HC Deb 23 April 1996 vol 276 cc205-58

4 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram)

I beg to move amendment No. 176, in page 4, line 12, leave out sub-paragraph (3)

This is a technical amendment, which removes a part of the order-making power, which, as it transpires from the drafting of the election order, is no longer necessary. It had been thought that the power to make rules of court in respect of electoral petitions would be transferred from the authority having power to make such rules to the Secretary of State. The power is unnecessary, because the elections order will apply the parliamentary election petition rules with modifications.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I beg to move amendment No. 15, in page 4, line 20, leave out 'and twenty for Northern Ireland as a whole'.

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following amendments: No. 17, in page 5, leave out lines 1 and 2.

No. 47, in page 5, line 1, leave out 'one constituency list' and insert 'three constituency lists.'.

No. 18, in page 5, leave out lines 5 and 6.

No. 157, in page 5, line 5, leave out from 'must' to end of line 6 and insert 'not exceed eighteen'.

No. 19, in page 5, leave out lines 9 and 10.

No. 20, in page 6, leave out lines 3 to 12.

No. 12, in page 6, leave out lines 6 and 7 and insert— (2) Three candidates from the regional list of each of the three parties with the largest aggregates shall be returned as delegates along with two candidates from the regional list of each of the next four parties with the largest aggregates and one candidate from the regional list of each of the next three parties with the largest aggregates.'.

No. 21, in page 6, line 14, leave out the words 'or regional'.

No. 22, in page 6, line 22, leave out the words 'or regional'.

No. 23, in page 6, line 32, leave out from 'delegate' to end of line 34.

No. 24, in page 6, leave out lines 35 and 36.

Mr. Robinson

There are a number of amendments in this group, and several of them are consequential.

There are two principal amendments in the group, and I freely admit that this is very much a belt and braces operation. I am sure that the Government recognise that the thrust of the amendments is an attempt to democratise the electoral process that they have attempted to rig.

The two principal amendments are Nos. 15 and 12. Amendment No. 15 seeks to leave out the words and twenty for Northern Ireland as a whole", which is a reference to the regional list that the Secretary of State has attached to the 18 constituency lists where elections would be held.

If, in the view of the Committee, it is not considered appropriate to remove the regional list in its entirety, there is clearly an argument for some scaling within that list. Amendment No. 12 allows some democracy to enter the system. It is not as democratic as some of the other amendments, but given that the purpose of the regional list in the Government's view was to give some weighting to the votes of very small parties, the amendment at least makes a gesture towards the Government's purpose, while at the same time acknowledging the strength of political parties' support in the electorate as a whole.

The process that gave rise to the Government putting forward a regional list commenced when the Prime Minister said on 28 February: The issues still to be settled include, first, the nature of the electoral system to be used in the elective process. There are strong views for and against different systems. Although the decision is for us, the British Government, we first intend to explore and test all the options in discussions with the parties before coming to our decision on what seems most broadly acceptable."—[Official Report, 28 February 1996; Vol. 272, c. 900-1.] I emphasise those words, because the Prime Minister set Northern Ireland parties a test to establish the most broadly acceptable process.

After a period of consultation, for which the Government called, parties emerged with two principal available options. The political parties did not express the view that there were only two options—that was the Government's view. They issued a discussion paper on 8 March, in which they said: The two main realistic options appear to be:

  1. (a) STV 18 x 5 Member Constituencies
  2. (b) Party List, Northern Ireland single constituency".
The Government recognised on the foot of consultations arising out of the process they had set up that two main options were open, and only two.

The Ulster Democratic Unionist party, the SDLP and all the small parties, with the exception of the Alliance party, agreed that the party list system was the best way forward. The Ulster Unionist party and the Alliance party favoured the single transferable vote in a multi-member constituency. It was clear from the criteria set down by the Prime Minister that the list system, under which the whole of Northern Ireland would be a single constituency, was the most broadly acceptable, yet the Government were not prepared to accept it.

On 21 March, the Prime Minister said that three different electoral systems had been put forward during the consultation process. That was after his own Government representatives in Northern Ireland had already provided a document that said there were only two. To provide an excuse and a cover so that the Government could change their criteria, they decided that there were three systems.

The Government attempted to magnify the minutiae of the difference between the SDLP version of a list system and my party's version in order to divide and conquer. The Government could quite easily have said that the list system was favoured and was the most broadly acceptable, and that some minor areas needed to be clarified, but they decided not to do so, and instead went for a hybrid system.

The reason why the Government decided on a hybrid system was that, in the background, on 15 March, they had produced another document, which was again to inform and assist parties on the ground rules for substantive all-party negotiations. Paragraph 8 of that document said: The two Governments may agree, following consultations with the political parties who have obtained representation at the negotiations, that a political party which has failed to obtain a mandate in the elective process may be offered observer status at the negotiations. Such observer status would involve participation in negotiations subject to the same conditions applying to other political parties". That proposition was manifestly absurd; those who had lost the election and been rejected by the electorate would be able to present themselves in the negotiating process on exactly the same terms as those who had been successful in the elective process. I am not sure what the other political parties' reaction to the Minister of State was, but I know what ours was—that the paragraph was clearly unacceptable.

So a hybrid system was born, with a regional list intended to give an entrée to the talks process to those who would have been rejected under any other electoral system. The only way in which the Government could get the unacceptable face of the Unionist community through the door was to provide those people with a free ticket, by allowing the top 10 parties into the talks process with two representatives each from the list.

Of course, the Government had done their calculations beforehand, and determined that the two loyalist parties from the paramilitary fringes would be able to scrape themselves up sufficient votes across the country to qualify as one of the top 10 parties. That was the means by which the Government sought to secure representation at the table for those loyalist paramilitary parties. There was no reason for the regional list other than to provide a ticket for them.

I do not doubt that some in the House will say that it is a good thing that those people should be there. Many of us, even those who do not like the elective system, would say that, if people can obtain a mandate, it is a good thing that they should be there; but if they cannot secure a mandate, they should not be there. It would be rather demeaning for those representatives, or for those of any other political party, to find themselves in the negotiating process having come through as second-class politicians tinder the proposed system. It would not give them the same credibility as those who can secure a proper mandate.

The effect of the schedule, and thus of the regional list that it says is necessary for Northern Ireland, can be explained as follows. If we transferred the votes cast at the most recent election held in Northern Ireland, the European election, into the proposed new system, the top three parties would have secured 81.6 per cent. of the vote, for which they would get 30 per cent. of the places, while the bottom three parties in the list of 10 suggested by the Secretary of State would have secured 1.3 per cent. of the vote—yet for that they too would receive 30 per cent. of the places.

To put that another way, the top three parties would have to secure 76,450 votes for one place, whereas the bottom three would require only 1,213 votes for one place. No one can suggest that there is the least degree of democracy in such a system. If the Secretary of State is not prepared to wipe the regional list out entirely and rely on the list system within the constituencies, he could at least attempt to introduce some scaling within the system.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful and compelling case against the unjust arrangements before the Committee, and I agree with him. Does he agree that an even more significant point about the rag, tag and bobtail of thugs whom the mechanism will let in, is the fact that, because the system requires agreement by consent of everybody, the minority of terrorist apologists will have a veto over the 80 to 90 per cent. of properly democratically elected people?

Mr. Robinson

The hon. Gentleman's point is sound. Further, having jumped through all those hoops for the sake of these groups, it could well be that they would not be entitled to be part of the negotiating process under the rules that the Secretary of State has outlined. We would have distorted the democratic process to try to get a result that cannot be produced.

Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West)

I accept much of what the hon. Gentleman has said, and agree that there was broad support for the top three parties at the European election. The votes cast in that election for his party and for my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) make a high percentage, but the Government ignored that.

We must consider the present situation and what can be done. I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said about the regional list. It sounds like a farce, but it is important that the representatives of the paramilitaries should be there. It would be unrealistic if, on 10 June, no representatives of the loyalist paramilitaries and, through Sinn Fein, the Provisional IRA, were there. I believe that they should be there, but I take his point.

4.15 pm
Mr. Robinson

Of course, if the electorate were to support them, those groups would be there. If the hon. Gentleman feels that it is important that they should be there, he can go out and canvass for them. He can go up and down the Falls road and Andersonstown saying, "Vote Progressive Unionist party or Ulster Democratic party." In a democratic society, that option is open to anyone who believes that those are the parties that should be in the talks process. Everyone has the option of supporting them.

At the end of any argument, a vote is taken by the people. The ballot box verdict must be the final judgment. If people cannot secure sufficient votes to get through the gateway into the process, they do not deserve to be there. They certainly do not deserve to be there on the argument that I think is at the back of the hon. Gentleman's mind—that they can cause destruction. As soon as one accepts that argument, one says that it is important to ensure that those who are prepared to kill have a place at the negotiating table. That only encourages more people to take up the gun and to place the bomb.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that I, as the leader of a minority party, endorse his sentiments about the undemocratic nature of the elections, and agree that there can be no basis for these strange electoral arrangements, other than the inclusion of parties that would otherwise be incapable of obtaining a mandate from any representative section of the people of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Robinson

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member. It says much for him that he is prepared to put the interests of democracy above his self-interest and that of people around him.

It cannot be argued that those who receive 81.6 per cent. of the vote should get the same number of representatives at the end of the process as those who receive 1.3 per cent. That does not stand up to argument. The party that topped the poll, with almost 30 per cent. of vote, is to get the same number of representatives as a party that got 0.33 per cent. of the vote. The Secretary of State cannot justify such an outcome. If that is to be the case, I hope that at the very least he will accept a clause that will allow some scaling in the system.

If that is the unfairness of the system, what will be its outcome? Again using the results of the European election, let us see who will be coming through the door to meet the Secretary of State in the talks. At No. 10, he will have the Natural Law party. This is a serious matter. He has provided the system. He wants to ensure that the top 10 parties in Northern Ireland will be at the negotiating table to decide the future of Northern Ireland, its relationship with the Irish Republic and all the issue that he believes are important.

The Secretary of State is providing a system which, on the last election results, would bring through the door the Natural Law party. It is important that we look at something of the parties that will be there. The Natural Law party believes in yogic flying. It believes that yogic flying produces bubbling bliss for the individual, creates maximum coherence in brain function—that might be useful around this place—and increases harmony and positivity in society, leading to reductions in crime and other negative trends. It is a phenomenon known as the Maharishi effect.

We as representatives of Northern Ireland will be spending 12 or perhaps 24 months with such people. If they are given the same amount of time as the rest of us, for at least one or two months we shall have to witness the Natural Law party yogic flying around the conference room, giving us the benefits of its proposals for the future of Northern Ireland. What will that do for the standing of the process with the delegates and the electorate? It will make the whole process a laughing stock.

The Secretary of State has not fully thought out the consequences of the proposal that he has placed before the Committee. It is undemocratic and fatally flawed. Its purpose was to bring in paramilitaries who could not get elected under any other process. It gives rise not only to such vexatious parties as the Natural Law party coming through the door but to an unwieldy conference table.

The proposal ensures that there will be 10 parties from Northern Ireland at the negotiating table. Those parties will be joined not only by Her Majesty's Government in strand 1 but by Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Irish Republic in strand 2. So there will be 12 parties, each of which will have three representatives as negotiators, and we shall have 36 negotiators. Each of the negotiators for the political parties of Northern Ireland will have the support of three people, and the two Governments will have the support of five. So there will be 76 people around the negotiating table.

What sort of negotiations will take place in the United Nations atmosphere that the Secretary of State is creating? It just is not reasonable. It just would not work. It is clear that, before too long, the Secretary of State—or perhaps the Minister of State, who might understand it better because he has responsibility for sport—will have to set up a premier league. He will have to decide that the yogic fliers can fly elsewhere, and the serious politicians should be in a room to themselves.

The Secretary of State is creating further problems down the line for himself simply through the process in which he has indulged in this schedule. I ask him to consider the system more fully than he has, and either take out the regional list system in its entirety or do some serious scaling down to ensure that democracy is inserted into the process.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

We have listened to a robust and fluent speech from the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who denounced the proposals for a top-up system as creating a fundamentally unfair system. Of course it is possible on a formalistic view of a democratic system to mount a case in support of that. It is equally possible to mount a similarly argued case when, in reflection of particular political, social or historical circumstances, it is considered appropriate to have a system of a weighted majority.

During the discussions that took place over six months in 1992, we found that there was general consent that there should be a system of a weighted majority in any assembly that may come to be devolved as a consequence of an overall settlement. Therefore, while I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Belfast, East is entitled to make, in formal terms, the complaint that he has made, I meet it by saying that similar complaints could be made about any system of a weighted majority; yet all parties, his own included, acknowledged in 1992 that there was a place in Northern Ireland for a weighted majority.

The hon. Gentleman also said that representatives of parties close to paramilitary organisations ought not to be the subject of this special consideration. Against that, I ask him to consider the reasonably widely expressed view that those who represent those parties—it is acknowledged that they are unlikely to secure a numerous vote of preferences—should be present at and take part in the discussions.

At one stage—the hon. Gentleman mentioned this—the Government believed that there might be quite a bit to be said for having them present on an observer basis. That suggestion was canvassed, but it met with scant support. In fact, it was denounced by the hon. Gentleman, and by his leader, the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), among others. The Government came to the conclusion that those protests were well founded, and that we ought to look for some other way to achieve this representation within an electoral system.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

The Secretary of State is in the process of confessing that the only reason why we have this regional list system is to give certain paramilitary parties representation. When he devised the system—which provided representation for the top 10 parties—there were only a dozen or so parties on his list. However, his list has now been expanded to 33—soon to be 34. Is he equally confident that the paramilitary parties, which are the sole object of his attention, will succeed in getting into the top 10? Does he feel it necessary to extend the list of the number of parties who will get guaranteed seats to bring in the parties that he is favouring?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

That is a fair point. There are now more small parties than was the case when the Government published the first list. So be it; let us see what happens. The purpose is to secure that those who will not get a large vote, by reason of small but significant support, will not be excluded from participation in the all-party negotiations.

It would have been possible to legislate in a way that focused this provision only on small parties, but it seemed appropriate and less likely to attract criticisms of unfairness, to allow the representation on a Northern Ireland-wide basis to extend to those who came within the top 10 of the aggregated votes.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Prime Minister's observations. However, I think that he unwittingly gave a misleading account of the Government's original document, which preceded the Prime Minister's statement of 21 March. He said that that document—the consultation document of 8 March—stated that only two systems of election had attracted support, but if he finds the appropriate place he will confirm that that document said that two main systems had attracted support. It was not accurate to say that that those were the only two systems that had attracted support. The two main realistic options appeared to be single transferable vote and the party list.

4.30 pm

On 21 March 1996, the Prime Minister told the House: Whatever the merits of each of the three main systems, it is clear that none, on its own, meets that criterion of broad acceptability. We have therefore considered how to proceed. We have decided to propose a new system He described it. He said in the following paragraph: I believe that this is a fair and valid system that will produce a representative outcome. The Province-wide element should help to achieve the widely shared objective of making the negotiating process as inclusive as possible through representation of the smaller parties."—[Official Report, 21 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 497-8.]

Paragraph 8 of the written statement, the paper that was published the same day, contains the following statement of the five factors that the Government have taken into account, in the absence of widespread agreement:

  • "its overriding obligation is to ensure the start of all-party negotiations on 10 June;
  • the negotiations should be conducted on as inclusive a basis as is compatible with democratic principles;
  • it would be wrong to conduct the election, intended to bring all parties together in negotiations, on the basis of any system that was in flat contradiction to the expressed views of one or other of the main communities;
  • none of the systems identified by the parties meets this test and accordingly none is acceptable;
  • a fair and balanced system must therefore be identified which should secure broad acceptance across the community."

Mr. Robert McCartney

I am sure that the Secretary of State appreciates that the basic principle of democracy is that people or representatives should be elected on the mandate of the people. Is he aware that some of the representatives of the parties he hopes to include by means of this electoral Caliban, have said that their mandate is the silence of their guns?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am not aware of the particular quotation that the hon. and learned Gentleman makes, but if that has been said by someone who may benefit from the process, who is standing, if the hon. and learned Gentleman makes that known, no doubt the electorate will take that into consideration in weighing their claims. One must accept that a great many things have been said in the past by a great many people which are regrettable but which should not necessarily exclude them from all further participation in any democratic process.

I acknowledge that this is not a system of which everyone would say, "This is perfection, " but I claim that, by reference to the criteria I mentioned, which the Government have espoused, and by reference to what the Prime Minister has said motivates the Government, the system merits very serious consideration and, in the Government's view, support. I hope that the Committee will take that view if the hon. Member for Belfast, East is not disposed to withdraw the amendment.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Of course, in a second.

I wonder, Mr. Morris, whether I might have your guidance as to whether I should conveniently proceed with some observations on the remaining matters that are covered by grouped amendments, as we are allowed one speech only.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Morris)

The answer is that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should continue.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I refer the Secretary of State to the amendment that gives at least a little democracy to the regional list. Those parties that obtain a large proportion of the vote should have more candidates on the regional list than those that obtain only a tiny percentage. The Secretary of State should inject some democracy into the process.

I do not think that the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) needs to go into the constituencies to tell people about the comments of certain men. The loyalist districts—which I represent in another place also—are absolutely disgusted when such men come forward and say, "Our mandate is the silence of our guns." I am reminded of the remarks of the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), who is in the Chamber. He said that guns should not be on the negotiating table or outside the door: we should get to that table only by the votes of the community.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I shall come to that point. However, I shall address initially the purpose of amendment No. 47, which is in this grouping.

The amendment would deny parties the ability to submit a regional list unless they have submitted at least three constituency lists. At present, the Bill allows the submission of only one list before a regional list can be handed in.

I can deal with the issue quite quickly, as the Government have considerable sympathy with the amendment. It does not seem unreasonable that those who wish to try to secure delegates via the regional list system should be asked to demonstrate their appeal beyond their traditional areas of strength. I think that it is important that those who seek to secure representatives in that way should be asked to put their case to a wider electorate. Accordingly, the Government are prepared to accept amendment No. 47.

I turn now to the tapering amendment No. 12, which the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) mentioned. The amendment attempts to skew the forum in favour of those parties that have already received a substantial vote—and, in all likelihood, a large number of seats. The purpose of providing for regional delegates is to seek to reward those parties that have obtained a reasonable share of the vote either across a small number of constituencies or across Northern Ireland as a whole, but which have secured either minimal representation or no representation at all at constituency level.

We feel strongly that the voices of those who have supported such parties should be rewarded also. Those parties that secure a large vote in the constituencies will be rewarded in the constituencies, and will receive regional delegates as well. We believe that that is fair. Therefore, I cannot recommend that the Committee accepts amendment No. 12.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I shall present the Opposition's view on the amendments. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) is correct: there is a lack of logic and, if one wanted to be purist, one could pursue the same route as the hon. Gentleman. He described the electoral system for Northern Ireland as the most absurd democracy in the world—I can only reply that he has not travelled very far. A short stroll down the corridor might reveal a slight democratic flaw in the United Kingdom Parliament.

Mr. Ancram


Mr. Worthington

I shall listen with interest to the future comments of the right hon. Gentleman—who, of course, has a vested interest in describing it as a democracy. We support the Government in their assertion that there are small, influential parties that have been immensely important in the past 25 years in bringing about and sustaining a ceasefire.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

The difference between the other place and the forum is that the House of Lords, by and large, works. It is difficult to see how a body of 76 people, with disparate and apparently irreconcilable views, can work.

Mr. Worthington

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, but I would point out that, in this context, the PUP and the UDP, which have been rightly mentioned, are seen as significant in having brought about a Protestant ceasefire and, perhaps much more significantly, they have used their influence after the breakdown of the ceasefire on the IRA's part to maintain the ceasefire by the loyalist community. That is very significant.

The party that might, with justice, complain about giving the PUP and the UDP the opportunity—not a guaranteed place, but an opportunity—to be in the top 10 parties might be the SDLP. In context, the regional list will mean the addition of extra Protestant Unionist parties to the list.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

The debate about the regional list system seems to have lost the focus on the purpose of the legislation. Does my hon. Friend accept that the purpose of the exercise is to create a negotiating table that will have the best opportunity of succeeding? In the SDLP, we are prepared to accept that mathematics will not provide what is necessary on the basis of democracy, but it is important that those who have an important contribution to make are at the table, be they supporters of the SDLP, nationalists, Unionists, extreme loyalists or whoever.

Mr. Worthington

That is exactly the point that I was making. If one pursued the issue mathematically rather than by seeking to provide the right opportunity for peace, one would set back the chances of a peaceful settlement. I am grateful to the hon. Member for clearing up that matter.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Is the hon. Member really saying, in terms, that people should be at the negotiating table because they have the guns, Semtex and bombs to make a settlement unworkable otherwise? Is that democracy at work in the mother of Parliaments?

Mr. Worthington

No. I am saying that it is important to recognise the contribution that has been made by those small parties and to ensure that the contribution that they have made so far can be continued, if they receive sufficient support to be in the top 10 parties, and only in those circumstances.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that those parties are linked to organisations that are carrying out beatings? The beatings are not all on the part of the IRA. The most atrocious beating and maiming of people continues, and the hon. Gentleman stands at the Dispatch Box and tells us that those parties are making an interesting contribution. They are. One of their leaders broke the head of a Roman Catholic and killed him with a concrete brick. Should such a person be given the right to sit at the negotiating table?

Mr. Worthington

As the hon. Member knows, all parties to the negotiations will have to face and can be challenged on the Mitchell principles, including the sixth principle. I am sure that the hon. Member will, in his formidable way, put that challenge. It is right that that should be so, but a judgment has been made by the Government, which we support, that we should try to make the talks as inclusive as possible, to ensure that all significant players are there. But the PUP and the UDP will not have a guaranteed place, because only the top 10 most popular parties can be represented at the talks.

The choice of number has been made—it has to be arbitrary—and 10 parties will be there. The hon. Member for Belfast, East is fond, rightly, of quoting the South African experience, which was also an inclusive arrangement. People were invited not simply from the major parties, the big boys of the African National Congress and the National parties, but as outsiders to leaven the mix. Those people may have not have had a huge mandate, but they had to be included if there was to be a successful settlement. That is the point behind the regional list. It is to ensure that those who have met constantly for 25 years—the large parties—will be leavened by others. We support the regional list and are pleased that the Government have resisted the amendments.

4.45 pm
Mr. Trimble

The Downing street declaration set out—importantly, in the context of what we are debating now, and it has been repeated in other documents, including the ground rules—as one of the qualifications for inclusion in the process, the need to obtain a democratic mandate. It referred to democratically mandated parties and set out various conditions for moving into a dialogue with other parties.

The phrase "democratically mandated parties" has some meaning. On no reasonable meaning of the phrase could one regard parties that got only a small percentage of the vote—1 or 2 per cent. at most, and perhaps even less than 1 per cent.—and that could not, under any normal electoral system, obtain a seat, as democratically mandated. As a consequence, we have the elaborate concept of a regional list, which the Secretary of State was unable to defend. He frankly conceded that it is solely to enable paramilitary groups, which could not get elected under a normal system, to be brought in. That in itself is sufficient to condemn the concept of a regional list. Consequently, we would have no hesitation in supporting the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), were he to press the amendment to a Division.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

At what level would the hon. Gentleman set the threshold? Would he set it at 5 per cent.?

Mr. Trimble

The way to set the threshold is to have a normal electoral system, to discover the parties that can obtain seats under that system. The reference to thresholds and percentages obviously relates to the system that operates in west Germany and that the hon. Gentleman proposes to adapt for a future Scottish Assembly. There is some merit in that sort of provision, but if there was a threshold, not all the parties that have been mentioned would be at the table. However, that is not the significant factor, because we have had an admission by the Secretary of State that the regional list is proposed simply in order to bring in paramilitary parties that could not get elected under any reasonable system. That is sufficient to condemn the notion and nothing further needs to be said.

I must, however, record my surprise and pleasure at the acceptance by the Secretary of State of amendment No. 47. I trust that that acceptance signals the beginning of a more sensible approach by the Secretary of State, and we look forward to his reaction to other amendments, especially amendments Nos. 44 and 46, which are linked with amendment No. 47 and which the Secretary of State knows we regard as a group.

Mr. McGrady

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) gave a clear and mathematical analysis of the situation and the likely consequences of the election based on the most recent European election held in Northern Ireland. I can confirm that we have spent many hours in negotiation with the Democratic Unionist party, the UDP and several other parties to try to obtain a consensus about the approach to the elections, which the Government so ardently urged us to do. I must inform the House that seven of the nine parties involved were able to achieve a fairly broad consensus on how to approach the list system and how the results would be apportioned. We thought that that was a fairly good achievement against the backcloth of the disharmony and distrust in Northern Ireland. Yet the Government completely rejected that consensus approach.

I want to explain the position of the SDLP regarding the amendments. I re-emphasise that the purpose of the elections is to enter negotiations in order to find a resolution to our problem. Therefore, we approach the matter from the point of view that the people who have contributed to the problem—that includes all of us—must be at the table in some shape or another.

We have always argued against having any election; against having any forum. We believed, and we still believe, that that was simply a delaying tactic to avoid the negotiating table. That was the precondition of the Ulster Unionist party and the Democratic Unionist party for negotiations.

The legislation is about negotiations; it is not about elections. It would be reasonable for the House to adopt the attitude that the normal requirements of the implementation of the democratic consequences of an election are not germane to this debate.

At the end of the day we are trying to hold a general election, not to elect a representative Parliament but to bring people to a negotiating table. That table must be as all-encompassing as we, with human ingenuity, and even perhaps with some stupidity, can achieve. But at least let us get those people to that table, to give the community that we represent the opportunity of all-inclusive, all-involving dialogue.

That is what the legislation is about. It is nothing more and nothing less than a means of providing a negotiating table to which as many as possible can be brought, particularly those who have been engaged in violence, having, as a precondition, agreed no longer to support, use or countenance violence for the purpose of achieving political objectives.

These will be new people when they get to the negotiating table. They will be born-again democrats when they get to the negotiating table, because they will not be admitted unless they have eschewed their previous support of violence. That is what we are about today.

That is why my hon. Friends and I are not particularly concerned about the numbers game. Numbers will not be able to impose a solution. The solution will be achieved only by the consensus of those who are there; the consensus within the majority of the individual community representations. That is the only way in which we shall go forward.

No imposition, by way of number or anything else, will resolve our problem. That is why we are not particularly excited about the amendments. We want three or four people around the table from those who are making a contribution to the all-important and final resolution of our problems in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Wilshire

I am attracted to the amendments because, in my naive way, I had assumed at the outset of the process that the parties in Northern Ireland would get together and agree on the system that they wanted, leaving the Government simply having to accept the decision of the parties in Northern Ireland. I now see that that was too much to hope for.

If that is the case, the Government of the day are left with no alternative but to take some sort of a decision. However, I am not over-enthusiastic about the decision that has been taken. If it had been left to me, I would have pursued the ideas of the DUP and the SDLP, and tried to progress those. Nevertheless, the Government have taken decisions.

Therefore, what I need to say this afternoon is that I am deeply suspicious, as I believe are many others, of any electoral system that gives seats to losers and the unelectable, as this system surely does. I am even more suspicious when I hear people, such as the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), explain to us that 80 per cent. of the electorate are likely to have something like 30 per cent. of the say, or whatever were the hon. Gentleman's figures. That is a total negation of what I understand as democracy. I am downright hostile to a system that requires unanimity from all the parties, when some of those parties will speak for less than 1 per cent. of the electorate. That cannot be democratic.

Despite those worries, I tried hard to find something positive in the Government's decision. If we keep rubbing away at the margins of who can be on the body, with a bit of luck and a following wind, and provided that Conservative central office behaves democratically when it finally gets to grips with the question whether Conservatives can stand, it may just be that the one positive feature of the system that we are being asked to approve is that there will be Conservative representatives on the negotiating body.

Unfortunately, I cannot say to the hon. Member for Belfast, East that Conservative representatives are any good at yogic flying—I am sure that that will be a disappointment—but I can tell him that Conservative representatives, if they were included, would be good at running the country—[Interruption.] Hon. Members should allow me to keep my spirits up on occasions such as this. There is something positive in this. It is an opportunity for us to do in Northern Ireland what we are so good at on the mainland.

But as I said at the outset, whatever the difficulties, whatever the points of view, somebody had to decide. It is crystal clear that the popularity of the decision will be no test of its good sense. Therefore, when we consider the amendments, we must ask ourselves what test we can use for the quality of the Government's decision.

The only test that I can suggest is that the Government will have got it right if they are equally unpopular with all the parties in Northern Ireland. I accept that trying to be even-handed in the offence caused is a novel test, but if one listens carefully to what the parties in Northern Ireland are saying, I suspect that the Government pass that test. It is on that basis that I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and to vote for them.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

I had not intended to intervene, but as much of amendment No. 15 and the list relate to the argument about democracy, it is important to make the point that if I and others like me thought that all we had to do was to give the democratic system as we know it here back to Northern Ireland, and violence would never return, I would do it tomorrow morning and we could all go home.

We are here—it is vital to remember this—because the political system in Northern Ireland broke down. It would be entirely out of order of me on this amendment to say why I think it broke down, but in those circumstances the argument is not about simple democracy. One must consider things such as list systems.

I would rather not be in that position. I would rather have handled the situation differently at an earlier stage. But the reality is that we are all here today because the political system in Northern Ireland broke down and successive Labour and Tory Governments decided to impose direct rule. We still have direct rule in Northern Ireland. The system broke down, and we must get it working again. That is difficult.

It is important that, however unpopular politicians may be from time to time—we know that the Government are particularly unpopular at the moment—when all the political veneer is stripped away, the reality is that politics is the alternative to violence. There is violence when political systems break down, and that is what is happening in Northern Ireland. If we want to go back to that violence, we can pretend that this is a simple matter and merely say that whoever receives the most votes can run the show. Political systems do not work like that, however, and such an answer would be a recipe for continuing violence.

There is so much agreement between the Labour party and the Tory party on this issue because hon. Members on both sides of the House are determined to do something about it. That is why the British and Irish Governments are determined to do something about the issue, and it is why the Government have proposed this structure—some aspects of which I disagree with.

I would rather not be in the situation that we are in, but the reality is that the political system in Northern Ireland has broken down and we must replace it, which means getting talks started in Northern Ireland among people who would not normally want to talk to each other. That is our problem and, although we cannot solve it, we can help those people talk about issues and return to the practice of conventional politics. If we do that today, I shall be delighted to have participated.

5 pm

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

I have listened to the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) in these debates with considerable respect, because he has made a fair number of very powerful, clear-headed and incisive speeches on the Bill—as he has on Northern Ireland in general over the years. But I must tell him to think again and to apply the logic that he normally applies to Northern Ireland, when he expresses the view that it is sensible and nearly right for the Government to take the central position between the competing opinions and positions of the parties in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne knows, as we all do, that no political party—not least his party—would simply apply that principle to the policies that the Government have put before the people or promoted and passed in the House. The reality is that, to go down the road that he mentioned—which the Government have followed for many years—would be to desert the need to make a reasoned judgment between what is right and what is wrong. It would also be to desert normal standards of logic and reason. I do not believe that we should accept that option.

The reality is very often that, when we are reaching a reasoned judgment on a question—not least a question such as that which confronts us in Northern Ireland—we must make clear and definite decisions. Such decisions will very rarely be in the middle of the road or in the middle of the competing demands of the parties. Every time another party is brought into the process, of course, the Government's central position changes, which is plainly wrong and cannot be defended.

I say right away that I welcome the Government's acceptance of amendment No. 47 because, when accepting it, the Minister said that one constituency list is not enough and that the parties must jump the hurdle of demonstrating wider support. We have asked for three lists, but one could have required half a dozen and the parties would have had to find one or two candidates to stand in each constituency. This requirement tells the parties in Northern Ireland the first hurdle that they must jump, and I am happy to see that the Government will insist on it.

My name is also attached to amendment No. 15. I did not, however, support it for the reasons that led the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) to table it. I supported that amendment in conjunction with amendment No. 155, which, sadly, has not been selected. That amendment stated: Twenty delegates shall be deemed elected from Northern Ireland and then divided proportionately. I think that that matter has been dealt with by a Liberal Democrat amendment, which is in a slightly different but less clear context later on in the Bill.

I take the liberty of touching on that matter—skating lightly over it, you will note, Mr. Morris, because I want to remain strictly in order—to draw attention to the fact that I want to introduce proportionality, as do the hon. Members for Belfast, East and for North Antrim, although in a rather cruder fashion.

I also wanted to introduce the hurdle of 2 per cent., which is low enough to allow anyone who is a serious contender in any constituency to be elected, but not so high as to make it extremely difficult. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) mentioned a requirement of 5 per cent.; it is a matter of debate and argument.

We believe that there must be hurdles. The Government have introduced and accepted one hurdle. We are simply saying that one cannot drop one's sights so low that the normal standards of democracy and the elective system become distorted out of recognition—yet that is precisely what the Bill does. Everyone in Northern Ireland knows that the only reason for the distortion is to bring into the process the people who have weapons. Those people not only have weapons and explosives, but they have demonstrated by their murders and violence over the years that they are willing to use them in pursuit of constitutional objectives.

So this will not be a real election. It will be an attempt to create a forum in which the gunmen and the murderers will have a reserved place. The Government would be far wiser to tell the people of the United Kingdom that that is exactly what they intend, and the people of the United Kingdom would then realise the extreme difficulties that the Government are creating in Northern Ireland because of that system.

I have tabled amendment No. 157, which I do not intend to press. Under certain circumstances, I believe that there would be merit in changing line 5, page 5 to state that a regional list could comprise up to 18 candidates, without a lower limit. It is a matter of debate and argument as to how one would wish to create a regional list, if at all. I tabled the amendment because it would allow the parties to select one extra candidate per constituency, if they so desired—but I shall not press it.

There are many able and constructive people in each constituency in Northern Ireland. They are busy people who are perhaps not all that interested in the hurly-burly of politics and the elective process, who would not normally take part in an election. If we are opening the doors to the gunmen and providing places for them, I do not see why we should not open the door rather more widely than the Bill does to such constructive people.

Mr. Peter Robinson

There have been a number of very valuable speeches on this issue, which follow on from our very useful debates yesterday.

I must say that I and other hon. Members were very angry at the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Chelsea (Sir N. Scott) on BBC radio this morning, when he suggested that Unionist Members were attempting to filibuster and nit-picking. He said that Unionist Members should not be trying to change the legislation, because the Government have presented a balanced Bill. That should not be the Government's attitude.

Mr. Trimble

Does the hon. Gentleman think that the attitude of the right hon. Member for Chelsea (Sir N. Scott) to the Bill, which provides for elections, might have something to do with a notorious statement that he made on the eve of an election, when he was a Northern Ireland Office Minister? He told the people of Northern Ireland, "It doesn't matter how you vote; it won't make any difference."

Mr. Robinson

Yes; there seems to be a bit of an echo of that statement. I sat through almost all the proceedings yesterday and recall that there was a very short period in the debate when the shadow of the right hon. Member for Chelsea was in the Chamber. He left it as just as speedily as he left another scene.

However, leaving the right hon. Member for Chelsea to one side for a moment, I deal now with the Secretary of State's remarks about weighted majorities. I wish to make it clear that the weighted majorities that have been approved by a number of Unionist representatives have never in any instance been based on the composition of an elected forum. They have always been allowed for on a controversial or constitutional issue, when it is recognised that a vote of more than 50 per cent. is required.

As for what is broadly acceptable, I noticed that the Secretary of State was wriggling to get out of the criteria that had been established. The truth is that both the Unionists' proposal—the single transferable vote system—and that accepted by the DUP and the SDLP—the list system—were broadly acceptable. Something being acceptable is different from something being preferable.

The UUP would have preferred the STV system, and we would have preferred the list system, but I doubt whether either of our two parties would not have been fighting an election called under the system preferred by the other party. To that extent, both systems would have been broadly acceptable. I suspect that either would have been more broadly acceptable than the system that the Government have devised. As the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said, their system is broadly unacceptable, which is not a good thing—far from it. The Government's duty is to gain the widest support from representatives in Northern Ireland for the proposals.

He has now left the Chamber, but the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said in a brief intervention that we should not concern ourselves too much with this democracy thing, and that what really matters is that we solve the problems. Of course, it is vital that the main aim is a resolution of the conflict. No one doubts that, but we still have to answer the question: who is going to be at the negotiations? What is the test to determine who should sit around the table?

There has to be a criterion on which to make such a decision, and if it is not the number of votes or the level of support within the community, it has to be that which the hon. Member for Hammersmith did not dare mention—the causing of trouble. Those who will sit around the table will be those who, if not mollified in some way, will bomb or shoot. We should never accept that as a criterion for sitting around the negotiating table. As soon as we accept such a criterion, we introduce for the future the proposition that those who, like the paramilitaries, are prepared to shoot and bomb, have found the way to get a ticket to the talks process.

I appreciate the fact that the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) was as disappointed as my colleagues and myself about the Government abandoning the criteria relating to broad acceptance. It is an ominous sign for the future that the Government, having set out criteria for broad acceptance, abandon them. It gives no encouragement to political parties in Northern Ireland to pursue broad acceptability—the trendy terminology is now "sufficient consensus"—if the parties do not feel that, if they create that sufficient consensus, the Government will accept and run with it. This has been a bad example set by the Government, and I hope that it will not be repeated in future.

As for the amendments, I harbour no expectation that hon. Members who have not listened to our debate but who will go through the Lobbies to vote will understand the weight of the argument. I satisfy myself that we have won the argument, although I suspect that we shall lose the vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 321

Division No. 104] [17.15 pm
Beggs, Roy Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strgfd)
Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim) Trimble, David
McCartney, Robert Walker, A Cecil (Belfast N)
Maginnis, Ken Tellers for the Ayes:
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E) Mr. William Ross and
Smyth, The Reverend Martin Rev Martin Smyth.
Ainger, Nick Butcher, John
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Butler, Peter
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Callaghan, Jim
Amess, David Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Canavan, Dennis
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Carlisle, John (Luton North)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Carrington, Matthew
Ashby, David Carttiss, Michael
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Cash, William
Atkins, Rt Hon Robert Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Chidgey, David
Baker, Rt Hon Kenneth (Mole V) Chisholm, Malcolm
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Church, Judith
Baldry, Tony Clappison, James
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Barnes, Harry Coe, Sebastian
Bates, Michael Congdon, David
Beith, Rt Hon A J Conway, Derek
Bellingham, Henry Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Bendall, Vivian Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Beresford, Sir Paul Couchman, James
Betts, Clive Cran, James
Biffen, Rt Hon John Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Booth, Hartley Davidson, Ian
Boswell, Tim Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth)
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Deva, Nirj Joseph
Bowis, John Dewar, Donald
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Brandreth, Gyles Dover, Den
Brazier, Julian Dowd, Jim
Bright, Sir Graham Duncan, Alan
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Duncan Smith, Iain
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Dykes, Hugh
Browning, Mrs Angela Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Budgen, Nicholas Evans, Roger (Monmouth)
Burden, Richard Evennett, David
Burns, Simon Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Burt, Alistair Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Fishburn, Dudley Keen, Alan
Flynn, Paul Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Forman, Nigel Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling) Kennedy, Jane (L'pool Br'dg'n)
Forth, Eric Khabra, Piara S
Foster, Don (Bath) Kirkhope, Timothy
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Kirkwood, Archy
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Knapman, Roger
Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley) Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)
French, Douglas Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)
Fyfe, Maria Knox, Sir David
Gale, Roger Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Gardiner, Sir George Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Garnier, Edward Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Gill, Christopher Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Gillan, Cheryl Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Godman, Dr Norman A Legg, Barry
Golding, Mrs Llin Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Lester, Sir James (Broxtowe)
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Lidington, David
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Gorst, Sir John Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs) Llwyd, Elfyn
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Lord, Michael
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Loyden, Eddie
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Luff, Peter
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Grocott, Bruce Lynne, Ms Liz
Grylls, Sir Michael McAvoy, Thomas
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn McFall, John
Hain, Peter MacKay, Andrew
Hall, Mike Mackinlay, Andrew
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald Maclean, Rt Hon David
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy Madden, Max
Hargreaves, Andrew Maddock, Diana
Harris, David Mahon, Alice
Harvey, Nick Malone, Gerald
Haselhurst, Sir Alan Marland, Paul
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Marlow, Tony
Hawkins, Nick Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Hawksley, Warren Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Hayes, Jerry Martin, Michael J (Springburn)
Heald, Oliver Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Maxton, John
Henderson, Doug Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Hendry, Charles Meale, Alan
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Merchant, Piers
Hicks, Robert Miller, Andrew
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence Mills, Iain
Hoon, Geoffrey Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Horam, John Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Moate, Sir Roger
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector
Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W) Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W) Morley, Elliot
Hunter, Andrew Moss, Malcolm
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Mowlam, Marjorie
Hutton, John Mudie, George
Illsley, Eric Murphy, Paul
Ingram, Adam Neubert, Sir Michael
Jack, Michael Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Jenkin, Bernard Nicholls, Patrick
Jessel, Toby Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Norris, Steve
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side) O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Oppenheim, Phillip
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW) Ottaway, Richard
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Page, Richard
Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr) Paice, James
Jowell, Tessa Parry, Robert
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Pawsey, James
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Stott, Roger
Pickles, Eric Sutcliffe, Gerry
Pope, Greg Sweeney, Walter
Porter, David (Waveney) Sykes, John
Portillo, Rt Hon Michael Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Powell, William (Corby) Temple-Morris, Peter
Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E) Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Redwood, Rt Hon John Timms, Stephen
Reid, Dr John Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)
Rendel, David Tracey, Richard
Renton, Rt Hon Tim Tredinnick, David
Richards, Rod Trend, Michael
Riddick, Graham Trickett, Jon
Robathan, Andrew Turner, Dennis
Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S) Twinn, Dr Ian
Robinson, Mark (Somerton) Tyler, Paul
Roche, Mrs Barbara Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Walden, George
Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent) Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela Wallace, James
Sackville, Tom Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy Wareing, Robert N
Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Waterson, Nigel
Shaw, David (Dover) Watts, John
Sheerman, Barry Welsh, Andrew
Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Whitney, Ray
Simpson, Alan Whittingdale, John
Sims, Roger Widdecombe, Ann
Skinner, Dennis Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Wigley, Dafydd
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Wilkinson, John
Soames, Nicholas Willetts, David
Soley, Clive Wilshire, David
Spearing, Nigel Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset) Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs) Wolfson, Mark
Spink, Dr Robert Wood, Timothy
Spring, Richard Worthington, Tony
Sproat, Iain Yeo, Tim
Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Tellers for the Noes:
Steel, Rt Hon Sir David Mr. Gary Streeter and
Stern, Michael Mr. Patrick McLoughlin.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

I beg to move amendment No. 50, in page 4, line 25, leave out from 'on' to end of line 26 and insert '30th May 1996'.

The purpose of the amendment is to insert a definite date for the elections. There has been considerable speculation, but the Government have suggested 30 May as the date, and that seems to have been accepted. We therefore want to know why the Government have not seen fit to specify 30 May in the schedule. Setting a date in the Bill would impart some certainty to our proceedings; it would allow the parties to prepare for the elections, and it would also make it possible to make general preparations in regard to, for example, staffing and the organisation of security forces and police. It would convince the communities in Northern Ireland that elections would take place on that specified date, and would remove the fear that the Government might allow a delay.

Given that the Bill concerns entry to negotiations and that elections are the passport to those negotiations, we want the Northern Ireland communities to be reassured. We want the Government to tell us why the date cannot be included in the Bill.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I understand what has led the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) and others to table the amendment. Let me make it clear that the Government intend the elections to take place on 30 May, so that all-party negotiations can begin on 10 June. There are, however, technical reasons for not including the date in the Bill. Doing so would leave no room for manoeuvre in the event of delay caused by, for example, an election petition. We would be obliged to include a saving provision in the Bill to allow an election court to set another poll date, and that would be very troublesome. For that technical reason alone, I am unable to accept the amendment. In the light of the assurance that I gave the hon. Gentleman earlier, I hope that he will feel that moving the amendment has served its purpose and that he will agree to withdraw it.

Mr. Illsley

In view of the Secretary of State's reassurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.30 pm
Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

I beg to move amendment No. 94, in page 4, leave out lines 37 and 38 and insert 'All parties may participate in the elections.'

The Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following amendments: No. 74, in page 4, line 37, leave out from 'those' to end of line 38 and insert 'that can produce the written assent of not less than 500 electors'.

No. 14, in page 4, line 38, at end insert 'and those which subsequently register in accordance with arrangements prescribed by an order under paragraph 1'.

No. 67, in page 7, leave out lines 1 to 33.

No. 42, in page 7, leave out line 5.

Government amendment No. 142.

No. 11, in page 7, line 9, leave out '—DUP' and insert '(DUP)—Ian Paisley'.

No. 48, in page 7, line 26, after 'Party', insert '(SDLP) '.

No. 49, in page 7, line 27, leave out 'Robert McCartney'.

Mr. Canavan

Amendment No. 67 has been tabled in the names of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and me. What a team! The amendment has a broad church of supporters. Amendment No. 67 is consequential on amendment No. 94, because if all parties are allowed to contest the elections there will obviously be no need for the list of 30 parties in schedule 1.

It is surely a basic principle of democracy that any party, however large or small, should be allowed to contest elections. That has certainly been part of the tradition of British democracy. I do not know of a precedent in UK elections—I doubt that there is one—for a Government drawing up a list of approved parties which can contest an election and, by implication, saying that there are other parties or organisations which cannot.

Perhaps the Secretary of State or the Minister of State will give a reason for the inclusion in schedule 1 of the list of parties, and will also explain how that list was arrived at. I have heard it said, although I do not know whether there is any truth in it, that the Government thought that it was necessary to draw up a list of parties to contest the election because some of the larger Unionist parties were apparently thinking aloud about the possibility of subdividing themselves into various groupings, regional or otherwise, to try to maximise their representation at the negotiating table. If that is true, it would be more reasonable to look at the electoral system that is proposed in the Bill to see whether it could be amended to prevent such abuse—if indeed there was a risk of such abuse. I await with interest the Minister's reply.

In our debates on earlier amendments, suspicion and concern were expressed that, under the Government's proposed scheme, people who are or were associated with paramilitary organisations might get to the negotiating table. In some people's eyes, I suppose that the list in the Bill contains several examples of parties that in the past have been—some people might say, still are—associated with the paramilitaries on both sides of the conflict.

Over the past quarter of a century, many senseless, violent deeds have been perpetrated by paramilitaries on both sides, some of them in the names of the communities that the paramilitaries purport to represent. Like all hon. Members, I absolutely condemn those atrocities. We particularly condemn the murderous acts that have led to the loss of so many lives and to the injury of so many innocent people over the past 25 years or more.

We could adopt a purist approach by saying that none of the paramilitaries or former paramilitaries or their representatives should get to the negotiating table, or we could adopt a more realistic approach and say that if there is to be a lasting peace it is important to bring those people on board, especially if they have an electoral mandate. In that way, they would, we hope, learn to have more faith in the democratic process instead of resorting to violence or to the threat of violence that has been used all too often in the past.

He who is not without sin should not cast the first stone. Not long ago, some politicians crossed the border into the Republic of Ireland to engage in some kind of unlawful sectarian activity. Not long ago, another Unionist politician organised a mass demonstration of people holding gun licences to emphasise the power of the gun. But that is water under the bridge and it is important to look ahead. I hope that those politicians have learnt the error of their ways and that they will come to the negotiating table in the spirit of peace and reconciliation. I hope that they will try to encourage other politicians and people who were, perhaps, formerly engaged with paramilitary organisations to see the error of their ways, and will try to teach them the importance of using exclusively peaceful means to achieve their political objectives.

Any party, large or small, should be allowed to contest the elections. I hope that the negotiating body that will result from the elections will be sufficiently broadly based to ensure a peaceful and lasting solution.

Mr. Wilshire

I should like to speak to amendment No. 74, which stands in my name, and to amendment No. 67 which, as the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) said, is in my name as well as his and that of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). Provided that neither he nor his hon. Friend do what happened last night and mention Stalin in support of their cause, I shall be grateful for their support. As the hon. Member for Falkirk, West has said, amendment No. 74 seeks to remove the concept of an approved list and would allow all parties or any party to stand. It would provide a mechanism for weeding out what can be described only as the nonsense parties that make a mockery of ballot papers.

Amendment No. 67 is purely consequential in that if one removes the concept of an approved list, the list is no longer necessary. The amendment would simply remove the list of approved parties.

My amendment No. 74 proposes that any party that can gain the support of 500 electors should be able to stand. I freely accept that the mechanism of 500 signatures may not be the best way of curbing nonsense parties, and I would be happy to contemplate a different mechanism. The group of amendments on deposits is clearly an alternative way and that may be more popular with the House than my mechanism.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Just as a matter of clarification so that I can more easily follow the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument, when he asks for 500 assentors, does he mean in each of the eight constituencies or in Northern Ireland as a whole? I am not sure whether that is entirely clear.

Mr. Wilshire

Clearly, as the Government will press ahead with two lists and two mechanisms, it would be 500 in both cases, but, again, I freely admit that 500 might not be the right figure. The main point that I wish to make, however, is that, although the mechanism and the number of electors could differ, I am wedded to the principle that it is wrong for any Secretary of State to take power to decide which parties may stand in an election and which parties may not.

In simple terms, it is undemocratic to seek to do that. It is also bound to lead to gratuitous and unnecessary grief for a Secretary of State who sets out to decide which parties he approves of. As I said in the debate last night, the Secretary of State has enough trouble that he cannot avoid. Therefore, it is silly for him to seek to take more trouble unto himself in that way, which he can avoid.

At the heart of this matter is my strongly held view that it is dangerous for democracy if a Government license political parties, which is, in effect, what the proposal amounts to.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

Has the hon. Gentleman considered whether the provision might be contrary to the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, which states that a Government shall not discriminate, and therefore subject to judicial review?

Mr. Wilshire

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. Any mention of judicial review tempts me down a great avenue that I would rapidly find was unacceptable to you, Mr. Morris. My views on judicial review do not bear printing in Hansard at the moment, so perhaps I may just note the point. Others might want to pursue it. I would be interested to hear what the courts might say, and, if they also hold the provision to be undemocratic, on this occasion I say, "Power to the courts."

At the heart of the matter is the concept that it is dangerous for democracy to go down this route. Governments should never forget that they, too, are political parties and that a Government hold power—any power—because of their success as a political party. It follows, therefore, that, whatever a Government may say about their neutrality on these occasions, their input into such talks is the input of a political party as well as of a Government.

That may seem a fairly abstract point, but I suspect that it is not as abstract as it may seem to the Government. It probably starts to explain why the Government, knowing that they are also a political party, are making such heavy weather of handling its members in Northern Ireland. The "A Government is a political party" dilemma might explain why they are nervous about their representatives in Northern Ireland speaking, in effect, on behalf of the same party.

Whatever it might be, it is wrong for the party of Government to decide which parties they will recognise and which parties they will not. The only people who are entitled to decide which parties should be recognised are the electors. That is the essence of democracy: it is the people, not the ruling class, who should take that decision. That is why, therefore, the Bill's provision is fundamentally flawed.

The Government may decide that, when the people make their choice, it will be impossible for the allies of unreformed and unapologetic terrorists to be included in talks, but the correct way to deal with that is not to license political parties, but, as we said at length yesterday, to decide the terms for admission to the talks. Deciding which parties will be recognised and which will not is not the right way.

I accept that using signatories to determine whether there is any basis for support does not appeal to some people and that there are other ways, especially calling for deposits, but, on occasions such as this and even on other occasions, if I had to choose, I would prefer the route of seeking people who are prepared to sign a nomination paper than of allowing people with big bank accounts to put members forward, whether or not they could get any signatures. I do not consider 500 to be too high. Even my own party, when it was allowed to stand, received about 40,000 votes, so 500 does not seem to be an unrealistic target.

If we listen carefully to what the Government say, we note that the purpose of the elections is to establish for all to see who speaks for Northern Ireland's people, so I urge the Government, if they are trying to establish that, to reconsider accepting that it is wrong for them to try to impose control over who may stand to gain the support of Northern Ireland's people. The only acceptable control of the process must, if it is to be genuine, lie with Northern Ireland's electors.

5.45 pm
Mr. Trimble

I understand the argument made by the hon. Members for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) and for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan). We are dealing with some strange concepts hitherto unknown in terms of British electoral law, and I understand their distaste for the system that we have. I have every sympathy for the view expressed by the hon. Member for Spelthorne that it is dangerous for Governments to license political parties. However, that consequence flows inevitably from the choice of a party list system. It is not a desirable or necessary consequence. It is inevitable only in the current circumstances, where a party list system is being introduced quickly, with inadequate time to put the necessary legislation and procedures on the statute book.

In a party list system, the focus is on the party. There must be some procedure to regulate political parties, or at least to regulate the use of their names. In every country where there are party list systems, which are common, there are procedures to regulate the use of names and to provide a regulation scheme for political parties.

Mr. Wilshire

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but can he not see that there is a big difference between regulating the name of a party that freely forms itself and regulating the formation of the party?

Mr. Trimble

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. If he would allow me to develop my argument, he will find that we are not that far apart. The essence of my point is that we have arrived at this position because of a decision to introduce a party list system without there being sufficient time to do it properly. Therefore, it is being done in an undesirable way. At that point, the arguments of the hon. Gentleman and myself are probably getting close to each other.

The use of party names should be regulated by establishing a judicial procedure whereby a party that believes that its name is being used improperly can challenge the existence or the use of that name by other persons or parties. Looking at the list, I find that an obvious example is the body that suddenly came into existence in Northern Ireland—if it did so at all, which is not known—calling itself the British Ulster Unionist party. That name is close to that of the Ulster Unionist party. Under a system to regulate the use of party political names, which exists in some countries, it would be open to our party to commence proceedings against that other party for the improper use of its name. So there could be some form of judicial process dealing with the regulation of parties. If that course is taken, it is done outside the political circle. Some form of judicial or quasi-judicial procedure could be set up, which would not have the dangerous implication involved in Governments licensing political parties—a system which, like the hon. Member for Spelthorne, I believe that we should avoid.

Unfortunately, I believe that the decision to adopt a party list system was wrong and that it results in an unsatisfactory situation. Having reached that unsatisfactory situation, we must try to find a solution. That suggested by the hon. Member for Spelthorne was to have a number of assentors, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that that is not far away from one of the suggestions in our amendment No. 46, which has been selected for debate later. I merely want to draw attention to the similarity in principle between that amendment and amendment No. 74. Our amendments Nos. 43 and 44 are directed towards the same issue, and we shall debate them later. All the amendments stem from the problems caused by a party list system. Our amendments Nos. 42 and 49, which are included in this group, draw attention to the problem.

We have no evidence that the British Ulster Unionist party exists, but those associated with it may feel that it is unfair for us to concentrate the ire of our amendment on them. We could easily have selected another body. In the list of 30 persons and parties, there are a number of bodies with which we are not familiar. Consequently, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) tabled a question to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland asking what evidence he had as to the existence of those groups and whether they were functioning as political parties. The answer has not yet appeared in Hansard, but my recollection of the reply that I saw yesterday evening—I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—suggests that the only evidence was that the Northern Ireland Office had received a letter claiming that the party existed and wanted to be on the register.

While the hon. Member for Spelthorne considers it dangerous for the Government to license political parties, they are issuing licences to anyone who writes a letter. That is rather curious. It appears that the Government made no effort—again I look to the Minister to see whether he wishes to respond—to find out whether those who wrote the letters represent genuine parties. Those who write letters have, hitherto, got their name on the list, but those who do not write letters do not have their names on the list. That may cause some interest to various parties and may be behind the comment made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). As the legislation now stands, those who write the letters will not be required to do anything else to prove that they are genuine except to find the names of two persons prepared to be submitted initially to a constituency list and then possibly elsewhere.

That is unsatisfactory, and something needs to be done. We wait to hear from the Minister what that something should be. He knows that we have made various suggestions in later amendments which are directed to dealing with this. Something must be done to alert the public to what are and what are not genuine names.

In normal elections, the ballot paper presents the voter with the names of candidates and the description. In normal British elections, the focus has always been on the names of the candidates and little concern has been taken over the description. I think that I am right in saying that there was an election in England and Wales when six people who claimed to be members of the Social Democratic party, which no longer exists, all appeared on the ballot paper. That occurred because, as I have said, under British electoral practice, the focus is on the names of the candidates who will be active in their constituencies promoting themselves.

There is a potential solution there, and it arises in an amendment that has been selected for discussion later. I shall not discuss the matter further now. We need to move the procedure involved in these elections closer to that of normal elections. That would be a solution. Failing that, something else needs to be done and we want to hear what the Government have to say.

I should make some comment about amendment No. 49, which deals with a specific anomaly which must be cured. The present list refers to parties and independents. For independents, their name is given and for parties, the party name is given, but with one exception. Without any reflection on the person or the party concerned, we need consistency. I wait to hear what the Minister has to say. The purpose of the amendment is to draw attention to the inconsistencies in the way in which the Government are proceeding. That inconsistency is wrong in principle. If we have a party list system—although we disagree with that concept—the focus should be on the party, and if there have to be names, they should be the names of the candidates.

Mr. Peter Robinson

I shall speak to amendments Nos. 14 and 11. I can see at once the difficulties that the Government had in framing legislation around the principles in the Bill, particularly in the schedule listing political parties. There are two factors which suggest that it is not as complex and cumbersome as it might look in the schedule. I rather suspect that there will be very few, if any, constituencies where the 30 names in part II of the schedule will appear on the ballot paper. Some of those parties will not present themselves in various constituencies.

The real test of whether we have produced a difficult system depends on the electors. They have a fairly simple task and have only to scan the list of parties and put a cross beside the party of their choice. So, with one exception, it is not too difficult for the electors. Where there are party names that can cause confusion, the elector can make the wrong choice and vote for a candidate unintentionally. Therefore, we must look at the list on the basis of what principles should determine the parties on it and how they appear. That is the basis of the two amendments in my name.

Amendment No. 14 is similar to that of the hon. Members for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) and for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). I do not think that it is for Parliament to limit the political parties contesting an election. That would be a bad principle to establish. We are saying that, for ease, there should be a list of established parties in the schedule, but there should be a mechanism whereby others can be registered and duly nominated as a political party if they meet the criteria.

Amendment No. 11 is simply an attempt to fulfil the principle, which I intend to outline, of how parties should appear on the list. I can well understand the concern of hon. Members who represent the Ulster Unionist party that a political party called the British Ulster Unionist party might be confused with them. It is altogether reasonable for them to believe that, but the answer is not to wipe out the British Ulster Unionist party before it is born. Nor is the answer to wipe out the Christian name and surname of the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney).

I would allow any political party to define itself as it wishes and provide the Ulster Unionist party with the ability to put itself on the list in a way that clearly allows the electors to know for whom they are voting. The UUP should be allowed so to do regardless of whether it defines itself through its leader, who has won elections in the past and will therefore no doubt be a vote grabber in future, or by any other way. We have chosen to attach the name of the leader of our party since we believe that there will be very little confusion among voters when they see his name in determining for whom they are voting and what political party they are supporting.

6 pm

Mr. Trimble

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is very happy to define his own party by the name of one person, but he should realise that it is not so easy for a party such as ours, which is a broad church.

Mr. Robinson

There are many different definitions that one can use for division, and "broad church" is undoubtedly one of them. I understand that all the members of the hon. Gentleman's party may not be as delighted as he to see his name on the ballot paper. I do not want to go into that or take a vote among those around him on the name on the ballot paper that defines his party. I do not want to provide the Ulster Unionist party with difficulties in determining that, but it does not have to define itself by the name of its leader. It can define itself in such a way that it is clear to electors which party they are voting for.

It would be altogether wrong if we were to disallow the hon. Member for North Down to present himself and his party on the ballot paper in the way in which he chooses. Equally, it would not be right to exclude the British Ulster Unionist party. Equally, the SDLP is entitled to place itself on the ballot paper as its amendment proposes. The party is known as the SDLP, so it would clearly be an advantage to have that name on the ballot paper, to remove confusion among the electorate.

The basic principle is that parties should be entitled to present themselves on the ballot paper in the way in which they choose. The Government might want to set down criteria for appeals against a political party stealing the clothes—even the name—of another political party. That would allow the Ulster Unionist party the right to appeal and be heard if it felt that someone was getting too close to its name. I trust that the Minister will accept that there has to be a principle—rather than simply a mechanism by which the Minister chooses and decides how parties should be defined on the list. That would be an altogether bad way in which to approach the issue.

Mr. McGrady

As many hon. Members have said. amendments Nos. 48 and 49 are an attempt to tidy up the somewhat lengthy and difficult list of parties that have been born recently and not so recently in Northern Ireland.

I am not sure whether I can claim total proprietorship of amendment No. 49, since I see that the name of the leader of the Ulster Unionist party tops it, even though I did not invite his signature to it. Perhaps it is some printing error. I should like to assure the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) that there is not a gang of parties to remove his Christian name and surname from the list. The two amendments, and amendment No. 40, which has not been selected, aim to remove the anomaly of independents listed in lines 13 to 18 of part II of schedule 1. Their purpose is simply to clarify matters and to provide an even playing field for the parties in the electoral contest.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, clearly described the difference between the proposed election and the normal type of election. That difference was brought about by his request and that of his party that there be a test of party strengths in Northern Ireland, not of the strengths of individual candidates, which would in total amount to the strength of a party. The proposed system is because of the request of parties that thought that the electorate should be given a chance to show their support for the party rather than for the individuals who may or may not participate in negotiations.

Perhaps a proposed system could have dealt with that situation most efficiently. Certainly, nothing could be more mathematically accurate than having the entire Northern Ireland electorate voting for a party of their choice, which would not be influenced either by local personalities or local difficult members of parties, but would be a genuine assessment of the support across Northern Ireland for individual parties.

As the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) generously said, amendment No. 48 simply identifies my own party by that which it is commonly known: the SDLP. The Committee will appreciate that the Social Democratic and Labour party is quite a mouthful and would not fit into a soundbite on television or elsewhere.

Although we are not allowed to debate amendment No. 40, which would remove the independents, I should like to refer to it because the independents do not represent parties. I understood from listening to the comments on the radio by, for instance, independent Kerr and independent McMullan—I am subject to correction—that they did not want to be listed as parties for the purposes of the election. They simply wrote to the Northern Ireland Office asking questions about the election and what would happen.

The independent Kerr went so far as to say on radio that he had not made up his mind whether he would participate in the election, but that now he had been given the opportunity, he might consider it. In making that decision, he might be under the shadow of his former party membership, but that is a problem for him, not me.

That shows that, by public proclamation by independents Kerr and McMullan, two parties on the list do not exist. How can we legislate to include parties that do not exist?

Mr. William Ross

Will the hon. Gentleman assist me?

Mr. McGrady

I do not know until I hear the question.

Mr. Ross

Are any of the other parties listed also figments of the imagination of the Northern Ireland Office?

Mr. McGrady

I am not able to advise the hon. Gentleman, but I thank him for his intervention.

I did not contact anyone, I merely listened to radio reports on which the two independent party representatives spoke. There seems to be a No Going Back party. I wish we had a party that was going forward rather than backwards.

Mr. Peter Robinson

There is—the DUP.

Mr. McGrady

Well, perhaps.

Will the Minister tell us whether, if it is proper to do so, the nomenclature in the schedule is statutorily bound to be on the ballot paper, or whether the list is an indication of parties that may describe themselves on the ballot paper as they so wish, as is normal, although the descriptions should be one-liners, without a plethora of names attached to them.

On the basis of simply tidying up, I recommend amendments Nos. 48 and 49. I apologise to the leader of the Ulster Unionist party for the fact that his name has been unwittingly, and perhaps unwillingly, associated with the SDLP in connection with amendment No. 49.

Mr. Robert McCartney

I shall respond to amendment No. 49, as my name has been bandied about. By my presence, I physically demonstrate that I am not a figment of anyone's imagination; as the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) is aware, I really do exist. As for the nomenclature to be assigned to the individual parties, I simply submitted to the powers that be a name: "UK Unionist Party—Robert McCartney". Until what I have described as an electoral Caliban was thrust upon me through the medium of the Bill, it had not been my intention to stand as a party at all—[Interruption.] No, I had no intention, despite the aspirations of the hon. Member for South Down. If he wants to intervene now, I will give way to him.

I simply submitted the party name under which I wished to contest the election, and the Secretary of State included it in that form in the list in part II of schedule 1. It seems somewhat surprising that using one's own name as part of the basis on which one seeks to be elected should be the subject of even a mild degree of odium from the two largest established parties. It is rather surprising to find the Social Democratic and Labour party in some sort of association with the Ulster Unionist party, saying that it wants a level playing field. Premier league giants are battling with someone who in terms of electoral support is a fourth division minnow. I can conclude only that the fear—

Mr. William Ross

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. McCartney

Not at the moment.

I can conclude only that those giants of the electoral circus must think that they have something to fear. However, being a true and proper democrat, I wish to make an offer to them, and to make it clear that I have no objection whatever to their being afforded any indulgence that the Secretary of State may unwittingly or otherwise have afforded me.

Let us take the Social Democratic and Labour party, for example. Incidentally, amendment No. 48 reveals that that party wishes to be described by another title—"SDLP", which is not anyone's personal name. If the Social Democratic and Labour party wished to append a description to its name, so that it read, "Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)—Mr. John Hume", I should be happy to indulge it. And if the Ulster Unionist party wanted to have the name "Mr. Trimble" emblazoned in high colour after its normal title, I should be happy for that to be done.

Apart from those who deliberately try to confuse or mislead, I believe that everyone should be entitled to whatever description he or she wishes. I would certainly want all the other parties to be afforded the right to be described in whatever manner they think will best advance their opportunities with the electors. That seems to me the basis of the democratic principle. I therefore invite the House to oppose amendment No. 49, which seems to be without fairness or principle.

6.15 pm
Mr. Wilshire

Before the hon. and learned Gentleman finishes, may I ask him, as an eminent lawyer, to help me out of a legal difficulty? He appears to be suggesting that in wanting his name to remain, he is really standing as himself. I am pleased to see that. However, my understanding of a political party is that it consists of more than one person. It seems like a legal conundrum if an individual stands as himself, keeping his name, yet also stands as a party. I am sure that there is a wonderful explanation, and I think that we would benefit from hearing it.

Mr. McCartney

I must take the scales from the eyes of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who seems to have an intellectual difficulty. That difficulty should be ascribed to the procedures that the Government have offered for the election, rather than to me. If I am to contest the election I have a twofold function. First, there is the question of being elected as a constituency representative in one's own constituency; then there are the bonus brownie points—the possibility of collecting two additional seats from the 20 freebies that are undemocratically oscillating in the distance, even in my own seat of North Down. It therefore becomes necessary for me to become somewhat diffuse and to form myself into a party, so that I can have listed members in a constituency and people will have the opportunity to vote for me in that constituency. I could then boost my Province-wide vote, creep unwillingly into the top 10, and secure an additional two seats.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

By virtue of the amendment that has been accepted, the hon. and learned Gentleman will now have to stand in more than one constituency.

Mr. McCartney

I accept that under amendment No. 47, I will have not only to bifurcate but to triplicate—[Interruption.] I shall try to jump over the four and get into the five bracket, at least.

For the reasons that I have explained, it has become necessary for me to describe myself as a party. But—the hon. Member for Spelthorne has finally tumbled to the fact—because of the format of the election I shall have to have other people in other constituencies. That is why I have, as it were, turned myself into a company.

Mr. Wilshire

A limited company?

Mr. McCartney

Unlimited, for the purpose of the election. I hope that that explanation will assist the hon. Gentleman in his deliberations.

Mr. William Ross

This has been an entertaining debate, but it has been entertaining simply because of the farcical situation that faces us. I was rather sorry that the hon. and learned Member for North Down did not give way to me earlier—we have all been giving way to one another a lot—because if he had I would have tried to assure him that we would not in any way try to down him as a minnow. What we wanted was a system that accurately portrayed the party, so that the electorate to whom he was appealing would know clearly for whom they were voting. We would not want any of his votes to go astray.

Mr. McCartney

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ross

No, I shall not return the pleasure.

At the end of the day, the farcical situation concerns a very serious subject. The amendments highlight the confusing nature of some of the names now being used. I have no doubt that if the matter is forced to a vote we shall carry the Liberal Democrats with us, because they have the most vivid memories of the "Literal Democrats". I would have thought that, in this case at least, they would want to ensure that a sensible arrangement is made.

The Liberal Democrats, like hon. Members in every other party in the House, are aware that an argument has been raging on the subject at United Kingdom level for several years. A Home Office committee has been trying to resolve the question of party names and the right of individuals to them. The legal position on party names in the United Kingdom was set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). I commend his remarks to the House because this is a serious issue. People are reputed to be changing their names to challenge sitting candidates. There is no end to the ramifications. This is a United Kingdom problem that must be resolved in a sensible fashion so that people know for whom, and for what policies, they are voting.

I was astonished at some of the remarks in the debate. We were told about the system of letters coming into the Northern Ireland office. Hon. Members will know about two parties that are missing: the Ulster Popular Unionist party, whose sole Member of Parliament died some time ago—

Mr. Trimble

It still has two councillors.

Mr. Ross

My hon. Friend tells me that that party still has two councillors, but its name does not appear on this list so it is apparently prepared to give up the ghost. The Ulster Liberals seem to have vanished into the mists of time—there is no sign of them. However, two parties that should have appeared on the list are missing. First, there is that wonderful character who keeps writing to hon. Members and signs himself "anonymous". There is also the writer of unsigned letters. We do not have anonymous or unsigned on the list. I wonder how they come to be missing. I am not too worried because they will probably turn up before we get to the end of this process.

Mr. Peter Robinson

There was a statement in the newspapers a few weeks ago that the Ulster Popular Unionist party has decided to close. I think that there are now two independents, while one member wisely joined the Democratic Unionist party

Mr. Ross

He is no doubt hoping to be elected. Let us see how he gets on.

Mr. McNamara

Has not the hon. Gentleman missed out disgusted of Tunbridge Wells?

Mr. Ross

He does not live in Northern Ireland. We also miss the United Kingdom Labour party.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

And the Irish Republican Socialist party.

Mr. Ross

We are also missing the IRSP but I do not want to go on with this because I am getting too far from the amendment.

The House will have noticed at least six parties that use the name Unionist in their title in the list in the Bill. That is because of the connotations and attractions of that name in Northern Ireland. It is attractive because it sets out the basic philosophy of the great preponderance of folk who live in Northern Ireland—hence the use of the term "Official Unionist" when there have been quarrels within the body of the Unionist party about who was the correctly selected candidate.

Every party has its rallying banner. For the Unionist electorate, it is the word "Unionist". There might be a blue torch or a red rose overhead. For the DUP, there is not only the word "Unionist" but the name of its leader. The name of the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) also features. The SDLP has its preferred option. No doubt the Alliance party would want its name to appear on a yellow background. Those things are used by parties as aids to electoral success. That is why they want to use specific titles and symbols. They should be all treated exactly the same. Whatever is put down for one party should be put down for the others. This debate draws that problem to the attention of the Government and we expect some action from them to ensure that all parties enter the process on a level playing field and that there will be no attempts to confuse the electorate.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ross

I shall give way if the hon. and learned Gentleman will allow me to finish this point. I tabled an amendment, which was sadly not selected, saying that the Secretary of State should have the right to refuse a party.

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that if an amendment is not selected he cannot talk about it.

Mr. Ross

If the Government had considered the possibility of refusing to accept names which might have caused confusion and taken upon themselves the full weight of the burden that they have partially accepted, the merits of the view that I was trying to express would have been apparent. That might have been the way around the problem of confusing names on the list. Some of the names, which I believe are figments of the imagination of certain individuals, would not have appeared on the list. They would have had to appear as independents or under another name.

Mr. Robert McCartney

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Can he think of anything less than confusing to the electorate of Northern Ireland than a candidate standing under his own name?

Mr. Ross

The hon. Gentleman should examine the telephone book: he would find a dozen other Robert McCartneys.

Miss Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

We are breaking much new ground with the elections in Northern Ireland and their procedures and we are changing the rules as we go. As far as possible, we should try to stick to some basic principles. One basic principle is that political parties of whatever shape or form should have the right to call themselves what they like. That is especially true of the main political parties, which over 25 years have had to face great challenges and deal with problems that mainland parties have not had. To legislate that the Social Democratic and Labour party cannot have SDLP after its name or that the United Kingdom Unionist party, which has admittedly not been going so long but nevertheless has a representative in the Commons in the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), should not be allowed to call itself what it likes, amounts to nit-picking.

I hope that the Minister will say that the parties which sit in the House should at least be given the right to put their names on the ballot paper in whatever way they wish. If the Democratic Unionist party wishes to have its leader's name on, or if the Social Democratic and Labour party wants to be known as the SDLP, that should be allowed. I hope that we shall have sense and not nit-picking.

Mr. Trimble

On that principle, would the hon. Lady accept that on the constituency lists the names of the parties' candidates for those constituencies should appear on the ballot papers?

Miss Hoey

I favour the electorate knowing as much as possible about who will represent them at the end of process. It is a pity that we are not able to do that more. I would be happy for that to happen if it satisfies people, but I expect that the Minister will come up with some reason why it cannot happen.

We are getting more and more away from a system of elections that most people understand. This Parliament should not try to legislate against Northern Ireland parties calling themselves what they want. I hope that the spirit of the amendments will be accepted by the Minister so that the matter will not be decided by the votes of hon. Members who have not listened to the debate—few have been listening—and who will vote as their party tells them. I hope that the Minister will accept that parties represented in the House, which have already gone through the electoral process, stood up for the people of Northern Ireland and been democratically elected, should have the right to call themselves what they wish.

Mr. McNamara

We are avoiding considering the position of the electors—the people who are being asked to make the choice. It has to be our duty to give the greatest possible amount of information to the individual elector and to seek to avoid confusion. There have been examples in Great Britain of how confusion has been deliberately caused by candidates. There was the famous case in the south-west of England which affected the Liberals.

Our duty must be to do what will most help the electors. In an ordinary election we have first the name of the candidate and then whatever party description he wants, so that people are generally not confused. However, in this particular case we shall have the names of the parties, some of which can be confusing. We have heard the list of six Unionist parties. All those parties could claim parts of the titles of the other parties. Depending on how they regard the British Unionist party, I am sure that the official Unionists would regard themselves as British and part of the British Isles—

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

There is no official Unionist party.

6.30 pm
Mr. McNamara

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. I am sure that the Ulster Unionists would object to the use of the word "British" as if it were a description that did not apply to them. I understand that. If we are to help the electorate, we must give them as much information as possible, particularly if we are theoretically electing parties and not candidates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Miss Hoey) and the leader of the official Unionist party, the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), asked correctly why people should not know who is the candidate in their constituency. That was the question that I intended to ask the Minister. If the names are not to appear on the ballot paper, what directions will be given to the electoral registration officer for Northern Ireland to ensure that there is sufficient information in the polling station so that people can be aware who are the candidates for particular parties? The selection of a candidate, especially if he is near the top of the list and may be elected, might be a reason why an elector may not want to vote for a particular party and may switch his vote. He may have a personal thing about the candidate. So it is important that the elector should be given the fullest possible information.

We cannot have the information on the ballot paper, so what will happen in the polling station to ensure that information is brought directly to the attention of the elector in a way agreed by the parties? How will we ensure that the information is not lost in the great mass of close black writing on white paper which people will have to spend hours going through? There is a duty on the Government to take sufficient time and effort to ensure that the individual elector has the fullest possible information.

To return to the point that was originally raised, it should be for the parties to decide the name by which they go. It should not be the decision of the Secretary of State. If sufficient information is readily and easily accessible to the electors at the polling station, in a form which they can easily read, they should be able to distinguish among the names of the candidates which party most meets their needs.

Mr. Ancram

We have had an interesting and, on occasion, entertaining debate. There has been a large number of broad churches floating around the Chamber—rather more than usual—and some strange alliances have been formed. The question that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) asked at the end of his speech will arise under amendment No. 43, and I would rather respond to it then than do so out of sequence now.

It is fair to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne who is not in his seat, made a strong case on why a Government should not decide who is a party—"should not license parties" was the phrase he used. The comprehensive nature of the list printed in part II underlines the fact that the Government sought not to prescribe or license parties but to put in legislation, for reasons which I shall come to, as comprehensive a list of potential parties as possible, so that people were not prevented from putting themselves forward as parties because a Government had decided that they should not do so.

It was in that spirit that, on 1 April, I sent to a number of parties a consultation document. We also published it so that other parties were aware of it. We made it clear that we were trying to meet the sort of problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne has outlined, and to do so in a way that would satisfy the need for parties, in the words of the hon. Member for Vauxhall, to have a say in how they would appear in the legislation, and, as a result—to answer the point made by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady)—how they would appear in the election documentation and on the ballot papers.

In paragraph 6 of the consultation paper, we said: The Government intends that the list in the legislation should be as inclusive as possible of parties likely to be able to attract a significant degree of support, and to contribute to that process". I had referred earlier to the process. Subject to representations, the Government will incorporate in the legislation that is presented to Parliament the list of the parties in the form in which they appear in Annex 1. That was the rather shorter list. We continued: Names of the parties will be set out on ballot papers, and in other election documentation, in precisely the form in which they appear in the legislation. As a result of that consultation paper, a number of representations were made to us, some from parties which did not appear in the original list and others from parties which did and wished to have the name altered. Everyone had the chance to respond. We made it clear in the consultation that we required the information by 10 April so that we could proceed to legislate.

The hon. Member for Vauxhall cannot accuse us of nit-picking, when we gave an open and public opportunity to parties to make representations to have the name altered or to be included in the process. Those parties which failed to do so cannot now sit in the Chamber and complain that they were not given that opportunity.

The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) took advantage of that opportunity and made representations to us about how he wished his party's name to appear. So I hope that the House will accept that this has been not a surreptitious exercise on the part of the Government but an open exercise, with full consultation and every opportunity for the parties to make representations.

It is true to say that the amendments reveal disquiet in the Committee about our decision to name parties that may participate in the election provided for in the Bill. I use those words advisedly, because all that the schedule does is allow parties to participate. It does not force them to participate. The fact that they are on the list will not mean that they will appear on every ballot paper. It does not mean that we are convinced that they are parties.

As the hon. and learned Member for North Down rightly pointed out, to be a party one has to have more than one candidate. I should be loth to argue that a political organisation that can pull together two or, in this case, up to eight candidates to apply for all the available representation in the forum and negotiations is not a party. So it is right to underline that fact.

We have done it in this way for a simple reason: we have no system of political party registration in the United Kingdom, as the hon. Members who tabled the amendments know. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said that that matter should be looked at urgently. However, that is the position at the moment. Therefore, it is not possible to legally define who is a party and who is not a party. On this side of the Irish sea, we have the advantage that we stand as individuals, and whether the Labour party decides to call itself the Labour party or new Labour is not a matter of legal challenge at elections.

When a list system is used, it is important that the names of the parties are securely registered in one form or another before an election takes place. It is simply not possible to say—as does the amendment of the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan)—that all parties should participate in the election, because the word "party" has no basis in law. Our task was to devise a method of getting those who wished to participate on to the ballot paper, if that was their desire.

The hon. Members for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) asked—I shall paraphrase their amendment—why we could not have provided for a party registration scheme under subordinate legislation. We closely examined that, but we could not introduce such a scheme without risking the close attention of parties that might simply be out to spoil the election.

I wonder what the hon. Members would think if they arrived at the place of registration to register their party and found that they were the sixth person to arrive that morning to register as the DUP. Under United Kingdom law, they would have no more right to that name at that point than any other group of individuals. Of course, the hon. Gentlemen would protest at the hijacking of their label.

The legal advice we received was that we could not have got that matter before the courts and resolved in time for the election. We were told that the poll would go ahead with whatever names had been lodged via the registration process, and there would have been a recipe for potential chaos had we proceeded in that direction. Reference has been made to the Liberal party and its experiences with the Literal Democrats. I should have thought that, rather than sympathising with the amendments, they would see the purpose in operating in the way we have.

A decision was taken to include in the Bill those who may participate. We sought to be as inclusive as possible in this elective process, and we opened up the inclusion procedure to consultation. A number of individual groups responded, and the names that appear on the list under part II are there as a result of the responses.

It is adequate testimony to our desire that the election should be as inclusive as possible that we have accepted those representations and left it to practical reality as to how parties put forward names to decide who are parties in terms of who will stand at the election. The list seeks to set out those who are eligible to be parties if they so wish to proceed.

To an extent, I agree with what the hon. Member for Upper Bann said; that is, that in the time available—we had time constraints in this and I make no secret of that—we have pursued the best solution possible so far as making the process inclusive is concerned. I regret that, although we looked for more democratic ways of doing this, we could not find any that were workable within the time. I think that there has been sufficient time for all who were interested to register their views on participation. We had a reasonable period of consultation, and many people took advantage of it.

The Government amendment in this list is a result of a failing on our part. I refer to amendment No. 142, which inserts the Communist party of Ireland on to the list. It made representations, but, due to an administrative error in my Department, it was left off the original list. It then made further representations to us to point out that it had made its representation in time. Because its letter was mislaid, it has now been put on the list. I believe that it would have been wrong not to do so.

6.45 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne has an amendment that refers to assentors. We gave some consideration to this matter. I think that we are all concerned to see that, in the actual practice of the election and the way that it works out, we do our utmost to prevent frivolous parties from standing.

It was for that reason that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State was pleased to accept the amendment of the hon. Member for Upper Bann that sought to provide that parties that wished to be on the regional list should put up at least two candidates in three constituencies, thereby indicating the seriousness of their intent. I hope that hon. Members will accept that that was a genuine response to a concern that is reasonably widely felt.

The question of assentors is difficult one. The hon. Member for Spelthorne said that 500 assentors might be too many. I think that, in our parliamentary elections, we have to put down 10 assentors—one proposer, one seconder and eight others. I have fought seven general elections, and I know that quite often there is considerable difficulty in ensuring that those names are right—they have to be validated by the returning officer. I would have sleepless nights if I were the person who had to produce and validate 500 names.

I refer to the general purpose that we have been pursuing in relation to these elections—that is, we are trying to make the elections inclusive. We are trying to reduce the burden on the smaller parties in relation to them standing. Elections are not very difficult for a big and well-organised party—there tend to be party machines that are ready to go into operation. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) laughs at the idea of party machines. In the 20 years that I was involved in Scottish politics, a well-oiled machine worked in his part of the world. It would be wise for him not to make much more comment about the value of party machines in politics.

I am making the point that there are many parties that should have the ability, if they so wish, to stand in these elections, but that they would regard a number of the things that we take for granted as burdensome, and, in some cases, they would stop them standing. We have tried to reduce those burdens to a minimum. I think that the imposition of a requirement for assentors—whether it be 500 or fewer—would discriminate against the smaller parties in terms of the clerical work involved.

Mr. William Ross

The Government are saying that they do not want 500 assentors or 100 assentors. How many assentors will they require? Surely it will not be a case of people going in with a nomination form with their name on it and nothing else.

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman must remember that this is a party list system—it may be on a constituency basis, but it is a party list system. Therefore, he must take cognisance of the concession willingly made by my right hon. and learned Friend in accepting the need for parties to put up in three seats to qualify for the regional list. That was an attempt, in a non-discriminatory way—one that merely sought out the seriousness of the commitment of the party—to ensure that the frivolous parties were excluded. For that reason, we are not looking at the number of assentors, because we think it is burdensome.

I have listened to some of the representations made about the amendments. I think that I was invited by the hon. Member for Vauxhall to be generous and to accept the amendments, but some of them counter each other. That indicates some of the difficulties that would have arisen had the Government decided to operate on the basis of exercising our judgment rather than allowing parties to make representations to us and putting them on the desk.

Mr. McGrady

I asked the Minister a specific question, and I hope that he will not sit down before he responds to it. I asked him whether it is the intent that the way that the parties are listed and described in part II of the Bill is how they will appear on the ballot paper. Will he take any exception to that? In other words, he appears to be rejecting my party's simple amendment to use the letters SDLP. Will he answer that question before he sits down?

Mr. Ancram

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I answered it earlier, and referred to him when I did so. I said that we made it clear in the consultation document, and I was confirming again today, that the names that would appear on the list in the Bill would be those that would be set out on the ballot paper and used in other election documentation. The hon. Gentleman or his party was sent the consultation paper with that in it. Other parties took advantage of the consultation period to change the designation that would appear on the ballot paper.

Mr. McGrady

It was not made clear in the communications that the name of the party that was to respond would be the description and detail that would appear on the subsequent ballot paper. There is no connection between a piece of correspondence and a piece of legislation regarding these elections. It is totally unreasonable of the Government not to accept a simple amendment, inserting "SDLP" either in substitution for Social Democratic and Labour party or in addition to it. It harms no one; it affects no one. It shows the prejudice with which the Government are approaching this part of the schedule. It is appalling.

Mr. Ancram

We set this out clearly and for good reason, because we accurately foresaw that, if we did not follow that procedure, when the Bill was considered in the House of Commons, one party would say, "Remove this" and another would say, "Do that," and ultimately a subjective judgment would need to be made, and one party would accuse those who took the decision of having favoured another party.

We deliberately set matters out very clearly. I sent out the document—with a covering letter to the hon. Gentleman's party and to other parties—saying: Subject to representations, the Government will incorporate in the legislation that is presented to Parliament the list of parties in the form in which they appear in Annex 1"— and that is what has happened in regard to the hon. Gentleman's party. Names of the parties will be set out on ballot papers, and in other election documentation, in precisely the form in which they appear in the legislation.

Mr. Trimble

We have the basis for some misunderstanding here. The Minister has read from the letter, and the sentence that he just read refers to the names of the parties. We rest content with the name of our party, but we tabled amendment No. 49 to confine party names to party names. Consequently, because of the way in which the Minister has interpreted the response to that letter, we are in an unbalanced situation.

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman heard the speech by the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), who said that that was the name by which he wished his party to be known for the purposes of this election. That position was available to all the parties.

Mr. McNamara


Mr. William Ross


Mr. Hume


Mr. Ancram

May I finish this point?

I am reading from the letter I wrote covering the consultation document. I said: The Government are of course ready to listen to representations on the proposals relating to the designation of parties and individuals; but because of the tight timescale for legislation, they would need to be received by noon on 10 April. Many parties took advantage of that.

Mr. McNamara

I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making about his legislation, but we are here today to examine his proposal, hear argument and discover how best to meet the needs of electors and the parties involved.

Now that the Minister has met his timetable, received representations and presented his prepared legislation to Parliament, Parliament is able to adopt a broadly non-partisan position and allow the parties to say what position they want to hold. Then the DUP can have what it wants, the SDLP can have what it wants, and the Ulster Unionists can have what they want. It is not a sufficiently major issue for the Minister to stand so forcefully on it that he pre-empts the right of Parliament to change it.

The Minister may say that, if that is the way we feel, we should force our amendment to a Division, but we know what powers there are. We do not seek to do so. We seek general democratic agreement. We ask the Minister to reconsider, and, if he does not feel that he can do so now, consider giving an undertaking to introduce an amendment in another place to meet the representations made by the parties. I know that he has a tight timetable in the other place, but I am sure that all Government amendments would be taken.

Mr. Ancram

I think the hon. Gentleman realises that it is not as simple as that. There are other amendments in the group. Were Ito take the view that the hon. Gentleman takes—if those parties want it like that, let them have it—I suspect that I would meet strong opposition from other parties in the House.

Miss Hoey

indicated dissent.

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Lady shakes her head, but we believe that other parties would object strongly to some of the other amendments that have been tabled.

Mr. Peter Robinson


Mr. Hume


Mr. Ancram

I give way to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume).

Mr. Hume

Are you telling me, Minister, that we cannot call ourselves the SDLP on the ballot paper? Is that what you are telling me? You are asking me to believe that this is a serious election. Given that the Democratic Unionist party is DUP, the Progressive Unionist party is PUP, the Ulster Unionist party is UUP and the Ulster Democratic party is UDP, I am sure that none of the other parties would object to us calling ourselves the SDLP. That is the amendment that we have tabled—amendment No. 48. Is there some other reason that you will not allow us to call ourselves what we are known as?

Mr. Ancram

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he will accept it, that we were trying by this consultation to avoid a specific situation. I have to say to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara)—[Interruption.] I have to say to the—

Mr. Peter Robinson

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ancram

I will in a second.

I have to say to the hon. Member for Foyle—and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, now that he has returned to his seat—that we adopted that procedure to avoid the tabling of competing amendments in the House of Commons. Ultimately, the House of Commons must and can decide, but we chose that procedure to avoid the need to take invidious decisions, which might lead to accusations of preference or favour. If hon. Members are telling me that they believe that all or some of the amendments are acceptable and no one opposes them, I should be very interested to hear it.

Mr. Peter Robinson


Miss Hoey


Mr. Robert McCartney


Mr. Ancram

I give way to the hon. Member for Belfast, East.

Mr. Robinson

I support the view expressed by the SDLP that it should be entitled to define itself as it wishes. The Minister's argument against the SDLP is that it did not respond to his communication requiring an answer by 10 April by saying that it wanted to be described as the SDLP. My party did respond, however, and the communication that I have before me from my party—[Interruption.]

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)


Mr. Robinson

The communication that I have before me asked for the Democratic Unionist party to be described in terms as it is in the amendment, with the party leader's name on it.

Mr. Ancram

I shall hear the other hon. Gentleman before replying.

Mr. Robert McCartney

When I received the correspondence to which the Minister referred, I understood it on the same basis as the Minister now suggests, and for that reason responded positively. Nevertheless, I believe now that, if there is unanimity in the House among the major parties concerned that they wish to be described in a specific way that they are now prepared to specify, it would be the wish of all those parties, including myself, that they should be permitted to do so. If amendment No. 49 is withdrawn, we are all of one mind that people and parties should be able to describe themselves as they wish.

Mr. McGrady

Sir Geoffrey, I propose to assist the Committee at this juncture by indicating that my party is prepared to withdraw amendment No. 49.

The First Deputy Chairman

I shall take note of that. I do not know whether it is intended to move that amendment.

Mr. Ancram

It may be helpful to hear from the Opposition at this point.

Mr. Worthington

There is much agreement, but the situation remains a bit of a mess, and we will not sort out the problem with competing amendments. Perhaps the major parties could get together before Report stage and agree to a formula that would command general approval.

Mr. Ancram

Sir Geoffrey—

Rev. Ian Paisley


The First Deputy Chairman

Order. The Minister must be allowed to respond.

7 pm

Mr. Ancram

I want to make a little progress. I said at the outset that we had heard about a number of broad churches during the debate—I think that another broad church is beginning to operate here. I think it is important to take into account the feeling of the Committee. We have witnessed an interesting exchange, and the general view appears to be that the SDLP nomenclature was left out inadvertently.

As the SDLP is one of the parties that did not respond to my consultation paper about the issue, I am prepared to accept—but it must be on the basis that it is an exception; otherwise we shall get into all sorts of problems—amendment No. 48 tabled by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and his colleagues, which would allow them to insert the initials "SDLP" in the Bill. I do so in recognition of the fact that that is the name under which that party is usually known. I think that that distinguishes the amendment from the others that we are considering at present.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The right hon. Gentleman must come clean about the issue. I have said nothing in the debate so far. I attended the Minister's first meeting, when we made strong representations to him that the name of a person—specifically, that of the party leader—should appear with the party name. The right hon. Gentleman knew that that is what we wanted, and he told us that there was no difficulty: he said that parties could describe themselves as they wanted, but that the Government were not of a mind to include any names of party leaders on the ballot paper.

We were then asked to respond to the consultation document in writing, which we did. We pointed out that it was essential that the name of the party leader be included with the party names on the ballot paper, and we asked that that be done. The Minister has just said that he complied with the wishes of the parties who responded to the consultation document.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) led a deputation to the Minister, and he was astonished to see that the name of the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) was on the document, but that mine was not. The Minister said that there was no reason why the problem could not be resolved. However, when the Bill was published, we were amazed to see that the Minister had not done as he promised. He must be fair to all of the parties in this place.

I support the SDLP's argument: people will be looking for the initials "SDLP" on the ballot paper. The Minister knows that my party faces an enormous difficulty as another political party—the Ulster Democratic party, UDP—has adopted a name whose initials are as close to those of my party as they can get. Therefore, we must distinguish ourselves. There is also the Independent Democratic Unionist party—though the Lord only knows who they are.

The Minister has said that he will allow the SDLP's amendment. I have proof that we wrote to the Minister about the matter, and that we did everything he asked of us. He is now saying that he will make a concession to the SDLP, but not to us. He must be fair.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. The last thing I want to do is stifle debate, but the interventions are becoming increasingly lengthy—they are almost mini-speeches.

Mr. Ancram

I accept that, in a letter written by the party secretary, the DUP made representations that party leaders' names generally should be included on the list. I think that the hon. Member for North Antrim will accept that that is what he asked for. However, all parties did not agree that that was the way it should be done—that is how the hon. Gentleman phrased it in the letter that I have in front of me.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Read the letter.

Mr. Ancram

I shall not begin reading out letters that I receive. The DUP accepted the designation of "Democratic Unionists—DUP". We have accepted that, like the other parties on the list, the initials of the SDLP should appear after the party name.

We decided that it would not be appropriate to include party leaders' names on lists of that sort. We took that decision not only for our own reasons, but because other parties made strong representations to us that they did not wish that to happen. We must try to draw the debate to a conclusion. I shall give way again to the hon. Member for North Antrim, as he has a right to be heard.

Rev. Ian Paisley

My party did everything that was asked of it. As the Minister knows, we said that other party leaders could do whatever they like—their names do not have to appear. However, we believe that it is vital to distinguish the DUP in that way. We made that point clear to the Minister. Why did he say at the next meeting that it was not a problem? As the name of the hon. Member for North Down appears on the list, the Minister said that he did not see why my name should not appear also. It is an important point: the Minister cannot make fish of one and flesh of the other.

The Minister has said that the SDLP did not reply to the consultation document when it was asked to do so. I accept the point that SDLP Members have made: it is not simply a matter of replying to a letter, but a serious matter involving the Committee's right to make a decision. If parties fail to respond by letter, will they be ruined for ever? I hope that the other parties will support the DUP on this important issue of principle. I repeat that we did everything that was asked of us. We said that we did not care what other party leaders did, but that it was essential for us. The Minister knows that.

Mr. Ancram

I accept that the hon. Gentleman made representations that party leaders' names should be put on the list. However, others made strong representations opposing that proposal. The last 10 minutes of debate have fulfilled my predictions—I arranged a consultation process in order to sort out the matters before the Committee stage, and avoid this type of situation.

I have listened to hon. Members, and I accept that the Committee wishes to see the letters "SDLP" appear after that party's name. The Government are prepared to accept amendment No. 48. However, I repeat—before the situation deteriorates further—that I am not prepared to accept any further amendments.

Mr. Wilshire

On a point of order, Sir Geoffrey. Almost all hon. Members are trying to achieve the same end, but we are in grave danger of legislating on the hoof. If the amendments were withdrawn, would you give an undertaking that you or Madam Speaker would certainly allow the matter to be considered again on Report in an hour or so? That would allow common sense to break out and legislation to be drafted more sensibly.

The First Deputy Chairman

I would never dream of committing Madam Speaker to any action on Report.

Mr. Ancram

With great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne, the consideration of amendments is part of the process, and I have listened very carefully to what hon. Members have said. If I have got the feeling of the House wrong, the House has the ability to rectify that in the Lobbies. If the hon. Member for North Antrim feels that I am wrong not to accept amendment No. 11, he is entitled to test that in the Lobbies. I have said as much as I can on the issue. I am prepared to accept amendment No. 48, but I ask the hon. Members involved to withdraw the other amendments.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Will the Minister give way?

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. The Minister has just said that he will not give way.

Mr. McNamara

On a point of order, Sir Geoffrey. The Minister has sat down. Do we have the leave of the House to continue the debate, having heard what the Minister has said, because points arise from—

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman does not need the leave of the House. The debate may continue.

Mr. McNamara

We have had a generous response from the Minister with regard to the SDLP, and I am grateful for the fact that the Government have accepted that point. However, the point that we were making was that it was the right of the parties to decide by which name they wanted to be known. The position now will be that the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) and his party will be able to put down the party leader's name for all to see, but another party, which specifically asked for that same right, will be denied the right. That cannot possibly be right.

I understand that there may be other reasons why it was felt that the party leaders' names could not appear, and that may have something to do with the success of certain individuals in elections. It may have been felt that if a certain person's name appeared, appended to a party, that party might get more votes because of past history than another party might perhaps get. It is a political and tactical way of dealing with the problem to say that no party leaders' names will appear, just the parties, but that principle has been breached by the position of the hon. and learned Member for North Down. In equity, and whatever one may think about the political opinions of any person or the political advantage that any political party may gain in any elections, everybody must be treated the same.

The Democratic Unionist party met each and every one of the criteria laid down by the Minister. Failure to accept the party's request would give it a cause to cry foul and say that the House is failing, in the drafting of electoral laws, to achieve equity among all candidates and all parties. I therefore urge the Minister to think carefully. Once he allows the name of the hon. and learned Member for North Down to appear on the ballot paper as the leader of a party, the principle that he has laid down will be breached. He has not thought the issue through, and he will have to live with the consequences. I believe that the Minister must grant the same rights to the DUP.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The Minister said that if everybody agreed that the SDLP should have its initials after its name, he would accept that. Will he come to the Dispatch Box and say the same for the DUP? Let us have the same test. I am a democrat, and if people say no, I shall accept it. But the Minister will sour relations in Northern Ireland with one section of the community, because one section of the community is now being discriminated against. I ask the Minister to do the same for the DUP as he did for the SDLP, because nothing could be fairer, and he will see the response of the House.

7.15 pm
Mr. Robert McCartney

A possible way out of this dilemma might be as follows: the proposed legislation allows a nominator of delegates for every party that will participate in the election. That nominator of delegates will be specified by the Secretary of State on the advice, I assume, of the parties concerned. The name of each party could followed by that of the nominator. For example, the name of the Democratic Unionist party could be followed by, "Nominator of Delegates: Rev. Dr. Ian R. K. Paisley", and the SDLP's name by "Nominator of Delegates: Mr. John Hume", and so forth. That would meet the bill by not so boldly setting up a name with a party, but permitting the electors, with whom we should be most concerned, to associate each party with its nominators, as provided in the Bill. That would forward the intention of the legislation and also clarify the issues that are before the House. Most importantly, we would have equity among all the parties.

I invite the Minister to accept amendment No. 11, of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). It would be a good start to the negotiations if all the parties could agree about something in the House, even if that did not fit in with the Government's intentions.

Mr. Peter Robinson

The Minister, when he referred to the means by which the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) had appeared in schedule 1, said that the hon. and learned Member had appeared in that way because that was the way that he had requested he should appear. The background to the Democratic Unionist party's position is that we met the Minister on 1 April—the day on which he released his consultation document, to which the hon. and learned Member responded and to which the SDLP did not. The minutes of that meeting make it abundantly clear that we asked time after time for the name of the leader of our party—specifically, the name of the leader—to appear on the ballot paper beside our name.

We argued the case, not because of the Independent Democratic Unionist party—it came along later—but because when the name of another political party was abbreviated to UDP, it was easily confused with the DUP. We wished to make it clear to those who would vote for whom they would be voting. Therefore, the identification of the leader of our party, along with the name of the party, would make it clear whether they were voting for us or for the other party, if that were their choice. That was how we wished our name to appear on the ballot paper.

What rule of democracy is it that will not allow us to appear on the ballot paper and to seek votes from people under the name of our choice? We shall appear under the name of the Minister's choice, and that just is not acceptable. It is the right of every political party, and we have argued for that right for every political party, to add the name of the leader of the party to prevent confusion.

We have made it clear to the Minister that we want our name to appear as, "Democratic Unionist (DUP)—Ian Paisley." That is our choice and I hope that the Minister will not sour the debate by maintaining his position. That would go far beyond the debate, and I see no point in remaining in the House for the other stages of the Bill if the Minister will not listen to our requests for changes that will affect only our party. The Minister has accepted amendments from everybody else, including the Ulster Unionist party and the SDLP, but he will not accept amendment No. 11 from us about how we appear on the ballot paper.

Mr. Worthington

I am concerned that the debate is falling away from us a little, and it really does need pulling together.

Throughout the debate we have been as constructive as possible, and an easy solution is available. We may not agree with the solution, but, basically, all parties on the ballot paper should be on it on the same terms. There seems to be agreement that the parties should be able to name themselves, and there is probably agreement that they should be able to have the initials that they want after their names. Where there may be disagreement is whether the name of the leader should be on the ballot paper.

I have suggested that on Report—I am sure that with good will it could be organised—a principled proposition should be put forward, rather than alternative votes which will lead us into a greater mess than we are in at present. We accept the list of parties as they are described in the schedule, but a proposition should appear on the face of the Bill about what parties should be able to call themselves and what style they may use. I am convinced that by Report stage we shall not obtain agreement, but we could agree that the matter was being pursued in a principled way. That is what I propose to the House.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

We are discussing a Bill that seeks to establish a forum and negotiations in Northern Ireland in order to bring people together and obtain agreement. Hon. Members from different political parties in Northern Ireland, and probably every other hon. Member who has spoken, apart from the Minister, either want certain amendments to be accepted and parties allowed to use the description of their choice, or the problem to be resolved by some other means and to be dealt with on Report.

The Minister must respond favourably either to the amendments or to the suggestion that matters can begin to be resolved on Report, and suggest how that will be done. Otherwise, he is setting the process off down the wrong road entirely and a fantastic dispute will emerge from the measure. There is agreement in the House on the areas that matter and the Government should respond to the situation. They are supposed to be facilitating agreement on the issue, so that the House can reach a decision.

Miss Hoey

I rise briefly again because I do not think that the Minister answered the point that I made when I spoke earlier. I do not believe that the principle is about every party on the ballot paper being described in the same way. Surely the principle must be that political parties, particularly the main political parties that are represented here in the House, should have the right to describe themselves on the ballot paper as they wish.

It would be simple for the Minister to accept that all the parties represented here today could say how they wished to be described. If the Democratic Unionist party wants its leader mentioned, that is fine. If the Unionist party does not want its leader mentioned for some reason, that is fine. Surely the principle should be that individual parties represented here, which have already gone through the electoral system, should have that basic right. That is the principle, and the Minister did not reply to my original point.

Mr. Canavan

The debate would be unnecessary if the Government were to accept amendment No. 94 in my name, which would allow any party to contest the election, in which case we would have no need of the schedule, particularly part II. The Minister is being inconsistent. He said earlier that he was unwilling to accept that the name of the leader of the party together with the name of the party should appear on the ballot paper. Yet that has already been accepted, and not simply in the case of the UK Unionist party and the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). Another seven parties are listed in the schedule, which appear to bear the names of individuals. Although they are described as independents, they are listed under the heading of "The Parties".

If the Minister is to be consistent, he should allow each party to decide how it will be described on the ballot paper. If he had accepted my amendment, all this could have been taken care of in the normal nomination procedure, whereby nominations would be invited, as they are at a general or local government election, and the various candidates, or in this case the various parties, would put the teams of candidates forward and the names of the parties and, if they wanted to put the name of the leader of the party on the ballot paper, so be it. It is rather strange and unjust for the Minister to be discriminating against some parties in this way.

The Minister said that my amendment No. 94 was not acceptable to the Government for various reasons which I did not quite comprehend. He said that it is the Government's intention not to proscribe but to get a comprehensive list in order to make the elections as inclusive as possible. If he were to accept my amendment and allow any party to contest the elections, surely that would make the elections far more inclusive than confining them to a list of 30 or so organisations that the Government have decided are parties. Who knows, between now and election day, or what could have been nomination day, other parties or groups of people may wish to contest the elections, but it will be too late to do so.

The Minister also said in justification for rejecting my amendment that the word "party" has no basis in law. That is a poor argument. He can, if he wants, accept my amendment and introduce a consequential amendment defining a party in law if he thinks that that is essential.

The Minister also said that once one goes down the road of the list system, one must go down the road of some form of registration of parties. That is fair enough. I accept that in principle. But there is no need for a statutory recognition of parties. There is no need for a statutory list of parties. Many countries operate a list system in their general and local elections without some form of statutory recognition of parties. That could be taken care of simply by the nomination procedure, whereby parties go along with their groups of candidates and put them down under a description that they choose.

I hope that the Minister will think again about amendment No. 94. If he is unwilling to accept it, he should be consistent and allow all parties to describe themselves as they so wish rather than by the diktat of ministerial decree or parliamentary statute.

Mr. Ancram

I have listened closely to the representations that have been made. As I said earlier, it was on the understanding that there was a feeling within the House that the SDLP should be allowed to add its letters after its name that I said that I would accept that amendment.

I have to say in all honesty that I cannot at the moment get a feeling for an equivalent degree of consensus in relation to a way forward on the matter that we have just been discussing, so I cannot alter what I said earlier.

However, I am prepared to suggest that between now and Report my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State should consult the leaders of the Northern Ireland parties to see whether an acceptable formula can be arrived at, which can satisfy the concerns that have been expressed. It is certainly my opinion that we currently do not have that consensus.

As I said earlier, however, my intention and that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State is to create an inclusive process in which people will feel able to participate. It is in that spirit that I offer this consultation. If there is consensus, it obviously could be acted on on Report, with the indulgence of the Chair. I make that offer.

On that basis, I ask hon. Members not to press their amendments, other than those that I have said I shall accept.

Mr. Canavan

I am still very unhappy about the Minister's response—or, rather, lack of response—to my amendment. I shall certainly not withdraw it, but I do not want to press it to a Division.

Amendment negatived

7.30 pm
Mr. McNamara

On a point of order, Mr. Lofthouse. Did not the Minister invite hon. Members who tabled amendments to say before the vote what their responses would be to the offer that he has just made?

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. The Question has been put and negatived.

Rev. Ian Paisley

On a point of order, Mr. Lofthouse. I understood the Minister to say that hon. Members could withdraw their amendments now, that the Secretary of State would consult the leaders of the Northern Ireland parties, and that on Report there might be some provision to finalise the dispute that has arisen among us today. I am certainly prepared to withdraw the amendment in my name on those grounds.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. We shall come to the amendment mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. He will then have the opportunity to withdraw it, or otherwise.

Amendment made: No. 47, in page 5, line 1, leave out 'one constituency list' and insert 'three constituency lists.'.—[Mr. Trimble.]

Mr. Robert McCartney

I beg to move amendment No. 143, in page 5, line 3, leave out 'at least two and'.

The First Deputy Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also amendment No. 156, in page 5, line 3, leave out 'and not more than five'.

Mr. McCartney

In general terms, schedule 1 provides that parties will have to field not fewer than two and not more than five candidates to stand in the constituency section of the proposed election. I am conscious of the fact that the Minister said that he was sensitive to the difficulties that face minor or smaller parties in fielding candidates and in complying with the exigencies of an election campaign.

The purpose of amendment No. 143 is to amend the clause so that parties may field not more than five candidates, which would give them the option of fielding not two candidates but one. It would therefore only be necessary for the smaller parties in the 18 constituencies to find 18 candidates, plus an additional eight candidates for the Provincewide section, which involves another 20 seats.

I think it is important that the smaller parties should be helped to field at least one candidate in every constituency because that would provide them with an opportunity to increase their Provincewide vote, thus qualifying for a place in the top 10 parties. Under the legislation, that would give them an additional two seats.

There seems to be no very good reason why the question of the number of candidates, up to the maximum that can be fielded, should not lie in the purview of the parties fielding candidates. Why should there be an obligation on those parties to field two candidates rather than one, particularly as amendment No. 47—which the Government have accepted—means that there is already an obligation on the smaller parties to field candidates in at least three constituencies as an endorsement of their good faith and seriousness of intent?

In those circumstances, I suggest that it should be made easier for parties that are serious and want to raise their Provincewide vote to a level that would permit them to obtain an additional two seats. Such parties should be offered the facility of qualifying by fielding one candidate in each of the 18 constituencies.

It may be suggested—in some metaphysical manner—that if one is fielding only one candidate, one is not providing a list. That does not answer the issue at all, because one is providing a candidate, who will be one of a number of candidates on a very large list on which the electorate will be able to make their choice. Conversely, by compelling the smaller parties to field 36 candidates instead of 18, one is limiting that party in its appeal to the widest possible spectrum of electors.

There may, for example, be only 200 or 500 voters in a constituency that wished to cast their votes for the United Kingdom Unionist party—Robert McCartney. Provided that my party is willing to field at least one candidate in that constituency, is there any reason why those 200,300 or more people should be denied an opportunity to vote for it?

If the object of the legislation is to include as many of the smaller parties as possible—not just my party—insistence on two candidates from each party in each constituency is simply the erection of an unnecessary hurdle for the smaller parties to overcome. Such a hurdle, by its very nature, defeats the object of giving the smaller parties the widest possible opportunity to participate.

I exhort the Committee to support the amendment.

Mr. William Ross

I tabled a short amendment which goes in a direction completely opposite to that of the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) because I wish to remove the limit of five candidates.

This is a party list system—a list of parties and not of individuals. I think that the more candidates a party has running in every part of a constituency, the greater its chance of enhancing its vote. It seems a bit ridiculous to say that a party can field five candidates when we know perfectly well that there is not a snowball's chance of any one party winning all five seats in a constituency. Therefore, the limit on the number of candidates has no grounding in logic, and there is no reason why that limit should not be removed or why a party should not field six, seven or 10 candidates in a constituency. Parties would have many people on the streets—knocking doors, talking to the electorate, convincing them of the strengths of their party and persuading them to support their party. All I ask is that that can be done.

We know that some parties, and I think that the SDLP is one—[Interruption.] Its members might like to stop chattering for a moment and listen. I believe that in the constituency of Foyle it has 15 or 16 people currently chasing three or four places. In those circumstances, why should any of them be denied the right to canvass?

Mr. Barnes

Might it not work the other way? Instead of attracting more votes, might not the existence of more than five candidates alienate some voters, thus providing more votes for other parties?

Mr. Ross

I accept that that might happen in view of the divisions between old and new Labour and between the Conservative Euro-sceptics and others, but it could not happen in a united party like the UUP. We would have no difficulty finding 10 or 15 people who were prepared to work for the party day and night to ensure its success. I have great pleasure in supporting the amendment.

Mr. Robert McCartney

In response to what the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said, it should perhaps be noted that although, theoretically, five candidates may be elected for one party in any constituency—even though that is utterly unlikely—it is abundantly clear that, if six candidates stand, no more than five can be elected. It is absolutely without purpose, therefore, to allow any party to run more candidates than it can conceivably get elected.

Mr. Ancram

I have listened with great care to the representations that have been made. The answer given to the hon. Member for East Londonderry by the hon. and learned Member for North Down was precisely that which I was going to give. Although running more candidates may be a way of securing more canvassers—if I understood the hon. Gentleman rightly—it is not necessarily logical for a party to run more candidates than it can have elected.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Under this system if, for any reason, any of the candidates deemed to be elected drop out—because of death or illness or for some other reason—does not someone have to come up from the bottom? If a party is enthusiastic enough to win five seats, it might be as well for it to have some reserves.

Mr. Ancram

We gave some thought to that when considering how to develop the constituency list system and concluded that that argument could be taken to fanciful lengths. In practical terms, limiting the number of candidates to the number of seats seemed to be the appropriate thing to do.

I understand the concern expressed by the hon. and learned Member for North Down.

Mr. William Ross

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). Let us suppose that one party has three people elected; they go to a meeting in a car that crashes and they are killed. Under the proposed system, that party would lose out, whereas if it had been able to run six, seven or eight candidates, it could simply take people from the original group. That is a valid point.

Mr. Ancram

That situation is provided for in the Bill. We are considering the number of candidates rather than the way in which vacancies are filled.

As I was saying, I understand that the position of the hon. and learned Member for North Down is particular to himself. I heard with interest the fact that he regards an 18-seat campaign as the right way to proceed. Ideally, I would expect to see all parties that wish to be taken seriously stand in a large number of constituencies. That is another reason why we accepted the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Upper Bann, which requires candidature in three constituencies in order to qualify for the regional list.

I repeat what I said earlier. A party is more than one individual, and we believed it was right that there should therefore be a lower limit. Had we not required a candidature of at least two names on a list, it would have been possible for one person to stand in one constituency and claim to be a party. We felt that that was illogical in terms of the principle of parties and list systems. For that reason we set a minimum limit, which is right in logic and in principle. On that basis, I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

7.45 pm
Mr. Robert McCartney

Does not the Minister accept that the principle which he expounds is exploded to some extent by the Government's acceptance of amendment No. 47? Under amendment No. 47, in order to get on to the general list a party has to run a minimum of six people in addition to providing for the general list. Although one person may not be a party, six clearly must be. Even if there were only one candidate for each of the three seats, three plus three may be a small party, but it is certainly a party.

If that principle were to be applied to a greater number of seats—up to 18—amendment No. 143 would provide for at least 18 candidates for election, plus two on the Provincewide list. There would therefore be 20. I have some difficulty in understanding how 20 people do not constitute a party, even though, in an given constituency, there may be only one candidate. After all, in the general elections to elect Members to this Parliament, all the major parties field only one candidate in each constituency, but no one suggests that they cannot really be called parties. I ask the Minister to reconsider my serious suggestion.

Mr. Ancram

The hon. and learned Gentleman's argument might make sense if it contained a requirement for each party to put up at least one candidate in all 18 constituencies. However, it removes the lower limit without stipulating the number of constituencies in which a party would be required to stand. The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the acceptance of amendment No. 47, but that applies only to a party that wishes to take advantage of the regional list system.

We are trying to prevent a situation arising in which a one-man party, which does not envisage taking part in the top-up through the regional list system, stands in one constituency on his own. Such a person would not constitute a party. Earlier, we were talking about the parties on the list which are designated as "Independent". That term is followed by one person's name. Whether those so listed are parties in terms of being able to take part in the election, beyond being shown on the list, depends on whether they can show that they have more than one member. I therefore ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. McCartney


Mr. Ancram

If the hon. and learned Gentleman is going to offer to table an amendment to require that parties stand in 18 constituencies, my argument will be fairly predictable: it would place an enormous burden on certain parties which I believe have a right to stand and be heard in this election.

Mr. McCartney

I am grateful to the Minister for his exposition, but does not his argument boil down to the fact that a single person can still stand in a constituency—all he needs is one dummy piper by his side? The Minister is in effect saying that two people constitute a party, but a party willing to run a candidate in 18 constituencies cannot do so. Is that the de minimise rule taken to extremes? Do two candidates constitute a party, while one in each of the 18 constituencies does not?

However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Trimble

I beg to move amendment No. 44, page 5, line 10, at end insert—

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