HC Deb 21 January 1985 vol 71 cc827-35 10.51 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

The House is much indebted to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the indulgence on your part which enables us in debates upon orders to hear the succession of charming essays from the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) by which we are able to measure his progress in acquainting himself with some of the basic facts and some of the recent history of the Province of Northern Ireland.

The essay is one of the recognised methods of learning, and it is natural that the hon. Gentleman's contributions should take that form. I am sorry, however, that tonight, on a quick count among my hon. Friends, we were unable to allocate to him a mark higher than Beta minus. But we hope that he will do better on future occasions, and, as is said in other circumstances, we look forward to his future contributions.

The reason why my right hon. and hon. Friends and I shall vote against the order is not that we are critical of Sir Frank Harrison, the commissioner. Indeed, he showed considerable openness of mind, given the limitations within which he was obliged to act, in the number of changes which he introduced after hearing objections to his original proposals. I am all the more ready to depose that evidence, because one of them brought about a distinct improvement in the district electoral areas in one of the districts in my constituency.

The Minister may recall not merely the representations which were made to the Government in debate in February, when the guidelines were laid down, but that my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) and I waited upon him to point out to him at some length the importance of allowing the commissioner freedom to recommend district electoral areas with as few as four wards. Many of the objections to which my hon. Friend drew attention and many of the objections which will have a serious impact upon political organisation and the conduct of elections in Northern Ireland go back to that mistake. Four, five or six wards per area, as hon. Members on this bench recommended, has turned out in practice to have been the correct prescription for the formation of district electoral areas from wards.

I should like, before the debate ends, to convey to the Under-Secretary of State the reason why he and the Northern Ireland Office should learn by this experience and alter the guidelines on a future occasion.

I believe it is common ground that all of us, in all parts of the United Kingdom, wish to see a lively political life. Most of us indeed who are elected to the House depend upon the vitality of the organisations which serve the political point of view that we represent. Now, political organisation, which is at the heart of political action, is inevitably based upon electoral areas; for, after all, the first object of all political association is to win elections. Political association and activity will, therefore, base themselves upon the areas in which elections are to be held.

The constituency is the obvious major unit of political organisation, not only in Northern Ireland, but in the rest of the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, however, because we are blessed with the curse of proportional representation, there is a further unit of great importance: for the sake of the operation of proportional representation, it is necessary that the wards should be grouped in certain numbers into district electoral areas. The real election takes place in the district electoral area: in fact, the district electoral area corresponds to what the constituency is for elections to this House. Consequently, the district electoral area is the vital unit of political organisation.

Unfortunately, the ward, because of proportional representation, has practically no meaning. It is little more than a convenient subdivision of the register of electors. It would be different if there were not merely one councillor per ward but one councillor for a ward, so that each community would be able readily to identify the person whom it elected, and elected councillors would have a manageable area comprising those to whom they were responsible and answerable. Because of proportional representation, alas, the ward does not exist for political purposes.

I now put forward the following proposition as self-evident: if possible, district electoral areas should be contained within the boundaries of constituencies; for it is clearly destructive of intelligent political organisation and action that there should be constant overlap between the organisations that band together to win and hold parliamentary seats and those that are concerned to constitute councils by winning district electoral areas. Unfortunately, the effect of the guidelines within which the commissioner was obliged to operate has been to force him — in many cases disastrously — to override constituency boundaries, so that overlap is more the rule than the exception.

I can speak with some personal knowledge and bitterness on this score. I have three district councils wholly or partly within my constituency. One of them is wholly within my constituency, providentially, and the commissioner was able to organise that district council so that no district electoral area strayed over the constituency boundary.

However, in the case of the other two councils, there are district electoral areas where political organisation for the electoral contest will have to be based upon two distinct parliamentary constituencies and two distinct political organisations. Surely that must be contrary to what the Government and all of us want to do — to stimulate active and intelligent political participation and organisation in Northern Ireland.

What is more, the overlaps have been destructive of the very terms of reference given to the commissioner. He was exhorted to pay account to the natural divisions of the country. Few natural divisions in Northern Ireland are more marked, or more historic, than that between the county of Down and the county of Armagh. The rift through which the Newry canal was constructed is visibly, as one approaches it, a division. The people are in fact different—I will not say which side I prefer—on either side of the boundary. As one crosses it, one is conscious of having moved into a different countryside and a different community. The people of Armagh are different and the people of County Down are different—and none the worse for that, in either case.

In one place, the commissioner was obliged to take one ward in my constituency, which is on the County Down side of the geographical divide, and combine it with six other wards in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Nicholson), to create a district electoral area called the Fews—actually it should be called the Many—extending from Newtown Hamilton on one side to the extremity of Donaghmore in County Down on the other. I know that the commissioner was obliged to do it, because I have tried every other possible numerical permutation to avoid it and found that it could not satisfactorily be done. Now that district electoral area is not merely unmanageable in the sense so graphically explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross); it is an absurdity, for Donaghmore, in every possible respect, belongs to County Down and to groupings that would be wholly within the constituency of South Down.

There is another factor that I must not refrain from mentioning. There is a Unionist majority in the ward of Donaghmore. If the commissioner were not above all suspicion, those who argued that the district electoral area of the Fews is a manifest piece of skulduggery would have some grounds for their suspicion. Nothing could be more satisfactory to my hon. Friend than the transfer of one of the jewels of my crown into a district electoral area in another part of the district of Newry and Mourne.

I have endeavoured to treat the matter with some lightness of touch, as the details of it might be disagreeable and tedious to those who have taken the trouble to attend the debate. However, in reality, something very serious lies behind all this. The drawing of constituency and electoral area boundaries is a serious matter. It is a serious matter—as I have endeavoured to prove to the Minister — for political life and for the vitality of political organisations. It can help it, it can make it, it can destroy it, it can take it to pieces. Those who contemplate many of the boundary changes brought about in the Province in the earlier part of the 1970s found it difficult to escape the notion that it was the deliberate intention to make a certain form of political life and organisation as far as possible impracticable.

That is one consideration that gives the drawing of boundaries its importance and solemnity. Boundaries are the basis of political association and therefore of the vitality of political life.

Secondly, under proportional representation, the drawing of boundaries and even more the grouping of wards in district electoral areas go far to predetermine the outcome of an election.

This is the point that the Minister made when my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry East and I waited on him—the contention that in a district electoral area of only four wards some minority party—or splinter party rather — might fail to be represented. That is the one argument which was urged against what now proves to have been the correct prescription for the work of the commissioner.

Despite the fact that there will be a Division, I fear that, for this time round, we have had it. The importance of this debate is rather to bring home to the Minister and his advisers that the advice tendered to him by this party has been proved in practice to have been the right advice and that the advice to which he reverted—of a five to seven ward formula — was the wrong advice and will be harmful to politics in Northern Ireland and even harmful to the political cause which, not having quite suspicious a mind as my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East, I believe that neither the Minister nor probably any other hon. Member wishes to flourish. So please, do not let it happen again.

11.5 pm

Mr. A. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North)

I support my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) in his approach to the order, especially in regard to the parliamentary boundaries.

I had thought that in this review an opportunity would be taken to rationalise the boundaries anomaly and bring the position into line with what is generally accepted and expected in any other part of the United Kingdom. It is stated that parliamentary boundaries and their electoral lists are based on the local government boundaries that were established in 1972, but it is clear that parliamentary boundaries have been drawn contrary to existing local government boundaries. This has resulted in great confusion on the part of the electorate, and is admitted in the foreword to the provisional recommendations, where it is said that electors are now obliged to go to different polling stations for different elections. More important is the fact that neighbours with common social problems in the same local government area will have to resort to different Members of Parliament, because local government boundaries do not coincide with parliamentary constituencies.

It must be remembered that many of the electorate are elderly. Some are also confused. The illogicality of the boundaries can cause all sorts of problems and result in votes not being cast. It has been said that demographic movements have resulted in changes which, in some cases, now require district or ward boundary changes. The resulting boundaries will breach parliamentary boundaries. That result is guaranteed because of the time lag between the recommendations of different boundary commissioners. Such changes should not affect parliamentary boundaries.

The 1983 parliamentary election was based on a review of boundaries which were different in the preceding election. The commissoner should have been briefed to group wards into electoral areas which coincide with existing parliamentary boundaries. I see no significant difference between that direction and the one which the commissioner was given. He was brief to create wards which people can recognise as being coherent units deserving separate and distinct representation reflecting differences in interest which are grouped together with other wards into a district which will provide them with services and facilities of Local Government". I sometimes feel that Northern Ireland is treated differently, or even as a guinea pig.

The present systems, which have been foisted upon us, are anathema to the long-suffering electorate in Northern Ireland. Local councillors and other interested parties made representations to the commissioner during the public inquiry, and some of these representations are relevant to the situation in these areas. For example, reference was made to the grouping of wards and their corelation to each other in the context of the number of representatives. Concern was expressed that such groupings would not necessarily produce acceptable representations in the final analysis and that, in consequence, the electorate could suffer from the laziness or ineptitude of representatives who, by their inaction, would load their colleagues with the day-to-day problems connected with local government.

Concern was also expressed that the commissioner's proposed groupings were not in accordance with the general geographical boundaries. That gave rise to the suspicion that these boundaries had been gerrymandered in favour of minority populations, which under the iniquitous proportional representation system applicable to Northern Ireland would provide extra seats in excess of their percentage of the total population. Unfortunately, the commissioner, possibly because of the need for urgency in finalising his proposals, did not appear to be particularly keen to be drawn into an appeal on what were thought to be legitimate or pertinent grounds. Under such circumstances, I regret that I have no option but to oppose the order.

11.11 pm
Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South)

Like my colleagues, I am totally against proportional representation, on several grounds. We in Northern Ireland are not treated in the same manner as the rest of the United Kingdom. In Great Britain there is first-past-the-post, whereas in Northern Ireland there is PR. It is a case of "Don't do as I do, but do as I say". No parent would set such an example.

The ratepayer cannot identify his representative. There are several representatives in a DEA, and it is possible for a person to be elected, to do nothing, to keep his head down and to be re-elected. He can tell all and sundry that he did this, that or the other, whereas he probably did nothing.

It would be more reasonable if the STV system operated on a ward basis, so that after an election we could say, "That representative represents this ward." That would be the best of both worlds.

I agree with my hon. Friends who have spoken about DEAs crossing constituency boundaries. My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) and I have a DEA which crosses our boundaries and causes quite a problem for party organisation. Had a DEA consisted of four, five or six wards instead of five, six or seven, that problem would not have arisen. However, it was not the commissioner's fault that he was working within a straitjacket.

DEAs now have names, whereas previously they were numbered one, two,, three and so on. This can be misleading. For example, in the borough of Newtownabbey there is a DEA called Antrim Line.

The Antrim Line is a road that runs out of Glengormley. Inside the district electoral area there is Collinbridge, which is in Whitewell; Glebe, which is more or less at Carnmoney hill; and High Town, which is the High Town road that runs over Cavehill into Belfast. That is known as the Antrim Line.

There is a problem in Newtownabbey where the town of Ballyclare, which formerly had its own council, always regards itself as different from the remainder of Newtownabbey. It is known as the capital of Newtownabbey. Now there is a DEA called Ballyclare, which also includes Ballynure, which is in the direction of Larne, Doagh, which is towards Antrim and Mallusk, which is almost in Glengormley. How can we expect ratepayers to associate with those DEAs?

Time is running out and I do not wish to prolong the debate. I wish to give the Minister time to reply to some of the questions raised. Needless to say, I am opposed to the order and will vote against it with my right hon. and hon. Friends.

11.16 pm
Mr. Scott

With the leave of the House, I shall reply briefly to some of the points that have been raised, without going too far down the road that has been pursued by many hon. Members of, in effect, re-running our debate of February, which set out the constraints and parameters within which Sir Frank had to conduct his work. It has been widely recognised throughout the House that he conducted his work with skill, judgment and commitment. Indeed, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) and other hon. Members paid tribute to him.

Anyone who sets his hand to drawing new electoral boundaries is unlikely to achieve universal acclaim. That has become clear in what has been said in the debate. It is my belief that Sir Frank, his assistants and his staff did an excellent job in coming up with the proposals.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) returned to the question of the number of wards in an electoral area. It is one example — and there will be others during my remarks—of when one has to recall how exhaustively this question was pursued, both on the Floor of the House and elsewhere, during the passage of the order in February last year.

Schedule 3 to the 1984 order required the commissioner to recommend electoral areas consisting of between five and seven wards, and I made it clear last February—and I make no apology for reiterating my belief—that the purpose of that provision was to ensure that the system of proportional representation operates as effectively as possible within electoral areas of manageable size.

I fully understand that the hon. Member for Londonderry, East and his colleagues are opposed to proportional representation root and branch. I believe that much of the hon. Gentleman's criticism flows from the fundamental belief that proportional representation is wrong in principle and wrong for Northern Ireland, and he developed his argument on that basis. I do not object to his doing that, but we should be clear that many of his detailed criticisms flow from that difference in principle between the Government and those on the Ulster Unionist Benches.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

Does the Minister accept that we have had to live through and practise our responsibilities under a system of proportional representation? We have carried out our duties to the electorate and have the experience to advise the Government. There is no such experience on the mainland.

Mr. Scott

Those who have been responsible for administration in Northern Ireland since it became necessary to introduce direct rule also have experience of the proportional system. It remains our convinced belief that a system of proportionality in Northern Ireland local government is essential if there is to be proper representation of differing opinions in the Province. That is the Government's considered judgment. We differ on the matter—it is as simple as that.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East, the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) and others set out, not surprisingly, to second-guess Sir Frank's judgment about the size and nature of some of the groupings that he has made. All these matters need fine judgment. In the way that he conducted the process, Sir Frank showed that he was open to argument, but at the end of the day his judgment has to hold sway. I hope that hon. Members who have argued against that will forgive me if I prefer to accept Sir Frank's judgment to theirs on these matters.

It would be intolerable if, having had such a process, Ministers attempted to second-guess Sir Frank and to impose other proposals upon the people of Northern Ireland. With his unrivalled experience of local government in the Province over 10 years, he is uniquely qualified to carry out the task. It would be wrong for Ministers to attempt to alter his judgment.

In setting out the framework in which Sir Frank has to operate the Government are not trying to come up with some pre-ordained result for this election, or any other. We are not trying to secure representation for any particular group or to produce any predetermined result.

I repeat that we reject everything that Sinn Fein stands for and its methods of operation, but we have a system of proportional representation in Northern Ireland because we believe that if we deprived substantial sections of the community in Northern Ireland of proper representation within the local government system we should be acting against the interests of democratic local government.

Mr. William Ross

The Minister has given a substantial description again. Will he please qualify it?

Mr. Scott

I shall not go down that road again. That is not a matter for Ministers to decide. Were we to deprive one-third of the people of Northern Ireland of representation we would be criticised, but I shall not discuss where that point becomes a matter of substance. We decided on the size of the groupings of the wards on the basis that it would provide proper representation for the constitutional minorities in Northern Ireland. I believe that what we propose will have that effect and I stand by it.

The right hon. Member for South Down returned to a point that he raised in February about the unfortunate fact that some boundaries cross constituency boundaries. I can do no more than repeat what I said on that occasion. Because of the sequence in which boundary reviews have been carried out we have encountered anomalies, but I hope that in future it will be possible, as we re-order the sequence of the boundary reviews for local and parliamentary constituencies, to obviate that problem. I gave that assurance of our intention to the right hon. Gentleman on 6 February.

I must tell the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) that I cannot comment on why the Commissioner did or did not feel able to accept particular arguments. It was clearly right that where conflicting arguments were put to him he had to exercise his own judgment. Not everyone's suggestion can be the preferred solution. I certainly think that in accepting, as he did, that in no fewer than 15 of the 26 districts, the provisional recommendations should be amended in the light of recommendations made to him, he approached his task with an open mind and was anxious to respond, where possible, to those local representations. I am satisfied that the exercise was carried out in a way that offered the maximum opportunity for informed public debate. Many bodies, individuals and representatives of political parties took advantage of it.

The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) criticised particular representations that affected the part of Northern Ireland that he represents. Obviously, I am not as familiar as he is with the details of the points he raised, although I am tolerably familiar with his constituency and especially with Ballyclare.

It is self evident that any proposed pattern of electoral boundaries leaves scope for endless argument about alternative schemes that might have been proposed. That is why the way in which this was carried out is a powerful argument for us to accept the judgment of Sir Frank Harrison. That is what we are debating tonight, not the constraints or parameters within which he had to operate. The House decided on those in February 1984. Today we are debating his judgments. We wish to see that they are put into operation as soon as possible so that all those engaged in elections in May will know where they are and can begin to make preparations on the basis of the order, which I commend to the House.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 121, Noes 6.

Division No. 73] [11.26 pm
Alexander, Richard Hargreaves, Kenneth
Amess, David Harris, David
Arnold, Tom Hayes, J.

Ashby, David Hayward, Robert
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E) Heathcoat-Amory, David
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Heddle, John
Batiste, Spencer Hind, Kenneth
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Beith, A. J. Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)
Bellingham, Henry Jessel, Toby
Benyon, William Johnston, Russell
Biffen, Rt Hon John Jones, Robert (W Herts)
Blackburn, John Key, Robert
Boscawen, Hon Robert King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Bottomley, Peter Knight, Gregory (Derby N)
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Knowles, Michael
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Knox, David
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Lang, Ian
Bright, Graham Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Brooke, Hon Peter Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Bruinvels, Peter Lester, Jim
Burt, Alistair Macfarlane, Neil
Butcher, John Maclean, David John
Butterfill, John Major, John
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S) Mather, Carol
Carttiss, Michael Moynihan, Hon C.

Cash, William Newton, Tony
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Ottaway, Richard
Chope, Christopher Pawsey, James
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Roe, Mrs Marion
Coombs, Simon Rowe, Andrew
Cope, John Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Couchman, James Sayeed, Jonathan
Currie, Mrs Edwina Scott, Nicholas
Dorrell, Stephen Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Dover, Den Skeet, T. H. H.

Dunn, Robert Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Durant, Tony Soames, Hon Nicholas
Fallon, Michael Speed, Keith
Favell, Anthony Spencer, Derek
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Stern, Michael
Forth, Eric Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Freeman, Roger Stevens, Martin (Fulham)
Gale, Roger Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Galley, Roy Sumberg, David
Garel-Jones, Tristan Taylor, John (Solihull)
Gregory, Conal Terlezki, Stefan
Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'ds) Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Ground, Patrick Thurnham, Peter
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Tracey, Richard
Hampson, Dr Keith Twinn, Dr Ian
Hanley, Jeremy Waddington, David
Walden, George Whitney, Raymond
Wallace, James Wilkinson, John
Waller, Gary Wood, Timothy
Wardle, C. (Bexhill) Yeo, Tim
Watson, John
Watts, John Tellers for the Ayes:
Wells, Bowen (Hertford) Mr. Michael Neubert and
Wheeler, John Mr. Peter Lloyd.
Whitfield, John
Beggs, Roy Walker, Cecil (Belfast N)
Maginnis, Ken
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James Tellers for the Noes:
Nicholson, J. Mr William Ross and
Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down) Mr. Clifford Forsythe.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft District Electoral Areas (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 19th December, be approved.