HC Deb 23 April 1996 vol 276 cc258-85

  1. 6(B) (1) A constituency list shall not be validly submitted unless accompanied by a deposit of £2,000.
  2. (2) A regional list shall not be validly submitted unless accompanied by a deposit of £5,000.
  3. (3) If a party submitting a constituency list fails to obtain 5 per cent. of the valid votes cast in that constituency it shall forfeit the deposit lodged in respect of that constituency.
  4. (4) If a party submitting a regional list fails to obtain 2 per cent. of the valid votes cast in Northern Ireland as a whole, it shall forfeit the deposit lodged with its regional list.'.

The First Deputy Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following amendments: No. 46, page 5, line 10, at end insert— '6A. A constituency list shall not be validly submitted unless assented to by 100 persons on the electoral register for that constituency.'.

No. 13, page 6, line 19, at end insert— '(d) he has been convicted of a scheduled offence within the terms of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991'.

No. 16, page 6, line 19, at end insert— '(d) he has been convicted of any serious terrorist offence prescribed in an Order made under paragraph 1.'

No. 52, page 6, line 19, at end insert— '(d) he is not entitled to vote in any constituency in Northern Ireland under the provisions of paragraph 4 of this Schedule.'.

No. 73, page 6, line 19, at end insert— '(d) he is not ordinarily resident in Northern Ireland; (e) he is not on the current electoral register for a Northern Ireland parliamentary constituency.'.

Mr. Trimble

The issue raised by amendment No. 46 was discussed in an earlier debate, owing to its similarity to amendment No. 74, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Spelthorne. Given the Government's hostility to that amendment, I shall deal now with amendment No. 44.

The Minister said earlier that the Government were prepared to do their utmost to prevent frivolous parties from standing in the elections. I took a longhand note, which may not be entirely accurate, but I think that Hansard will confirm that that is more or less what was said. I agree: we are engaged in a serious business. It is not like a by-election, in which we expect the Monster Raving Loony party and many others to feature, merely in order to advertise themselves.

The point about self-advertisement is worth considering. The parties that are nominated are entitled to free postal facilities, allowing them to deliver a manifesto to each elector or a leaflet to every household. It is called the postal drop. That allows those who wish to advertise certain issues, or even products, an opportunity that people involved in local government by-elections have been prepared to pay for—but under the Government's proposals they would not have to pay. Having found a person who is prepared to stand for them in a particular area, they would be entitled to the postal drop. I consider that undesirable, but, if it is to come about, we should be allowed the safeguard that applies in electoral law generally—the requirement for a deposit. That, we hope, would act as a disincentive, at least to parties with limited resources. In many respects, of course, that applies to my party.

Northern Ireland press reports have suggested that one of the parties that would be standing recently helped itself to £1 million from Securicor. We assume that it is fairly flush as a consequence. We trust that it acquired the money solely for the purpose of electioneering, rather than for the activities in which it was engaged before the ceasefire. We would prefer it to spend its money on electioneering: we do not mind about the unfair advantage conferred on it.

Mr. Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West)

I hope that I have not wrongly assumed what the hon. Gentleman is about to say. He drew attention to the parallel with deposits for parliamentary elections. The return of those deposits depends on a certain degree of performance; I cannot see a parallel with that in amendment No 44.

Mr. McNamara

It is on the other side of the page.

Mr. Trimble

Indeed, if my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) turns the page, he will see the answer to his question.

I may be criticised for pitching the deposit on the high side, but a £5,000 deposit for a regional list that may contain 10 names does not strike me as excessive, given the current £500 tariff for parliamentary elections. It could, I suppose, be argued that that is the equivalent of £500 for each of four candidates on a constituency list, which can in fact contain up to five candidates, but I felt that if we were to provide a disincentive, it should be a serious disincentive.

As for the saving of deposits, I think that we are being entirely fair. We are saying that a party can save its deposit if it obtains 5 per cent. of the vote. That is a pretty low hurdle, and the hurdle for regional lists is even lower, at 2 per cent.

Mr. Barnes

Is it not technically possible for a party to receive less than 2 per cent. of the vote, lose its deposit and still have representatives appointed?

Mr. Trimble

That is one of the ludicrous consequences of having a regional list, which was criticised earlier. If the deposit were forfeited when a party failed to win 2 per cent. of the vote, a significant number of parties would probably be elected, and would be able to take part in negotiations although they had lost their deposits. At least the loss of their deposits would mark their failure to obtain support, however, and no doubt others would take the opportunity to remind them of that loss.

The point of the amendment is to achieve the objective mentioned earlier by the Minister, and to prevent frivolous parties from standing.

Mr. Barnes

I shall speak to amendment No. 52.

Schedule 1 contains a paragraph entitled "Disqualification". Disqualification is limited to candidates who are offenders in prison, who are detained on the ground of mental illness and who are not of voting age. That is quite restricted, compared with the requirements for parliamentary candidates. I realise that we are not talking about parliamentary elections, but we should discuss the possible equivalent of a parliamentary disqualification. I refer to the nationality restriction—the legal disqualification of those who are often termed aliens. Those who are not British or Commonwealth citizens, or citizens of the Republic of Ireland, cannot stand in parliamentary elections. Should a similar provision operate in Northern Ireland?

We are talking about the establishment of a forum, followed by negotiations. Part of those negotiations—strand 1—will involve the British Government and political parties in Northern Ireland. Should we not restrict electoral candidates to people from Northern Ireland? The obvious list, surely, would be composed of those entitled to vote in the elections, who are referred to in paragraph 4 of the schedule.

We should consider those who belong to the area that is relevant to the decisions being made—people who consider themselves to be part of that community, even if it is a divided community in which different views are held. It would not be right for someone from Great Britain to be drafted in by one of the leaders of the parties that will be standing, including some of the minor parties. It would not be appropriate for people from the Republic of Ireland who do not qualify for inclusion on the electoral register to stand. I do not know whether it is thought reasonable that, if Sinn Fein become involved in negotiations, its representation should be allowed to include perhaps a large number of such people from the Republic of Ireland.

8 pm

As I said earlier, for Parliament, the grounds for legal disqualifications are wider than that, and I am not suggesting that any of those grounds should apply. Disqualifications on peers and peeresses will apply, and ministers of religion from the Church of England, the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church and those who are bankrupt are disqualified, as are many people who hold public office, such as the chairman of the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland or a member of the Northern Ireland Economic Council.

Obviously, the body that we are debating has specific purposes, and it would not be appropriate to use the list of disqualifications that applies in parliamentary elections. In law, we define those who stand for election by means of disqualification: it is a negative procedure that excludes hosts of people. Perhaps it goes too far and many people should not be excluded. Not even the electoral register is perfect, because it includes overseas voters who do not seem to be appropriate people to stand in elections. However, it is unlikely that any of them would qualify.

People who are interested in standing for election might be appointed by the leaders of political parties, of which the Bill contains a large list. That must have been considered by the Government when they drafted the legislation. It is hardly an oversight that there is no reference to the electoral register, and I should like to know why it was not included in the legislation. Are the reasons for it to do with the development of negotiations and the forum? Is it felt that anyone can stand as long as the disqualifications in the schedule do not apply to him?

Mr. Wilshire

Amendment No. 73 is in my name, and as it covers much of the ground that has been covered by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), I shall not repeat the arguments. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman realises how close he might be to a particular truth. He may find some of my speech fascinating. My amendment adds two requirements, one of which is a variation on the hon. Gentleman's amendment. I chose being on the Northern Ireland electoral register as one of the qualifications—I understand the weakness of the parliamentary register—and my other qualification is that a candidate must be ordinarily resident in Northern Ireland.

I had a specific reason for moving the amendment. It is that a rumour has reached me that if I succeed in persuading a certain mainland party to stand in the elections and nominate candidates, punishment might follow. The punishment that I heard suggested was that I might be dispatched to sit on the negotiating panel. As I am the Government's majority of one, it crossed my mind that my absence, except when Northern Ireland business is being discussed, would not be welcome.

I was not sure how to treat the rumour, but I decided that, just in case it had crossed the Government's mind that that would be one way to deal with those of us who go on a bit about the Conservative party fighting these elections, I would move an amendment disqualifying me from being part of the negotiating team, to close the loophole. I can either pursue the amendment or my right hon. and learned Friend can put me out of my misery by saying that it had not crossed his mind that anybody from the mainland should speak for the Conservative party when they take their place on the negotiating team.

Mr. Dowd

I thought that the Government's majority of one had already been claimed by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir J. Critchley). I presume that the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) is on the reserve list.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) for intervening during his speech. It was my error. The four amendments with which the lead amendment is grouped are at the top of page 500 and I turned two pages at once and missed the remainder of the hon. Gentleman's amendment. He rather gave the game away about the object of the amendments in response to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). I think that the amendment is designed to show the undoubted anomalies and contradictions in the Bill as a whole. We have spent much time picking over those, but I do not think that anybody has suggested that this is a perfect mechanism. However, we fervently hope that Parliament never needs to return to anything remotely resembling this legislation and that the success of the project on which we are embarked will in due course render that unnecessary.

Amendments Nos. 44 and 46 would in other circumstances seem reasonable. I accept the point that was made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann that no other election for local or national government is without other types of qualification such as deposits or, in the case of local government, a proposer, seconder and eight assentors. The election that we are discussing would be unique in that people could simply declare themselves as candidates and, on the strength only of their say-so, could appear on the ballot paper. In the context of what we are trying to achieve, we shall just have to live with that.

There is the qualification of the party list. When I wrote my notes for this part of the debate, I thought that, as we had covered party lists, the issue was redundant. However, in view of the previous debate, we have not finished with that issue, but at least we have the essence of a decision about who will be able to declare themselves as candidates.

Another effect of amendments Nos. 44 and 46, certainly in terms of the cash deposit, would be to militate—not deliberately or maliciously—against smaller parties being able to find a place in the deliberations, which we hope will take place productively, after 10 June. The object of the exercise is not simply to identify the juggernauts of politics in Northern Ireland. They are well known, and they are the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party. We are discussing a deliberative assembly that will have no powers and will simply look at the future that can be made for all the people of Northern Ireland. It will assist that process to have present as many representatives of the strands of opinion of Northern Ireland citizens as possible.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East made much of the Natural Law party, but perhaps we shall just have to live with that. However the list of parties is finally resolved, it will contain a cross-section of individuals, groups and communities whose voices are not always heard in the clamour of every-day politics. They would be welcome and, I am sure, valuable to the work that the assembly, the negotiations and the forum have before them. To some degree, we are stuck with the dilemma that, in any legal or technical sense, it is not possible to put to Northern Ireland's people the real question that we would want to ask in relation to parties. That question would be, "Which parties would you want to see getting together to discuss the future of the community and its people?"

That deals with the issue raised by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). He mentioned his preference for wanting to ensure that the voices with whom he does not agree should he there to state the case on behalf of the interests that they represent. It is only by an accommodation with them and between them that progress will be made.

I shall not dwell on amendments Nos. 13 and 16 because the hon. Members who tabled them are not here, but I shall just say that they would hinder rather than help the process, so we would oppose them if they came up.

We have much sympathy with those who tabled amendments Nos. 52 and 73—my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) and the hon. Member for Spelthorne—because we feel strongly that the solution, or at least the major part of the solution, to the problems that have beset Northern Ireland in recent times lies in the hands of Northern Ireland's people. It is important to ensure that, as far as possible, it is they and only they who take part, certainly in this phase of what is an intricate and delicate process.

As I mentioned earlier, we must have some regard to what in other times would seem the strange arrangement and legislative formula that is being put before the House, but they are an attempt to break from the past. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) made the significant point that the political process to date has not worked in favour of either the United Kingdom and its citizens or, especially, Northern Ireland's people. We need therefore to try something different and new. Some people are threatened by anything new—it may involve the title of political parties. The fear of the threat of the new is often greater than its implication.

We must be prepared to pursue different alternatives to find a way through this because, if this process does not work, it will not, by any means, be the end of the matter. A deficiency in many of the arguments advanced during the discussion of various provisions in the Bill has been the lack of any idea of what the alternatives are if we do not proceed with this, warts and all. What can we look forward to? What can the people of Northern Ireland, the UK or anywhere else look forward to if we do not make the best effort to make a success of this?

As I said yesterday, we do this not with wild-eyed optimism or starry-eyed ambition, but in the sense that progress must be made by reasonable people acting reasonably. Sometimes it means accepting anomalies and quirks that we would not, in other circumstances, accept, but we firmly believe that the effort is necessary.

8.15 pm
Mr. William Ross

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd), and I think that I heard him say that he believed that these matters should be left completely in the hands of Northern Ireland's people. May I take it from that that he supports amendment No. 73, tabled by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who is so anxious to serve Her Majesty's Government in the House that he does not want to be drafted off, shanghaied and sent to Northern Ireland? I admire his loyalty to his party, but if the Labour party now says that it supports the thesis of the amendment, that makes me happy.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne must be clearly aware that, if his amendment is not accepted, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his right hon. and hon. Friends, who will be on the Government team, will be in Northern Ireland, yet, if it is accepted, they would be debarred. That would of course be wonderful and truly in keeping with the view expressed by those on the Labour Benches that the matter should all be left completely in the hands of Northern Ireland's people. The amendment would ensure that there would be no interference from interlopers from the Irish Republic. That would also be welcome. I am most intrigued not only by the amendment, but by the response and support that it has received from Opposition Members.

Northern Ireland's people would be capable of reaching sensible agreements among themselves, if only the nationalist population would learn to stand on its feet and not rely as much as it has on the support of Her Majesty's Government, Dublin, the United States of America and all the rest. We in this party have always been more than willing to stand on our feet and defend our position—we are capable of doing so. If the Social Democratic and Labour party did the same, it could defend its case adequately and we would find ourselves a long way down the road towards agreement among the peoples of Northern Ireland. The amendment is therefore welcome and I hope that the Minister will say that the Government accept it.

The concern about deposits seem a reasonable issue to raise. It has often been debated in the House in the context of deposits for parliamentary elections. No one who is anxious to come to the House ever allowed the tiny deposit that is demanded to stop them. The real difficulty is in the cost of the elections. Such sums will be in a bank. Anyone who is confident and has a real message to put across should easily find the sums demanded, run their candidates and gain sufficient support to get their money back. Therefore, if they have a real message and real support in the community, there is no risk.

I therefore have great pleasure in supporting the amendments standing in the name of my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself and in the name of the hon. Member for Spelthorne.

Mr. Barnes

May I point out the differences between amendments Nos. 52 and 73—my amendment and the one in the name of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire)? His amendment adds that people on electoral registers will be excluded if they are not ordinarily resident in Northern Ireland. That produces a host of administrative problems. We would have to determine who is not ordinarily resident, and could not check just against the register. In the circumstances leading to those formulations, difficulties would arise.

In relation to who votes in the elections, my amendment refers to the same registers as schedule 4, but the hon. Gentleman's refers to parliamentary constituencies: presumably, therefore, parliamentary registers will be considered. There is a difference of about 70 people. For instance, peers and peeresses are allowed to vote in local government elections, but not in parliamentary elections.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I thank you, Sir Geoffrey, for giving me the opportunity to support my hon. Friends. The hurdle for election to this place and to the Northern Ireland Assembly, when it existed, was the need for a deposit as well as sponsors and supporters. The need for sponsors and supporters has been omitted from the amendment, leaving only the financial aspect to test the credibility of those who want to stand. It may be that, thinking of the reserves that might be needed, the deposit was set at £2,000 instead of, say, £1,500 for each candidate representing a party.

I sympathise with the views of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). I was not aware that he was defensive about himself. I thought that he had the courage to face every issue. He has just made a simple mistake in this case by mentioning the parliamentary register because the Bill is based on the local government register; that has been the case all along.

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) raised an important issue. It is fascinating to realise that there seems to be concern that some folk from mainland parties in Great Britain may come, or some from the Republic of Ireland. It is equally possible that some people from Islington and from Kilburn might be nominated if the amendment were not accepted.

Mr. Barnes

There are not just limitations in connection with the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain when it comes to those who might be excluded by the disqualification. It is wide open. Anyone who is of voting age, does not suffer from mental illness, and is not in prison is eligible to stand, from whichever country they come.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I welcome that clarification. It may be that those who drafted the Bill were mesmerised by the Conservative party's recruitment campaign to get voters from overseas. Perhaps the European dimension figured as some European citizens are now able to stand for local government elections in the United Kingdom. That is further argument in support of the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire.

Mr. Ancram

We have had a useful debate on the amendments. The hon. Member for Upper Bann accepted that we have already debated the meat of amendment No. 46, which differs very little from the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne which was dealt with earlier. The only difference is in the figure. I reiterate what I said earlier, which is that in terms of the burden it may create, we do not believe that that is the way to proceed.

I think that we all accept that the purpose of a deposit is to seek to introduce into the electoral process a degree of consciousness on the part of those taking part by testing their resolve to contest the poll. I notice amendment No. 44 in the name of the hon. Member for Upper Bann which deals with that issue.

When considering the case for introducing a deposit, the first point of principle should be the desire to keep the electoral process as open as possible. We considered that matter seriously. We should not seek to hinder those who we believe have a valuable contribution to make in the process. The hon. Member for Upper Bann suggested that the levels he has set are too high. I must tell the House that there are a number of parties which have a voice that should be heard and a valuable role to play which are already concerned about the expense of fighting an election. Those parties will have to deal with that in order to show their commitment to the democratic process. Having given a great deal of thought to this issue, I believe that the amendment would only undermine the case for the inclusiveness of the election, which is important.

I am particularly concerned that a regional deposit would not serve any real purpose other than to place further hurdles in the path of those who wish to be part of the election but who do not enjoy the financial muscle of some other parties. It is not our intention to create administrative hurdles which would prevent some parties from putting their case to the wider electorate.

I hope that we have demonstrated in different ways today that we expect parties to approach the process seriously and that it is not our intention to look for frivolous parties. I hope that we have taken on board the meat of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Upper Bann in the amendment that we did accept which relates to the three constituencies. I think that that has been accepted as an indication that we see the spirit of the amendments. However, I feel that the actuality of them would be damaging rather than helpful. I hope that the hon. Member for Upper Bann, through his hon. Friends, will withdraw the amendment.

I will not dwell at length on amendments Nos. 13 and 16 because the hon. Members who tabled them are not present. However, as they are on the amendment paper, it is right to say that, although I understand the purpose behind them, I would be uncomfortable if I were seeking to cast out from the election process those who fall into the criteria in the amendments, but who—we know that there are many such people in Northern Ireland—now live and work in the community and work hard to take forward the peace process and make their contribution felt. It would be wrong if they were excluded.

On the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne, I feel that those who are nominated by their representative to stand as a candidate should not have to live in Northern Ireland or be on the electoral register there. I gave a great deal of thought to that. I heard what the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said about the Ulster Unionists standing on their own feet. As he knows, I have a great deal of respect for the way in which they stand up for their principles and their causes and fight their corner. However, I remind them that in my early days in the House they had the right hon. Enoch Powell as a valuable member of their team. If I am right, I do not believe that he was born in Northern Ireland and I do not think that he lived there.

Mr. William Ross

That was for this House. We are happy to consider applications for parliamentary seats in Northern Ireland from any part of the United Kingdom. The mere fact that the Minister is sitting for the seat that he is shows how broad a church his party is in this respect.

Mr. Ancram

Absolutely. My point, which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept, is that however strong his party may be, it has in the past welcomed people from outside the Province in order to strengthen its arguments. We feel that there may be people from outside the Province who, if nominated, might have a valuable role to play. We feel that it would be wrong for us to proscribe that. Such decisions should be made by the nominating representatives. I would be uneasy at limiting their ability to choose by imposing unnecessary restrictions on the qualifying criteria. After all, the criteria are fairly broad in the various electoral systems we have.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) suggested that this was a one-off which might not recur—we hope that it will not recur. However, it is worth looking at other situations. The Act of Settlement 1700 governs the parliamentary candidatures and allows those born in the United Kingdom "and the dominions thereto", Commonwealth citizens and citizens of the Republic of Ireland to stand for Parliament. Any citizen of a member state of the European Community may stand as a candidate anywhere within the Community for the European Parliament under the terms of the 1994 European parliamentary elections regulations—that is the short way of referring to them. The 1972 Northern Ireland local government legislation, as amended, also allows citizens of the Republic of Ireland to stand for election to a Northern Ireland council, but they must be either on the register of local electors or owning or renting a property or residing in the district. So, various different rules apply to various different elections.

Mr. Barnes

The different rules apply to different situations. People can stand for elections anywhere in the European Union because the elections concern a European Union of which we are all part. People from Britain can stand as candidates in Northern Ireland for the UK Parliament because the elections relate to the UK Parliament. We are talking about a Northern Ireland forum, and its corner of the discussions is of the most important nature. It would therefore seem reasonable to use the register in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Ancram

I appreciate that, but I say again that it would be wrong for us in this House to say to those who will be nominating persons whom they wish to be on their lists and whom they want to take part in the forum and the negotiations that we will set a restriction. I do not believe that it is justified and it does not apply in other types of electoral system.

8.30 pm

We have to be careful. If we exercised the eligibility of total local government candidature, we would make other exclusions, such as bankrupts and people who have been in prison in the past five years. We have to be realistic. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West said that we are trying to create a situation that will provide for a forum and negotiations. In order to do that, we are having to do it in a way that we think will make it most likely to succeed in creating the mandate to allow that process to be taken forward. Having given much serious consideration to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne and the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire, it is our view that the Bill as it stands is correctly drafted.

I do not know where my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne heard the rumour to which he referred, but we certainly value his contributions to Northern Ireland debates here far too much to allow him to dissipate his efforts by taking part in a process. I can also assure him, since he seemed to think that I had ambitions beyond my present concerns, that I equally—I also speak for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State—have no intention of being nominated as the Conservative to take part in the election.

Mr. William Ross

The Minister told us earlier—it is also in the Bill—that the Government will have three representatives at the negotiations and that they will have a back-up team of five, who could presumably replace one of the three if someone were ill, for example. Will the Minister explain to us so that it is clear in our minds exactly who those three people are, how they will be selected, who the five are, how they will be selected, what the role of each group will be and how much they are interchangeable?

Mr. Ancram

I do not want to revisit the whole of the debate that we had yesterday, but we made it clear that there was no limit on the size of negotiating teams. There are limits on the numbers who can appear at any given negotiating session, and those were the ones that were set out. There is some misunderstanding because those who are described as "behind", as opposed to "in front", are there to advise. I am told that those who were involved in the last set of talks will recognise the configurations.

Mr. McGrady

indicated assent.

Mr. Ancram

I see the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) nodding.

Mr. Ross

I was not.

Mr. Ancram

I know that the hon. Gentleman was not, but I am saying to him that the idea of having advisers and those whose support one needs behind one is not new. It is merely a reiteration because many of us feel—perhaps unwisely—that we need the support of others behind us when we are negotiating.

I have thought very carefully about whether we should have limited those who could be put on the lists. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne will agree that, if we are to enter the process with the best hands that the parties can put forward in their negotiators, it is better that those decisions are left to them. I hope that he will withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Wilshire

When I spoke to my amendment, I raised the personal points that I did because I did not want to repeat those made by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). As a result of the debate that has ensued, however, I should add that I agree with all the points that he made. They are far more serious than those I made about myself.

In response to my points, I am reassured by the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister. I do not know whether he will relish the result of saying that he values my contributions to these debates because it might encourage me to detain the House even longer than I have over the past two days.

I am afraid that my hon. Friend the Minister failed to persuade me of a case for resisting the amendments because all the examples used about why they would not be sensible were all examples of why the established precedent is for some form of restriction. He cited the European Parliament. If one is resident in Peru or on the Peruvian electoral register, one cannot compete in European Parliament elections, but one can if one lives in the European Community.

In Northern Ireland local government, the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) rightly said that one could participate if one lived in the Republic, but went on to slip in that one had either to live in Northern Ireland or work there, which is exactly the sort of restriction for which the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire and I have been arguing. If one considers any other electoral process in the UK, such as parish, district, county, or as the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said, parliamentary elections, there is a restriction on where one lives or works too. I do not therefore believe that the case has been made for rejecting the amendments.

I can however offer one very good reason why I am inclined not to press my amendments. It is not for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Minister has given, but the fact that if I force a Division I know that I shall lose and the punishment of being sent to Northern Ireland would become ever more real.

Mr. Barnes

The political positions on Northern Ireland issues that the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) and I take differ considerably in many ways. It is therefore significant that we are arguing a similar case.

Mr. Wilshire

To clarify matters, I would be perfectly happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman's amendment rather than mine. It is a matter of drafting. I hope that he will accept that I feel not in the least bit strongly that my amendment is better than his.

Mr. Barnes

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. We are both involved in the affairs of the British-Irish parliamentary body. I would press the Unionists very strongly to involve themselves in it too. My arguments do not come from a Unionist camp. I am concerned about other things. The importance of taking Northern Ireland as a unit and involving the people of Northern Ireland in decision making is of paramount importance. Many candidates from outside Northern Ireland, who are appointed by the leaders of the parties, are liable to stand in the election.

A number of parties in the list in schedule 1 operate on an all-Ireland basis. The Democratic Left operates in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland, as do the Green party, Sinn Fein, the Workers' party and the Communist party of Ireland. There are also often quite close links, or considerable sympathy, about a united Ireland between Fianna Fail and the SDLP. Of course, Sinn Fein operates on an all-Ireland basis. It is important that we consider how to determine who is a part of the political unit that we are discussing, and should therefore be involved and drawn in? That is what my amendment seeks to do.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I shall respond again to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire, because he appealed to us as Unionists to join the British-Irish parliamentary tier. As I understand it, the Bill is designed to prepare the way towards a better agreement than the Anglo-Irish agreement. We went down that road in 1992, and Mr. Albert Reynolds lifted the ball when he discovered that things were not going his way. That process has collapsed, and we are now embarked on a course which may lead us to a better agreement. In that situation I am sure that Unionism will be represented, where we need to represent Ulster.

Having said that, I ask leave to withdraw the amendments in the names of my colleagues, amendments Nos. 44 and 46, but I believe—

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. The only Member who can seek leave to withdraw an amendment is the person who moved it in the first place—and technically, although the other amendments grouped with the main amendment may be debated, they have not been moved; they may be moved only one at a time.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I appreciate that guidance, Dame Janet. I was responding to a request from the Minister of State, because our leaders are having discussions at this moment, so they are not in the Chamber.

The arguments of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire are pertinent. Two Governments will be represented in the negotiations, so it is important that the other people there represent the people of Northern Ireland, and do not come from any other part of the world.

Amendment negatived.

The Second Deputy Chairman

Before we move on, I have a short announcement to make to the Committee. A manuscript amendment has been tabled in the name of the Secretary of State, relating to schedule 2, page 8, line 3. I have selected that amendment, and it will be discussed with the group led by amendment No. 64. Copies of the manuscript amendment are available in the Vote Office.

Mr. Wilshire

On a point of order, Dame Janet. It might help the Committee to know that the manuscript amendment relates to an amendment of mine. I was asked about it, and I think that it makes a great deal of sense.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I beg to move amendment No. 51, in page 5, line 12, leave out from 'cast' to end of line 2 on page 6 and insert 'preferentially among the candidates named on the party list on the ballot paper for each constituency. (2) Counting shall be conducted by the single transferable vote system to produce five delegates for each constituency.'.

The Second Deputy Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following amendments: No. 43, in page 5, line 15, at end insert 'and that party's candidates for that constituency.'

No. 158, in page 5, line 15, at end insert 'together with the names of the candidates submitted by the nominating representative of the party for that constituency'.

Mr. Kirkwood

As someone with no great experience in such matters, it has been fascinating for me, and an education, to sit in on the Committee stage of this important Bill. In preparation, a few colleagues and I were afforded the opportunity by the Minister to go and talk to some of his officials and some representatives of the political parties both in the Province and in the Republic.

I pay tribute to the Minister for having allowed us that facility—although I know that other hon. Members have been able to take advantage of such a facility as part of the familiarisation programme. I found it extremely interesting. We were received with great hospitality, and learned a lot in the process. I pay tribute to those who assisted in that process, and thank the Minister for arranging it.

8.45 pm

I bring an unfamiliar face, but a fresh mind, to such subjects. In the course of our visit, in anticipation of moving the amendment and while researching the background to it, I was struck by the optimism in all parts of the community about the progress that has been made recently. To me there seemed to be momentum for change. Certainly there has already been a great deal of economic and social change, which I think will pay dividends in the fulness of time, and feed through into the political process. It is to be hoped that that will assuage some of the fears that we have heard about in Committee.

I now come to the context of amendment No. 51. It should come as a surprise to no one that, given an electoral system to discuss, a Liberal Democrat will leap forward and grab the opportunity to debate the relative merits of single transferable votes and multi-member constituencies.

I shall spare the Committee the finer points of the authorised version of that text, because I am sure that everyone is already familiar with them. However, I must ask why the Government did not adopt the system of proportional representation—STVs and multi-member seats. There seem to be several compelling reasons for doing so in the present context.

The structure that the Government propose is certainly not simple. I understand why it may have to be that way, and I pay tribute to the way in which the Minister has painstakingly, and with great patience, put the thing together. It is a bit of a Heath Robinson apparatus, but the Minister, like the rest of us, hopes that it will bear fruit. We wish him well, and hope that it produces results in the end.

None the less, the suggested electoral system seems bizarre and complicated to me. If I have interpreted what I have heard in Committee correctly, it also seems to have the disadvantage of being quite unpopular. I certainly have not heard anybody passionately endorsing it.

Judging by our visit last week, there is much evidence to suggest that not everybody fully understands the system either—and that includes some of the Government officials and some of the people who will preside over it. Confusion still surrounds it. More important, perhaps, is the disturbing evidence that the voters who will be involved in the process cannot easily see how their votes will translate into elected parties and representatives. That is a matter for concern.

In Northern Ireland, the single transferable vote system is far more familiar. I do not need to tell the Minister that, because in a short space of time he has made himself an expert on all aspects of life in the Province, especially the political aspects. That is what he is paid to do, and he has discharged his duties impeccably.

So far as I remember, the most recent Assembly elections in 1982 were successfully conducted by a process of single transferable votes. The same system is used in council elections and European elections—in all elections, in fact, except the Westminster elections. The arguments that may be used against a proportional STV system on the mainland do not apply in the Province, because people are familiar with the system and educated in its use. They have used it to good effect in the past.

Such a system would certainly be simpler. It would cut out clauses 8 to 13 at a stroke, which would be an advantage in a Bill that is already more complicated than some of us would like. Above all, perhaps, an STV system would give voters much more effective choice. Instead of voting for one party alone, they could effectively vote against a party, by ranking everyone else higher. They could also vote against the community divide, which is something we should try to encourage.

Moreover, voters would more easily be able to vote for doves as opposed to hawks in terms of particular problems and cross-community questions in the Province. Above all else, an STV system would be proportional. The Government's proposed system may tend towards proportionality, but only just. There is still scope for wide variations—but perhaps that is what the Minister wants to encourage.

From our perspective as a party, the onus is on the Government to explain why STV has not been selected as the preferred system for electing this important forum. STV in a multi-member constituency is the only way to achieve a system in which every vote would count the same. I look forward to the Minister's response to this short but important debate.

Mr. Trimble

I rise to support amendment No. 51 and to speak to my amendment No. 43, which is on similar lines to amendment No. 158, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry.

In supporting amendment No. 51 in favour of the single transferable vote system, I find myself behaving in a way of which I do not entirely approve. STV is not the best system of proportional representation, because it has serious side effects. Had we the time to consider the matter and the opportunity to choose the best system, we would not choose STV.

However, we are familiar with it. In Northern Ireland, we have lived with STV since 1973. Although there was considerable concern about the effect that it might have on parties when it was introduced, the political parties and the electorate have learned to live with it and operate it in a sophisticated manner. While some of its effects are injurious to political parties, it is the system with which we are familiar. All the existing arrangements are made for it. The legislation is already on the statute book. No change would need to be made to existing law to operate the STV system.

STV is a fair system. No system of proportional representation achieves absolute proportionality. There are bound to be some quirks that depart from that no matter what the system. However, STV gets close to proportionality. There can be no objection to it on grounds of fairness. I believe that the Electoral Reform Society, which is based in London, has long been an enthusiastic advocate for it.

Given the situation that is going to arise in Northern Ireland, there is a particular reason for adopting STV, in that it allows transfers of votes. The list system that we will be obliged to operate has obvious disadvantages. We have just witnessed a clear demonstration of those disadvantages in the Chamber tonight. We saw the disagreement that broke out in the Committee and the ill will and confusion that it created among hon. Members familiar with proportional systems.

That is partly the result of choosing the list system, and partly of the haste with which the list has been introduced. It may also partly be the result of carelessness and inconsistentcy, especially the latter, by the Northern Ireland Office.

Even if we get over those problems with the manner in which the list system has been introduced for this election in Northern Ireland, it has another significant disadvantage. Under the list system, there is no transfer of votes. That is all very well where a party's support approximates to or equals the number of quotas. However, if it has more than a particular number of quotas, it will have a fraction of a quota over. There may be several parties with fractions of a quota over.

In Northern Ireland, with the list system operating on a constituency basis with five seats to be filled, it is likely that the fourth and fifth seats will be filled by choosing the largest fractions as determined by the D'Hondt method, which is embodied in the legislation. The largest fractions will win seats, but the fractions of smaller parties will be wasted votes.

Had we operated a transferable vote system, those fractions would transfer. They would be transferred not under an arbitrary mathematical formula such as the D'Hondt formula, but in accordance with the wishes of the voter. That will have a significant effect. We do not how the votes will be cast, and any illustration of its effect must be made using previous voting patterns that may not be replicated on 30 May.

Let us consider the likely voting pattern in Belfast, West, which is a constituency with a nationalist majority. Under the STV system, it is likely that four of the seats would be won by Sinn Fein and the SDLP—perhaps two each: I am not going to make a judgment on that—but that the fifth seat would be won by a Unionist.

It is likely, come 30 May, that there will be candidates from the Ulster Unionist party, the DUP, the Progressive Unionist party and perhaps even the Ulster Democratic party. There will be an Alliance party candidate, and perhaps even a United Kingdom Unionist party candidate. If we had had STV, all those parties would probably between them have commanded more votes than a quota under the STV system. Transferred votes would have accumulated around one of those parties, which would then have won a seat.

The party that won the seat would be the party that voters who had given their first preference to, say, the PUP, gave as their second preference. Someone would be returned to represent the Unionists of Belfast, West. The likelihood on 30 May is that, because of the way in which the list system operates, those fractions, as they are divided among so many parties, will be small and consequently will fail to win a seat. The fifth seat will go to the largest nationalist party, which will probably be Sinn Fein in this case. The consequence of adopting the list system in Belfast, West is likely to be that there will be a seat lost to Unionism and gained by Sinn Fein.

I chose that example because it shows how the list system disadvantages parties that achieve small votes in a particular constituency. That has a bearing on the position of the small parties, especially the loyalist parties, because in that example of Belfast, West, there is a good chance that that Unionist vote would have coalesced around the PUP, thus giving it a seat. Because the list system has been adopted, it is likely that it will not get one.

We are then forced into the monstrosity of the regional list proposals, which are being introduced purely to bring the paramilitary parties through. Had the STV system—with which we are all familiar—been adopted, the situation would not have arisen. It is not only a matter of familiarity with the STV system, and the ease and convenience of it being already on the statute book, but that it would have been fairer to the smaller parties had it been adopted.

Mr. William Ross

My hon. Friend has dealt with the fairly extreme case of west Belfast. One or two other constituencies on either side of the political divide might well produce a similar result. Would my hon. Friend care to reflect for a moment on constituencies in which four seats might be won by various groupings, but the fifth becomes a lottery and there is no possibility of anyone determining to which party it should go? I think that most constituencies in Northern Ireland are in that position.

Mr. Trimble

My hon. Friend is right: there will be great difficulty in saying where the final seat should go. Under the single transferable vote system, it would be determined by the voters transferring their votes, whereas, under the proposed system, it will depend on a mathematical formula.

Mr. Ross

It would be completely arbitrary.

9 pm

Mr. Trimble

It would not be entirely arbitrary, because the result would relate to the original first preferences cast by the electorate.

The results are difficult to predict at this stage. The predictions I made for the example I chose may well turn out to be accurate, but in other cases it is extremely difficult to predict. I imagine that, after the event, the election will be a field day for academics who like to write on the subject. They will analyse the results and debate whether they were capricious in any particular case.

For the reasons that I have advanced—having the legislation on the statute book, familiarity of operation and fairness to the smaller parties, it seems to me that, on the merits, there is an overwhelming case in favour of the single transferable vote system. It also seems to me, and I do not resile from the view that I have expressed previously—I think that it is accurate—that there are no merits behind the alternative proposal that has been adopted. That proposal seems to have come from a certain quarter as a wrecking amendment adapted by others for other reasons. It has produced the confusion and uncertainty that we have seen here tonight.

In the circumstances that have arisen, we are prepared to support the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on amendment No. 51 should he feel like pressing it.

We have tabled amendment No. 43, to which we attach considerable importance. While we have a list system, it is said to be one based on constituencies. In those constituencies, candidates will be standing for the parties that are contesting those seats. Under any normal system, those candidates are entitled to be recognised and to have their name on the ballot paper. Some of them may win and some may not, but they are all entitled to be recognised.

We normally operate under a system in which the names of the candidates in a constituency are on the ballot paper so that the voters in the booth can make their choice knowing whom they are electing. It is essential that we operate on that basis. I attach the greatest importance to seeing the names of the candidates on the ballot paper.

We had a discussion earlier about what should appear on the ballot paper—names, party names and the rest of it. Our position throughout has been that we want to see the names of our candidates who are standing in a constituency on the ballot paper, together with the party name. People object to that, saying that it will result in too many names; that there might be up to five names for each party and a considerable number of parties, and that there would be scores of names on the ballot paper. Yes, indeed. I do not see that as a problem.

We are not dealing with the prospect of 60 names on a list each with their own little box for people to mark their X or put 1, 2 or 3 under the single transferable vote system. At the edge of the ballot paper, there will be only one box for each party. We think that it is perfectly possible to put on the ballot paper the name of the party and below that the names of the candidates, all contained in the one box for that party. There is no reason why that cannot be done.

The Minister will recall a Labour Member referring on Second Reading to a recent election that he had seen in Palestine, in which there were 92 names on the ballot paper. So it can be done. It will not cause confusion. Rather than causing confusion, it will help the situation by letting the voter know for whom he is voting.

We know from discussions with the Minister that he will say that names will be publicised and notices will be put up to show the names; that there will be notices in the polling station or even in the booth. It has been suggested that the notice in the booth will be covered by perspex to stop people annotating it. I suppose that, if the information is to be in the booth, it jolly well ought to have perspex over it. I can imagine some of the ways in which people might annotate it that might add to the enjoyment of life for some people, but perhaps not for others.

However, this is not a sensible way of proceeding—a sensible way of proceeding is to make this novel provision correspond as closely as possible with what people are accustomed to. The obvious thing to do is to put the names of the candidates and the parties on the ballot paper. That is what people are accustomed to seeing, and when they vote for the party of their choice, they will know exactly which candidates they are endeavouring to elect. This is something to which we attach the utmost significance, and it is what we have wanted to see with regard to this issue right from the outset.

Mr. McNamara

I refer to the actual voting system. I have considerable sympathy with what the Liberals have said—

Mr. Maginnis

And the Ulster Unionists.

Mr. McNamara

If I may be allowed to make my own speech—I was going to say what the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) said. I am concerned about the actual formula that is going to be adopted, because I do not understand it enough. Will the Minister confirm that the d'Hondt formula is being used in the Bill?

Mr. Ancram

indicated assent.

Mr. McNamara

The Minister nods; I am pleased that is so.

For the convenience of hon. Members, will the Minister prepare some worked examples of mythical constituencies and how the formula might work, so that we can look at it in more detail? Perhaps he could arrange for it to be placed in the Library. We could then see how matters have been arrived at by the Northern Ireland Office.

There is one difficulty with d'Hondt. If we had a remainder system on quotas, it would help some of the smaller parties—perhaps the Alliance party, perhaps Sinn Fein, or perhaps the UK Unionist party—Robert McCartney, to give its full title. The d'Hondt system will tend to favour the larger parties, as the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has said. I am not sure whether the Government, by adopting this system, have defeated the object of their exercise in having the extra 20 seats.

If we had a remainder system, we would have a greater representation of some of the more middling parties, but we might not get some of the more extremist loyalist parties that the Minister is looking for on his list of 20. I should be grateful if we could have some worked examples to try to see how it will work out in the election when it takes place.

I have already spoken on some of the issues involved in amendment No. 43, which the hon. Member for Upper Bann moved earlier. I should be grateful if the Minister could describe what he is going to do, because it will be of the utmost importance. Even if one accepted the amendment, there would still be a need for large postering within polling stations—in a readable form—so that people can see the names of the candidates for whom they are voting, and see them in relation to the parties.

Mr. Maginnis

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) on amendment No. 43. I spoke about this matter at some length on Second Reading. It concerns me—and more than it did previously. I listened to the debate that took place earlier this afternoon, and I was puzzled by the clamour in some quarters for a list system based on party names—it is now being discovered that there is some advantage in being able to identify the personalities for whom one is voting. However, democracy is not about single high-profile individuals or comparatively small parties with one high-profile character, but about the participation of members of society elected, by that society, and answerable to it in terms of their responsibilities.

As we appear to be tied to party names, and major difficulties appear to have arisen from that novel—and obviously flawed—system, I would press the Minister to listen carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann said about identifying on the ground in the 18 various constituencies those who represent the party named on the ballot paper.

One other matter might usefully be considered in this context. The Minister should clarify—I asked him to do so on Second Reading, and he overlooked the matter—the basis on which votes for the various parties will be evaluated in terms of the quota, and whether "T" in paragraph 8(2) is the total number of votes given or the total number of valid votes cast.

I hope that I have not strayed too far, Dame Janet. I hope that the Minister will find some justification for responding to that point also.

Mr. William Ross

Dame Janet, you will see that, not only was I one of those who tabled amendment No. 43, but I tabled amendment No. 158, which is intended to reach the same conclusion. That juxtaposition of two amendments aiming at the same object arises simply and purely from the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and I did not do the drafting together, so we chose different wording to reach the same object.

If I may say so, I believe that my amendment is a slight improvement on my hon. Friend's amendment, because I place the responsibility for getting the names correct on my hon. Friend, and I believe that he should be prepared to withdraw his amendment and support mine, and accept the responsibility that goes with leadership of the party.

In those circumstances, I commend my amendment to the Committee, and carry us somewhat further than my hon. Friend did when he drew attention to the need for the names of the candidates to appear on the ballot paper. He suggested one way of doing so; another would be to have a box for the names of candidates at the end, but I believe that it would be better to place the name underneath the party name.

I point out to the Secretary of State and Minister of State that, in normal parliamentary ballots, a description of the person is printed on the ballot paper, and I should have thought that it was a very good idea. The electorate like to know the identity of individuals for whom they may vote. It guides them, and helps them to place their cross. In those circumstances, this reasonable amendment should be accepted.

I am one of those who do not love proportional representation in any shape or form, believing that it is, in effect, a fudge to avoid the necessity of making up one's mind what one really wants. Proportional representation causes considerable grief in every country where the system is used. It is destructive to party political organisation in a number of ways and, above all, it is not accepted throughout the United Kingdom. I simply do not like it and I shall never accept it willingly—although I am stuck with it at the moment. In those circumstances, I must choose between single transferable votes and the list system—and STVs win hands down every time. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann described that system fairly clearly: it is more proportional and it produces acceptable results as it is closer to the will of the people than the monstrous system that is being foisted upon us in the legislation.

9.15 pm

My only objection to the amendment standing in the names of the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), and the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), is that it does not go far enough. I believe that several other issues must be examined also. People will cast a vote for a party in the constituency to elect the party nominees in that constituency, and those votes will then be lumped together.

Although people may vote for a candidate from a minor party in the constituency, it does not mean that they want their votes to carry over to that minor party on the wider canvas. People might be prepared to support local individuals, but not the general thrust of their parties. Electors should cast another vote for the party that is shown on the constituency list. That would entail using two ballot papers, but that has been done before.

Will the Minister examine that aspect? It is a reasonable request and, as we are making an effort to educate the electorate, why not do a really good job of it? As the Minister knows, after every election there is a tremendous torrent of complaints from people who were refused ballot papers because they could not produce any identification. The Government and the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland have assiduously refused to take any steps to discover the number of people who lose out as a result.

The passage of new legislation presents a superb opportunity to correct that difficulty. Presiding officers at each polling station should be required to keep a record of the number of people who are refused ballot papers and the reasons for that refusal. That would go a long way towards identifying the magnitude of the problem.

Those who live in Northern Ireland recognise that it is an enormous problem, which is causing immense resentment and anger among the electorate. It should be addressed, and here is an opportunity to do that. The legislation will apply to only one election, but it will give us an idea of the magnitude of the difficulty that people encounter and enable the Government to take remedial action in the long term.

I urge the Minister to look at the suggestion very carefully. If one of my starred amendments had been selected, we could have discussed arid voted upon the issue in this place—but that was not to be. I simply suggest that the problem be considered seriously on Report or in another place. The Minister is aware that there is an horrendous row every time, as it becomes more and more difficult to identify electors with every passing election. That burden is borne by electors in Northern Ireland, but it does not apply elsewhere in the United Kingdom. That is very much resented, although the system was introduced for good reasons. We have never been happy, and I do not believe that any party in Northern Ireland has ever been happy with the system that has been used to identify electors, because it is inefficient. It is also difficult for the honest to use and very easy for those with evil intentions to get round.

I hope that the Government will not only accept amendment No. 51, but will build on it before the Bill returns to this place for its final parliamentary stage. I hope that the Minister will also accept amendment No. 43. If he can, but cannot accept amendment No. 158, I would be content with that.

Mr. Ancram

Once again, we have had a useful debate and, as in so many of the debates, we agree about what we are trying to achieve although we may not always agree about how to achieve it. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) for the kind remarks that he made about the visit that he made to the Province recently. I know that many people in Northern Ireland, not least in the departments in the Northern Ireland Office, like to see visitors from this side of the water. Many people come to Northern Ireland and leave surprised at what they have seen there. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments and, if I may, I shall pass on his thanks to those who were involved in the visit.

The hon. Gentleman showed remarkable restraint in giving us only the short version of STV, not the long one. I am sure that he appreciates that the circumstances are unique. I keep repeating that the system is a one-off system for a one-off purpose. For that reason, we have to find a system that we believe will have the best chance of succeeding.

We sought, in consultations with the parties, to find a broadly acceptable electoral process to try to reach agreement for all-party negotiations. We met most of the major and, indeed, most of the minor parties in Northern Ireland. While there were some encouraging signs of agreement, the elective system was not among them. We are trying to move forward on the basis of consensus, but it is difficult to do so when, as in Northern Ireland, there are strongly polarised and opposed views on various systems.

We had a variety of options for an electoral system, but none secured the clear support of the major parties representing main communities. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister himself said that there were three systems, each of which was supported by one of the major parties, but that it was impossible to find consensus among those parties on any one system. We chose, therefore, a list system operating in 18 constituencies. I admit that that was a new way to proceed, but it was an attempt to find some way that would allow parties that felt strongly on both sides of the argument to come forward into the process. The system is neither a pure list system nor a PR-STV election, but we hoped that in some ways it would combine elements of both.

I say straightforwardly that the fact that we have not proposed using a straight PR-STV 18-constituency system should not be regarded as a reflection on that system and the way in which it operates in Northern Ireland. I heard what the hon. Member for Upper Bann had to say about that system, but it is used in Northern Ireland for all elections except parliamentary elections. That speaks for itself. I can tell the hon. Member that we chose not to use that system, not because we had found fault with that system as it works in Northern Ireland, but to try to produce a system that had the best prospect of bringing parties into a forum and into negotiations.

Mr. Trimble

As the Minister says, the single transferable vote system is currently used in Northern Ireland for all elections other than parliamentary elections. Does he have any evidence that the single transferable vote system is unacceptable to the parties in Northern Ireland in respect of these elections?

Mr. Ancram

We consulted the parties on the form of election that would have the best chance of succeeding in taking us through the gateway to the process on which we are embarking. I think that the hon. Gentleman knows well that strong opinions and views were expressed. I do not think that it is any secret that there are strong views among the parties in Northern Ireland, some of which we heard earlier this evening. This was a genuine attempt by the Government to seek a system which might be new and which might be fairly unusual, but which we believed had the best chance of achieving the objective, which is to get into the forum and all-party negotiations.

Mr. Trimble

The Minister says that there were strong objections to the single transferable vote system, but were those objections ever voiced before?

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman will have to accept it from me. He came to see me about the matter as well. We had full consultations, and I can say only that I experienced strong feelings from several quarters during those consultations. It was made clear to me that consensus on those various forms of election was not possible. It is for that reason that we have adopted a different system. However, I have heard what the hon. Gentleman has had to say and we are grateful that he has intervened on behalf of his party in the debate and for what he had to say.

Mr. William Ross

Will the Minister please tell us who among the parties in Northern Ireland was in favour of this system?

Mr. Ancram

I chose my words carefully and said that we went for a system which we believed, in the light of all the consultations, had the best chance of succeeding in taking parties through into all-party negotiations and into the forum. I shall not be drawn by a comment made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who asked whether it was because we had something which was unpopular with everyone that it was likely to succeed. However, there were times during the consultations when opinions were so polarised between the various systems that it became clear to us that not a single one of those systems would have a chance of succeeding, and for that reason we have put forward our proposal.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) did not want me to go into the detail of the system. When he asked about it, I nodded assent that it is based on d'Hondt. The basis is a group quota, so it may be regarded as a mixture of the two.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) asked whether the number of votes is the total number of votes cast or votes given. I refer him to the Bill, which makes it clear that it is the total number of votes given rather than those cast.

Mr. Maginnis

I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that point, but I am astounded at his reply. We have found so many matters incorporated in the Bill which, when examined in the context of the Bill as a whole, seem to be absolute nonsense. Now the Minister says that if 10 per cent. of the electorate go into the voting station and destroy their ballot papers, their votes will count in terms of deciding a quota. The vote does not show a preference, but it is a vote given. It is a vote put in the ballot box, and it will count in terms of deciding a quota.

I have never before heard of a system whereby spoiled votes were taken into consideration when deciding the value of votes given. It has always been a matter of deciding on the basis of valid votes—whether it be under the first-past-the-post system or under the single transferable vote system. I am astonished to the extent that I believe that the Minister should check again, to see whether it is a matter of deciding on the basis of valid votes cast.

Mr. Ancram

I wanted to confirm the position, and I have now been informed that spoiled votes will not count as votes given.

Mr. Canavan

The Minister said that in the first place.

Mr. Ancram

I think that I made that matter clear, but I have now confirmed the position. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone for again raising the issue so that it could be clarified.

Mr. Maginnis

I am always happy to try to help out the Minister.

9.30 pm
Mr. Ancram

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for offering his assistance from a seated position. I am sure that the people of Northern Ireland will be grateful for the information that they have now received.

I tell the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North that I shall not be drawn into making predictions. It is notoriously difficult to make predictions on how votes will be cast—particularly in a situation in which there have recently been different elections and different types of elections, and different assessments could be made on the basis of the different types of votes cast. I hope that he will accept that there was consultation before deciding on the system of voting that was finally adopted.

In reply to the hon. Member for East Londonderry, I very much share his concern about voter information. I can tell him that we shall this week receive the first delivery of our voter information leaflet about absentee voting and specified documents. The leaflet will tell people what they need to ensure that they have an up-to-date document when they go to the polling station to cast their votes. I heard what he had to say about checking the number of occasions on which people are turned away for not having the right identification, and I shall certainly pass on his comments to those who will be running this election.

Mr. William Ross

I am grateful to the Minister for saying that, but do not let them be put off by the chief electoral officer saying, "Those people may very well go away and come back again." We want to know the number of people turned away initially, because that will give us an idea of the magnitude of the problem. We appreciate that some people may go home and come back, but our experience is that many of them go home in fury and do not come back.

Mr. Ancram

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the chief electoral officer is aware of the remarks that he has made in this debate.

I come to amendment No. 43, spoken to by the hon. Member for Upper Bann. As he said, he and I have talked about the matter on a number of occasions, and I think that he will accept that I am as concerned as he is to see that people who are casting their votes are aware of the candidates who are on the local list. Although the vote will be for a party—which will be cast by putting a cross against the name of a single party; there is no question of candidate preferences—it obviously will be of some importance that voters know which candidates are on the local party list.

I must again tell the hon. Member for Upper Bann that I am not convinced that putting those names on the ballot paper is the answer. I have examined the potential numbers that might result from that provision, and not 90 names but, theoretically, up to 150 names could result from it. We are also talking about a new type of election, whereas people may previously have been used to seeing names and putting preferential numbers against those. It is important that, when voters see their ballot paper, their choice is simple and straightforward—a vote for a party.

Mr. Trimble


Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman has again read my mind. So that those who are casting their votes know the names of candidates on the party lists before casting their vote, we shall ensure that the names are fully displayed not only in the polling station but in the polling booths. It may be, as the hon. Gentleman said, that lamination is a way in which to prevent the lists being destroyed.

Mr. Trimble

The Minister said that he has examined the problem. He knows from our earlier discussions that I asked him to make up mock ballot papers with the names on, and that I suggested ways in which the names could appear, which would not require a large amount of space. Has that been done? If so, is the Minister prepared to circulate the mock ballot papers so that we can comment on them?

Mr. Ancram

I have examined various shapes of ballot papers as well as the effect that the number of parties and names on them might have. I cite an example. A normal polling booth has a shelf in it or an area in which people fill in the ballot paper. We have to be careful that we do not produce a ballot paper that is unmanageable in terms of what the voter has to lean on when making his cross.

The biggest consideration is to ensure that, although we are using what we all admit is a new system, there is as little confusion as possible. If there are vast numbers of names on a ballot paper, inevitably in small print, and people have to find one among them, it can lead only to confusion.

Mr. Trimble

indicated dissent.

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but we agree that what is important is that when the voter casts his vote, he is able to see the names on each party list so that he can make his decision on that basis if necessary. That will be made possible by having the lists within the polling booths and ensuring that they are visible to people casting their vote.

Mr. Maginnis

With respect, the Minister is being wholly illogical. To suggest that we cannot educate the electorate on the difference between marking 1, 2, 3 and so on and voting with an X, but that we can, at the last minute, just before they cast their vote in the booth, confront them with, as he says, a list of 30 parties and the attached theoretical five names per party—making 150 names—and that that is how we should inform them, is utter rubbish. If we knew that the ballot paper was going to be published, with the names of the parties and the two, three, four or five candidates, our supporters could undertake some preparation. Every party would be involved in the same exercise. We could thus prepare the electorate for what they were about to face. By suggesting that he confront them in the booth with 150 names, and the 30 parties that he mentions, the Minister is making fools of us all.

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman must be fair. I am not suggesting that when the votes are cast is to be the first time that the names will have been made available. I think that it is common ground between the hon. Member for Upper Bann and me that when votes are cast, it is proper that those names are available to the voter. That is why he wants them on the ballot paper and why I want them in the polling booth. However, they will be published elsewhere. I suspect that they will be published in the newspapers, and they could be published officially in the polling station. There are various ways in which the information could be got to the voter beforehand. We are not talking about that. We are debating the most effective way to avoid unnecessary confusion and the danger of spoilt ballot papers about which the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone was speaking as if he is already expecting many. We want to avoid such problems by making the choice as simple as possible.

The strength of the system that we are proposing is that, for the voter, it requires only one cross to be put against one party. We must make sure that the voter understands that when he goes into the polling booth and is faced with the ballot paper. I think that what we are proposing is the best way to achieve that.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Surely it is the duty of the parties to be putting their names to the people. If the poor critter going to vote is seeing the names for the first time, it is the parties' fault. They should have been campaigning and putting the names before the people. Can the Minister assure us that the information will be in party form so that, unlike with the list that he mentions, voters will understand what names belong to which party when they see the advertisements in the polling booths?

Mr. Ancram

The information in the polling booth will certainly show the names attached to the party lists. It is important that that is made absolutely clear. It is also our intention to make sure that the names will be entered by a given date, which will be set out in the order that will follow this legislation. At that stage, I am certain that most political parties will take advantage of the opportunity to ensure that their supporters know the names on the local lists

Mr. Maginnis

I did not understand the last intervention, and I wonder whether the Minister did. A short time ago, it was argued that voters would find it difficult to identify parties, even if their initials were attached, unless the names of the leaders of those parties were on the ballot paper. It is now being argued that, because we as parties fulfil our responsibilities, the ordinary voter should be able to carry a complicated ballot paper in his mind's eye from the moment of education until his arrival in the polling booth—or should be easily able to transfer what is before him in the booth on to the ballot paper. There is no consistency in that.

May I make a further point? Will a legislative change be needed to allow the names of candidates to appear in the polling booth? In elections in which I have been involved, voters were not allowed to receive such information.

Mr. Ancram

I understand that no legislation is required, but I shall check that.

Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that information is normally provided in the polling booth: the information on the ballot paper, which allows a choice. The hon. Member for Upper Bann and I differ only on whether that information should be on the ballot paper, or should be available in the polling booth. I strongly believe—given the need to avoid confusion, and the possibility that up to 150 names could be on the ballot paper—that I am proposing the right course. I hope that, on that basis, the amendment will be withdrawn.

Mr. Canavan

Voters have normally made up their minds by the time they reach the polling booth. Would it not be more practicable and desirable to circulate the names as widely as possible among the Northern Ireland electorate?

Clause 5 obliges the Secretary of State to publish an initial list of the nominating representatives of each party in The Belfast Gazette. I do not think that The Belfast Gazette goes to every home in Northern Ireland. Would it not be better to make statutory provision for the list of candidates for each party also to be published in The Belfast Gazette in the first instance, thus giving the rest of the media the opportunity—or, indeed, obliging the Secretary of State—to publish the parties' list of candidates throughout Northern Ireland, rather than just leaving it to people to turn up in the polling booths to check the information?

Mr. Ancram

As I said earlier, we intend to ensure that the lists are published and fully available. I presume, and have been given every indication, that if there is a date on which the lists are made available, the parties taking part in the political process will take advantage of that, to try to ensure that they receive the maximum publicity for the names that they are putting forward. That is a normal part of the electoral process

Rev. Ian Paisley

Surely everyone who goes to the polling booth need not keep all those lists in mind. It is a simple matter for people to put a cross by the name of the party that they favour. No one will have to keep 150 names in mind, as the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) suggested. People will be voting for a party, and they will simply put a cross by the name of the party that they want. That is a good deal easier than picking names on an alphabetical basis.

Mr. Ancram

I endorse what the hon. Gentleman says, that the election is about putting a cross against a party. As part of the process of informing the electorate about which party to support, it is obviously relevant to know the names on the local list.

On that basis, the issue between us is one of presentation, and I hope that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire will withdraw his amendment.

In answer to an earlier question, the subordinate legislation will amend the election rules so that the names of candidates will appear in the polling booths.

9.45 pm
Mr. Kirkwood

I hope that the Minister agrees that this has been a useful debate. As a result of the comments in the early part of the debate on the amendments, I have become more and more worried that the system is so complex that it would have been better to use a proportional representation system with the single transferable vote. In his explanation of why he did not move in that direction, the Minister suggested that, for some theological reason which was not clear to me, one of the parties would have vetoed such a system.

The Minister is much closer to the matter than I am and the Committee will have to trust his judgment. Some of us are worried that in future we may have to warn him that we told him so. He will obviously get the system that he is going for. I will not stand in his way and I shall be happy to withdraw the amendment, but I reserve the right at other times and in other places to continue the discussion on the value and advantages of a single transferable vote system. Having regard to the details that have been produced as a result of the debate, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn

Amendments made: No. 142, in page 7, line 5, at end insert '—Communist Party of Ireland'.—[Mr. Ancram.]

No. 48, in page 7, line 26, after 'Party', insert '(SDLP)'.—[Mr. McGrady.]

Schedule 1, as amended, agreed to

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