter Lilley, Peter
Bulmer, Esmond Lord, Michael
Burt, Alistair Lyell, Nicholas
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Macfarlane, Neil
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S) MacGregor, John
Carttiss, Michael MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Cash, William Maclean, David John
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Maples, John
Chope, Christopher Marlow, Antony
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Marshall, Michael (Arundel)
Conway, Derek Mather, Carol
Coombs, Simon Maude, Hon Francis
Cope, John Mayhew, Sir Patrick
Corrie, John Mellor, David
Couchman, James Merchant, Piers
Cranborne, Viscount Meyer, Sir Anthony
Crouch, David Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Dickens, Geoffrey Mills, Iain (Meriden)
Dover, Den Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)
Dunn, Robert Miscampbell, Norman
Durant, Tony Mitchell, David (NW Hants)
Dykes, Hugh Morris, M. (N'hampton, S)
Eggar, Tim Moyninan, Hon C.
Evennett, David Murphy, Christopher
Eyre, Sir Reginald Neale, Gerrard
Failon, Michael Neubert, Michael
Favell, Anthony Nicholls, Patrick
Fookes, Miss Janet Norris, Steven
Fry, Peter Ottaway, Richard
Gale, Roger Page, Sir John (Harrow W)
Page, Richard (Herts SW) Stradling Thomas, J.
Parris, Matthew Taylor, John (Solihull)
Pawsey, James Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Terlezki, Stefan
Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.
Pollock, Alexander Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Portillo, Michael Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Powley, John Thornton, Malcolm
Proctor, K. Harvey Thurnham, Peter
Raffan, Keith Townend, John (Bridlington)
Rathbone, Tim Tracey, Richard
Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Trotter, Neville
Ridsdale, Sir Julian Twinn, Dr Ian
Roe, Mrs Marion van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Rossi, Sir Hugh Waddington, David
Rowe, Andrew Waller, Gary
Sackville, Hon Thomas Ward, John
Sainsbury, Hon Timothy Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Sayeed, Jonathan Watson, John
Shaw, Giles (Pudsey) Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Wheeler, John
Shepherd, Cohn (Hereford) Whitney, Raymond
Silvester, Fred Wiggin, Jerry
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Wilkinson, John
Soames, Hon Nicholas Winterton, Mrs Ann
Speed, Keith Winterton, Nicholas
Speller, Tony Wolfson, Mark
Spencer, Derek Yeo, Tim
Spicer, Jim (W Dorset) Younger, Rt Hon George
Stanbrook, Ivor
Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton) Tellers for the Noes:
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood) Mr. John Major and
Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood) Mr. Peter Lloyd.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause added to the Bill.

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