HC Deb 01 May 1996 vol 276 cc1231-51

[Relevant document: The Memorandum relating to this Order contained in the Eighteenth Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, House of Commons Paper No. 34-xviii.]

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

I beg to move, That the draft Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 29th April, be approved.

The draft order fills out the details of the mechanism by which the forthcoming elections in Northern Ireland are to be held. It fixes the date of the election at 30 May, in line with the Prime Minister's announcement of 21 March. Like the elections provisions of the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act under which it is made, it is for use at a single election only; thereafter, it will be spent.

All the most significant features of the framework for the election were embodied in the Act which was approved by this House and another place last week. Briefly, the voters in the election will be all who are entitled to participate in local elections in Northern Ireland. The election will be based on a constituency list system, and five delegates will be returned in respect of the participating parties from each of the 18 parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland.

In addition, a further 20 delegates will be returned at regional level—two in respect of each of the 10 parties gaining most votes on aggregate across Northern Ireland which have submitted regional lists. From those delegates will be chosen teams to participate in the negotiations, in accordance with section 2 of the Act; and they will together constitute the forum set up by section 3.

That is the structure of the Act which this order now has to fill out. For convenience, we have as far as possible sought to apply existing legislation with which those involved in electoral matters in Northern Ireland will be familiar. Thus, the order applies broadly the existing law relating to parliamentary elections, with only those modifications that we believe necessary to accommodate them to the electoral system set out in the Act. We believe that proceeding in this way makes the legislation simpler to understand and apply, and more manageable than trying to set out a comprehensive new code.

The part of the order which I know to be of particular interest to the participating parties in the election concerns the arrangements for nominating representatives to hand in their lists of candidates. The draft order originally provided that party lists should be submitted at the chief electoral officer's headquarters in Belfast. That has been changed in this order, so that they may be submitted to any of his offices, thereby introducing a local element to the procedure. He will be required by the legislation to give notice of precisely where and by when constituency and regional lists should be submitted. I am sure that nominating representatives from all parties will make the most of this opportunity.

We have also borne in mind the fact that this is a novel system of election, and that the electorate will need to be sufficiently well prepared to play as full a part as possible. We have therefore arranged for two leaflet drops to all of Northern Ireland's 590,000 households. The first leaflet alerted people to the possible need for an absent vote, explained the franchise and included a reminder of the need for a specified document to be presented at a polling station. The second leaflet, which will be delivered shortly, repeats the information about the franchise and specified documents, and explains how to vote and how the vote works. In addition, we have arranged a series of television and radio advertisements to encourage people to participate. These we will put out during the campaign.

The broadcasting media are an important part of modern elections, and it is important that their coverage serves the interests of voters. With that in mind, the Government have decided that, exceptionally for the elections, the provisions of section 93 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, relating to broadcasting, shall not apply. The unusual nature of the elections, involving votes for parties rather than individual candidates, means that the application of section 93 might cause problems in distinguishing the campaign in a particular constituency from that across Northern Ireland as a whole. We want to avoid potential for disputes between the parties and the broadcasters, with the consequences that that could have for electoral coverage.

The Government have presumed that broadcasters will share the view that the forthcoming important elections should be given balanced and fair coverage. That would reflect the inclusive nature of the approach that we have taken.

Mindful of the financial constraints on some of the smaller parties, we have made provision for unaddressed postal communications, which also need not state the name of the constituency. Nominating representatives and their parties will note that we have also applied provisions relating to electoral expenses for the election. I am sure that hon. Members will agree with me that limiting election expenses is an important part of our democracy, ensuring as it tries to do that an element of parity governs the electoral contest.

We could not simply apply the provisions as they stand for parliamentary elections, as those provisions relate solely to candidates. We have sought instead to apply an aggregate limit, the limit for each party being the limit for one candidate at a parliamentary election multiplied by the number of constituencies that it is contesting. We believe that that formula manages to preserve the principle of applying limits, while at the same time breaking the link with the individual constituency spending that has applied at other elections, by recognising that parties may wish, for example, to spend regionally rather than locally.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Will the Minister assist the parties in Northern Ireland by stating what the total would be if a party decided to run five candidates in each constituency?

Mr. Ancram

If I have the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate. It may be that I can give the hon. Gentleman the figures that will apply per party per constituency at that stage, and then allow him to arrive at the aggregate. His arithmetic may be every bit as good as mine.

We have tried to respond to some of the concerns that have been expressed by the parties. One example is the listing of the individual candidates who compose the constituency and regional lists. It would have been impracticable to include those names on the ballot paper, not least because it would have made it too large to fit on the shelf of a polling booth.

Instead, we have made provision, as I said during the passage of what became the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996, for lists of the names on the parties' constituency and regional lists to be displayed in every polling booth in every polling station in Northern Ireland.

The House may be interested to hear what provisions have been applied for the count. Hon. Members will be only too familiar from their own experience of the rules that allow us and our partners, together with all other candidates and their partners, to attend a count. The rules will be no different in this election. Of course, there could be a far greater number of candidates wishing to attend the count at this election than is usual, given that a maximum of 155 candidates could, in theory, contest one constituency alone.

We gave serious thought to the practical problems that admitting such numbers may pose. We concluded, however, that it would not be realistic to seek to exclude candidates from such a key process. They will therefore be admitted to the count proceedings, with party agents or sub-agents. We shall leave it to the parties to respond responsibly.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

Does that mean that all 2,000 candidates will be allowed to attend the count?

Mr. Ancram

The counts will take place on a constituency basis, where the allocation of delegates from the constituency lists will be made. As I have said, in our view that gives a maximum at worst of 155 candidates in one constituency alone. We are leaving matters to the responsibility of those concerned to ensure that attendance at the counts is conducted responsibly.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

When will the votes be counted? Will the count be conducted the next day, or on the evening of the election?

Mr. Ancram

In due course, I shall give the hon. Gentleman the reference in the order. They will be counted the next day. The count will start the following morning. It is right, in the circumstances, that it should be done in that way.

To return to the question of the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), if a party stands in five constituencies, the limit will depend on the constituencies in question. The amount that would normally go to each candidate in a parliamentary election will be allowable for each party standing in any constituency. The important feature is that that money does not have to be spent in any one constituency by the party. The party might decide to have a more regionally based campaign, and use the resources in that way. That degree of flexibility is an important part of the process.

Mr. William Ross

If a party is standing in all 18 constituencies, it seems that the total expenditure could be well over £100,000.

Mr. Ancram

I shall give the hon. Gentleman the relevant amount, and he can make his own calculation.

It is a similar amount to that which would be available to any candidate at an election. I think that the calculation was last made in 1994. Any party could receive only that amount times 18 if it stood in every constituency in Northern Ireland.

It is important that we proceed in this way. For example, the hon. Gentleman's party might decide that it wished to spend not the full allowance within each constituency but less in one constituency and more in another. It seems right that that flexibility should be allowed. For that reason—to create what we hope is a flexible system on behalf of the parties—we decided to operate in the way that I have outlined.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

Paragraph 76(2A)(a) and (b) give the block figures—£4,642 for a county constituency or a borough constituency, with an additional 5.2p for a county constituency and 3.9p for a borough constituency. We are not asking the Minister to engage in any mathematics. Do these figures apply per candidate or per party per constituency?

Mr. Ancram

They apply per party per constituency. What is entered in each constituency is a party list. The hon. Member for East Londonderry, who is an accountant, could make the calculations in his head far more quickly than myself. It is right that we allow flexibility, to ensure that the money can be spent regionally as opposed to merely locally. We have tried to allow parties the maximum flexibility in conducting their campaigns.

I have presented the scheme and some of the detail of the draft order. Much of the order recreates existing legislation. There are some technical terminological changes to address the particulars of the elections that we shall see take place on 30 May.

Dr. Norman Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

The Minister mentioned the role to be played by both television and radio. What of newspapers?

Mr. Ancram

Obviously newspapers have an important role to play, but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, there were no restrictions on the way in which newspapers conduct themselves during election campaigns. I was referring to the removal of the provision which is normally applied in elections, because of the nature of this election. We look to the broadcasters to operate responsibly in the interests of fair coverage during the election.

The order represents the most reasonable approach to adopt, in the complex and technical body of electoral law, to the requirements of the forthcoming election. I commend it to the House.

8.58 pm
Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I am grateful to the Minister for his introduction. I judge from the way in which we have started that the debate will liven up as people get into their mathematics. I was confused immediately, but, as people become clearer on the issue, there will be more coherent questions.

Let us not pretend that we will give the order the scrutiny it deserves, or that the way we are dealing with it is in any way satisfactory. I started considering the order at the earliest possible moment late on Monday afternoon.

I know that many other hon. Members will have had considerably less time to consider it and will not have been able to scrutinise it adequately, as I have not been able to do.

The order is important, because we hope that, against all the odds, successful all-party talks will take place following the election. If those talks are successful, the lives of all people in Northern Ireland will be transformed, but if some of the order is wrong, the only people who will be benefit from it are those who are not trying hard for a full peace and a broad constitutional settlement.

I raise those points because it is better to anticipate them now than for them to be used to upset or to cause controversy at the election—although I realise that we cannot amend the order, so the choice is whether to vote for or against it. We know that, were we successfully to vote against it, we would derail the elections, so it is not much of a choice.

This is a difficult order, because it is a mongrel election—it is unlike any others. In some respects, it is like a local election—the electorate is a local government electorate. In relation to the rules that are being followed, such as, for example, those on free post, it is like a general election. It also attempts something for the first time in Northern Ireland: a party list system, with a party rather than an individual as the candidate.

The Government said that they went about this in the simplest possible way: by not attempting to bring in major, new and substantive legislation. It is an incredibly difficult order, because it is possible to make sense of it only by reference to large parts of other legislation that are not in the Bill. It is impossible to make sense of the order without looking up 1983 and 1985 Acts. Whatever the outcome, however, we should congratulate the parliamentary draftsmen, who have had to struggle with a beast not of their own making. If, having produced the order, they are now brain-dead, I would sympathise with them.

Mr. Ancram

They have been stimulated.

Mr. Worthington

They have been stimulated by the production of the order, but it has had less than a stimulating effect on me. I suspect that some of the parliamentary draftsmen may be sleeping for several weeks after producing it.

Let me go through some of the points that have occurred to me in reading the legislation. On page 2, paragraph (6), will the Minister explain why he has taken his decision on overseas electors, and what is meant by "overseas electors" in this context? Is it simply people from Northern who are temporarily away from home, or is it long-gone expatriates? In the case of some interpretations of overseas electors, it would not be too serious, but if it is genuine Northern Ireland residents, members of the forces or others, it is an unfortunate decision, if I have read that correctly.

We have talked about election expenses. Again, I am by no means certain that 1 have read this correctly, but the point is important. The parties that are represented here will want to understand it, and to have it explained clearly by the Minister.

As the Minister will know, in a general election, there are tight restrictions on what candidates can spend in their constituencies, but no restriction on what is spent nationally—whatever "nationally" means in this context—by the parties. In the Bill, we see the familiar restrictions on constituency expenditure, but this election is different, because the candidate is the party, not an individual. Is it real to impose those limits in relation to constituencies, because the literature and propaganda for the whole of Northern Ireland are likely to be the same as for a part? The issue is the same in every constituency.

I know that that is an academic question for most parties, because they simply do not have enough money, but there may be parties with a lot of money to spend. Is it the case that there is no limit on the amount that can be spent on the election by those who have the money? There seems to be no restriction on expenses. A large amount can be spent Provincewide or UKwide, and the only limit on expenditure is the amount that people can raise. Perhaps the Minister will explain that.

The order contains no reference to rules about broadcasting. It is unfortunate that it was only in his speech and not before it that the Minister referred to the suspension of section 93, which deals with the rules that broadcasters have to follow.

I understand that their public service role, which places an obligation upon them in elections to give even-handed coverage to all parties, has been suspended. I suspect that public service broadcasters may still want to fulfil that role, but did the Minister means that there is no duty upon broadcasters to be even-handed to all parties, as happens in other elections? I should welcome some clarification.

I hesitate to return to the subject of party names, on which the Government made such a mess.

Mr. William Ross

Given that some moves are afoot in various parties in the House to have PR elections, should not this aspect of the legislation put down a marker of which everyone should take note? If there is a multiplicity of parties, which occurs under PR, section 93 would have to be suspended in all future elections in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Worthington

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's point is valid, but I have enough difficulty learning for the present without trying to learn for the future. I hope that we shall all learn from this. Above all, I hope that the talks are successful.

As I say, I hesitate to return to the subject of party names, because the issue caused considerable contention in Committee. Schedule 1 (ii) allows some individual names on the ballot paper but not others, and that has been the cause of contention. I and may others cannot see the logic of it. In Committee, the Government said that the names could appear on the ballot paper only in the way that is set out in the schedule, but, of course, the law is only what appears in the Bill, and I cannot see where the Government get their authority for that in the legislation.

The law simply states that the Secretary of State shall cause to be published in the Belfast Gazette an initial list of the nominating representatives of the parties that are listed in the schedule. The Bill has been to the other place, and I assume that it has received Royal Assent and is now the law, but it does not state that the schedule contains the only way to describe these parties. There is no prohibition in the schedule or in the relevant clause on the use of other names.

Rule 6(1) states: A constituency or regional list submitted to the Chief Electoral Officer shall state

  1. "(a) …the name of the constituency;
  2. (b) …in the case of a regional list, that it is such a list;
  3. (c) …in the case of any list—
  4. (i) …the name of the party".
There follow instructions about the address and so on.

Rule 12 states that a list shall be deemed to be valid unless and until the Chief Electoral Officer decides that it is invalid. It says that the chief electoral officer may hold a list invalid only if the particulars of a party or candidates are not as required in rule 6(2) above or that the party is not a party listed in part II of Schedule 1 to the 1996 Act".

For the sake of argument, what would the electoral officer do if a party described itself as the Democratic Unionist Party (Ian Paisley)? It is undeniably the same party as the one listed as Democratic Unionist—DUP in the schedule. On what statutory basis would the electoral officer be able to deny its candidacy or change the way in which it is described? There may be a simple answer to that, but I raise it because the legislation is not clear.

We know what was said in Committee, but it is not clear in the legislation that a party cannot use some minor or major variation on its name as listed in the schedule. All that matters is that the Chief Electoral Officer is entitled to hold a list invalid only on the grounds that a party is not a party listed in part II of Schedule 1 to the 1996 Act". That is very different from saying that a party has to use exactly the same words. For whatever reason, a party might put its name forward in a different way. It would be a bold electoral officer who rejected the party on that basis, or sought to change the name by which the party described itself. I am open to explanation by the Minister. The Government made their intention clear during the debate in Committee, but I query whether they have been made explicit in the Bill.

Finally, there has been some controversy about the postal ballot arrangements, which were being centralised. Will it be possible to make postal ballot arrangements on a local, rather than a Northern Ireland, basis?

As I said at the outset, I have gone through the order in a short time and raised the questions that occurred to me. It is unfortunate that we are dealing with it in this way, because we will be denied the immense wisdom of lawyers outside Parliament and other people who know electoral law, who could have pointed out other discrepancies. I look forward to the Minister's response to my points.

9.12 pm
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

We are confronted this evening with the Elections (Northern Ireland) Order, which consists of no fewer than 30 pages of tightly packed amendments. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) has done a good job in wading through it in the time at his disposal. He and the House know that they have had a chance only to scratch the surface of the order. Much more needs to be said.

I deeply resent the fact that names are not to be included on the ballot paper. Like it or not, the names of individual candidates have a bearing on whether a party gains votes in a particular area. Leaving names off is much to be regretted and bitterly resented.

The issue has been raised of the sums that can be spent in the elections. Several parties in Northern Ireland have no difficulty in raising money. They go along with a balaclava and a gun and ask for it. I suspect that one or two parties will have enough money to fight the election and spend the full sum.

This process is regarded by people in Northern Ireland as another step along the road to meeting the IRA deadline of 10 June. The Government are trying to create a body that will be powerless. Thanks be to God, though, the people of Northern Ireland, like people elsewhere in the United Kingdom, value their freedom and the electoral process, and are intent on making full use of it. I have no doubt that, whenever the forum is elected, the Minister will find considerable difficulty in trying to restrict what it says. It will, like all elected bodies, slowly but steadily acquire power.

We are faced with a order of 30 pages of amendments to the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996, the Representation of the People Act 1983, the Representation of the People Act 1985, the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989—four Acts of Parliament, three of which deal purely with representation of the people, and the latest Act, which was, of course, passed by the House last week—plus the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 1986, the Planning (Control of Advertisements) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1992 and the Election Petition Rules 1964. The order amends four Acts of Parliament, two sets of regulations and one set of rules.

Every one of those bodies of legislation is complex enough in itself and very difficult for the ordinary citizen, coming face to face with it for the first time, to understand. They all set out penalties for transgression, up to and including the disqualification of candidates and persons elected. The correct procedures for the elections can be determined only by reading the list of changes in those 30 pages across the previous Acts, regulations, and so forth, to which they refer.

As it happens, the order was considered at yesterday's meeting of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, of which I am a member. I should like to apologise on his behalf for the absence of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), the Chairman of the Committee, who is unavoidably absent from this debate. I think that he would have been very happy to say some of the things that I am saying.

We were advised that the procedure being used to make the changes was simple. As a Member, I am the first to accept the logic of that advice. The procedure is simple and easy for us in this place and those who concoct amendments to Bills to understand. It is presumably also easy for lawyers to understand. Indeed, the field is a paradise for lawyers, so I do not see how anyone in the time available could have gone through the order in the detail that is necessary to be certain that everything is absolutely correct, as is essential in such orders.

The elections in Northern Ireland are not all going to be run by lawyers. They will be run by ordinary men and women, who will have to run elections for their party, or, occasionally, for themselves or for a friend who is standing as an independent candidate. If one is, say, a lay member of the population in Northern Ireland, without any legal training or qualifications, one might be lucky because at least one would have an excuse when acting as an election agent.

A trained lawyer will not have that excuse. Such trained lawyers will find that they are supposed to have a total grasp of the huge and complex body of legislation and the effect that each and every one of the 30 pages of amendments have on it. Yesterday, the Committee took the view that such a procedure was simply not good enough. The Committee said that the legislation and the rules should be plain and easy to understand. This is, after all, legislation dealing with the electoral process and the basic right of democracy—the right of people to vote.

The Committee also noted that very few people would have all the necessary Acts, rules and regulations. I inquired for them at the Vote Office this morning, but they were not there, and they are not there yet. The reason is that such documents dating from 1964 are not held in this place. One must ask how hon. Members were to start the cross-referencing work, even if we had the time to do it this week. How were we to get the documents? They were not available. One would have to go to the Library to get the file copies and sit down with a couple of wet towels and ice around one's head while one waded through the whole thing.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Recently, I was the senior counsel for the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) when he was faced with an electoral petition, and I therefore had cause to peruse in great detail the electoral provisions as they then stood. I can endorse entirely everything that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) has just said.

It is not just a question of it being difficult for a layman: I can assure the House that, for a senior counsel of 20 years' standing, the problems then presented by the representation of the people legislation were immense. Now that this new batch of legislation has been added, those problems will be far beyond the ken of any layman, and will strain the resources of many trained lawyers.

Mr. Ross

We have just heard one of the most eminent banisters in Northern Ireland—a man who has acted in the courts on this very issue—explaining how difficult it is for lawyers. I would say to the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney)—meaning no harm to his general profession—that the only defence that any defendant in such a case could have now is the fact that he is not a lawyer. He might plead ignorance, which, although it is no real defence, might make the judge look more kindly upon him.

No civil servants—either from the Home Office or the Northern Ireland Office—were present at the Committee last night to answer questions, and the Committee did not take kindly to that. I hope that the House will realise that the Committee members were in some difficulty, because we knew that the legislation was necessary, and that the elections could not be held without it.

We therefore adopted the device of publishing immediately an extract from the Committee's 18th report, which sets out our opinion. This has been available in the Vote Office today. The Committee members point out in the extract their regret that a full text of this legislation has not been published so that people could see the whole electoral law for this election set out in a single and cohesive structure. Even at this late stage, the Government should go down that road.

The Committee says in its paper that it does not wish to draw the attention of both Houses to the instrument. But the object of having the paper in the Vote Office is to draw the attention of this House and the other place to the failings that we find in the legislation. I therefore hope that the Minister will take on board the views of the Committee, and no doubt we will hear more about this later.

As an annexe to the paper, the Northern Ireland Office memorandum of 26 April has been published. It is labelled in the paper in the Vote Office as a memorandum from the Home Office, but that is a humbug that we are prepared to put up with in this place sometimes to give information to hon. Members and to the world outside.

The Committee's view was that there should be a full text for the benefit of those who have to operate within the legislative framework created by the original legislation, as modified by the order. That is not so much a view as a vital necessity if we are to avoid the possible consequences of getting the whole process wrong.

Even when the order has been sorted out, the problems will not be over. The timetable for elections is always tight, even in an election where the rules have long been in existence and are well understood by those participating in and organising it, and by the lawyers who usually deal with any thorny problems that come up. But on this occasion, we do not have that advantage of time.

This stuff appeared only within the last few days. We simply do not know what will be acceptable. If we wind up in the courts, we could find, far too late, that a whole party has been disqualified. People could be chucked out if they get it wrong—I do not think that I am going too far in saying that. That is a possibility. I hope that the Government have taken that on board, or perhaps they are deliberately refusing to do so. This is a serious matter.

We also have all the hullabaloo about application forms for postal votes. They are to be available only to the individual applying to a central point. Why should that be so? That has never been the case before. It was possible for someone to go along to the electoral office to get a form for themselves and their neighbours.

The application form is not a postal vote; it is only an application form. It is up to the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, formidable man that he is, and his assistants, to determine whether an application is correct and should be granted. It has been the practice to give a number of forms to the parties and the candidates. People should find it easy to vote. Surely it is part and parcel of our democratic standards and procedures that we should not try to make it difficult to vote.

But in Northern Ireland during the past 20 years, there has been the hullabaloo about getting the forms, the problem of identification whenever we arrive at polling stations, and the difficulty sometimes of getting to polling stations because of security arrangements. Voting has been made incredibly difficult for people. It is all right for those of us who run elections and are being elected—we know what we can and cannot do—but the ordinary citizen votes once every four or five years, and, if they are refused a vote because they do not have the correct documentation, they go away and do not come back.

During the Bill's passage last week, I asked the Government to take on board the necessity of keeping a record of the people who were refused a ballot paper, and the reasons for it. I fear that that has not been taken on board. Why are the chief electoral officer and his officials so anxious not to get the facts? This is a matter about which we have complained in this place and in Northern Ireland for years, but no one wants to know.

No one wants to know why fewer people vote in Northern Ireland. The answer is simple, and glaringly obvious. Sometimes it is hard to lay one's hands on the necessary document. Some people do not have any acceptable document.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) pointed out this evening that this election takes place at the end of the month. The old-age pensioner will be trotting along with her pension book. If it has no valid payment order, it will not be good enough. That might be the only document that thousands of people have. There will certainly be some who will not have a valid pension book, and that may be the means by which they are denied the right to cast their vote. That is not acceptable. It is about time that the Government got their finger out and found out how many people are refused.

Above all, it is about time that the Government got their finger out and had a single document, such as a proper identity card, with a photograph on it in Northern Ireland. If there was a photograph, even of the standard that one sees on passports and driving licences, it would at least give some idea. Photographic machinery has improved enormously and most of us recognise ourselves even if we are not too pretty. If we had that, everyone would know that they had to take it with them, and everyone would know that, if they presented it, they would be given their ballot paper.

We know that there are those who practise intimidation and others who have been stealing the document known as the medical card, which we were told by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) is so easy to forge. All that would disappear. There seems to be no desire to make life difficult for the evildoer, only for the law-abiding.

In his opening remarks, the Minister said that the nominations for candidates would be submitted at different places. He did not make it clear, at least not to me, whether the nominating member from each party had to be present, or whether an agent, the candidates or somebody else could hand in the paper on his behalf. What we have seen so far is not good enough.

Will the Government, even at this late stage, do a full print of the legislation, so that we know a little more about where we are and so that those involved can work through the legislation and keep within the law and proper procedures rather than go through what I believe will turn into chaos as a result of this incomprehensible order.

9.31 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

This is the third time in as many weeks that we have dealt with the election in Northern Ireland. The only motivation driving my party in that respect is the hope that we shall have a full complement at the all-party negotiating table. We knew that an election was unnecessary to enable parties and groups to come to the table, but because of certain requirements and self-imposed obstacles of other parties, we are in this position.

We have an ad hoc position, an ad hoc proposal, ad hoc legislation and now an ad hoc order. Like many hon. Members who have already spoken, I believe that it would be dishonest to pretend that we have had anything other than a superficial look at the document—superficial not only in terms of what is before us, but in terms of what is not before us. As has been said, it would need several constitutional and electoral lawyers to give us any idea about the quagmire in front of us.

It is in that context and with tongue in cheek that I tell the House that I obtained a copy of the order yesterday and tried to pick out one or two things that were perhaps obvious, but I am sure that there are many subversives in it that will not surface until they hit us hard during the election campaign.

I must refer to the order by page numbers because it is difficult to know what section we are talking about. On page 13, there is a reference to section 144(2C) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which deals with the validity of an election. It states: Where the election court determines that the election of a delegate or delegates of a particular party was void but that the election as a whole in the constituency to which the petition relates was not void, the return of delegates under paragraph 14…shall be calculated again and the votes given for that party in that constituency shall be disregarded. I am not sure that I understand that. I understand what it says, but I am almost frightened of its implications.

It appears to be saying that, if a nominee of a party in any constituency for some reason transgresses the complexity of this and other legislation—ignorance of the law being no excuse for good or for evil—and he is declared a void delegate, the entire party in that constituency is declared void. His colleagues will be deemed not to be delegates because of his illegal act, even though they have not committed a wrongful act. Is that the right interpretation of the order? It seems to be confirmed in section 157(2B), which states: Where the election court determines that the election of a delegate or delegates of a particular party was void but that the election as a whole in the constituency to which the petition relates was not void, the court shall not order a fresh election. The party groupings will be dependent on the absolute integrity and validity of every candidate in every election. This is a huge and complex document and it has huge ramifications. Perhaps the Minister can answer that point in his reply.

I refer to rule 1 and to the timetable. The nomination papers will be submitted to the chief electoral officer—he is required to validate nominations within one hour for other elections. Is rule 1 telling us that, if we allow for various bank holidays and the like, two days are to elapse before the candidate or series of candidates will know whether they are validly nominated?

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said that there is some concern about the practicality of the administration of the election and the centralisation of almost everything to the chief electoral officer. There is no hint that the normal devolution of authority will take place through the deputy electoral officer and other officers. It appears to me that the validation of postal applications—as well as the issuing and researching of them—will be centralised. That is totally at variance with our normal practice. It is administratively clumsy and will lead to all sorts of complications and challenges.

Rule 29, on page 20, relates to the information that will be given at polling stations. During consideration of the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Bill the Minister said that there would be a simple electoral process for the voter—that he or she simply had to put an X on the ballot paper. He then succumbed to pressure that a lot more information would be required regarding all the candidates and parties, both for the constituencies and for the regional listings. It was decided that the booth, as opposed to the polling station, should contain that information.

Can hon. Members envisage a voter going into a booth—which is usually a small, square box—and having a number of posters around him with up to 135 names on them? Would it not be simpler to have that information in the polling station, in a much more legible form than could possibly be contained in a polling booth? The Minister made the distinction between a booth and a station. I should like that to be clarified. Will he emphasise the party aspect of the electoral process rather than the candidature of the various persons?

I should also like clarification of rule 32, which relates to the candidate and/or his agent having access to the polling stations. Will the Minister explain, in simple terms, how many agents would be appropriate in a constituency, according to the legislation? Would it be one for each party, or one or more for each named person on the party list?

Rule 57 is simple: it refers to the layout of the ballot paper, and the possibility of vertical columns. At this point, however, the mind begins to boggle—the mind, that is, of the straightforward, honest-to-God voter coming in to put an X on the ballot paper. Throughout his voting life, he has been used to reading a list and then putting an X against the name of the appropriate person or place. Now he is to be confronted unexpectedly and, I think, unnecessarily—that is my point—with a columnar ballot paper. That may be all right for the sophisticated, but I do not think that it is all right for many people who make a great effort, and a great sacrifice, to go to the polls and do their best according to their conscience. I ask the Minister to reconsider. Such complexity should not be brought into play, especially in constituencies in which only five or six parties, not 30 or 31, will participate.

Page 24 of the order deals with amendments to section 7 of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985. Much is made of the requirements of postal votes; there are a good many minor amendments. Let me tell the Minister that, even at this early stage—perhaps in anticipation of the order—applications are being made for postal votes in cases of absence and sickness, and votes by proxy, on the basis of the existing format of the forms. The Minister is now changing that format unnecessarily. Will the changing of the word "the" to "a", or the other way round, invalidate applications that have already been made, or, indeed, invalidate the electoral officer's entire stock of application forms?

The important aspect of the elections is the simplification of the apparent over-complication of the 1985 Act. As I have said, the act of voting is straightforward: it involves putting an X on a piece of paper. We must be careful not to confuse the voter unnecessarily. There must be a balance between full information, presented clearly and well, and information presented in such a complicated form that it makes it difficult or impossible for the ordinary man, woman or youth to vote logically.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The hon. Gentleman referred to applications for postal votes. People throughout Northern Ireland have already received letters about that. Could not the ambiguity that is obviously not apparent in electoral offices—where people have been told that they cannot take copies of the original forms—lead to confusion in the minds of others? If applications are turned down now, a person receiving another application form may wonder what is going on, and perhaps forget to send it back.

Mr. McGrady

The hon. Gentleman has made my point about postal votes rather better than I did. Applications have already been made, and the attitude of the chief electoral officer is that no one can make an application without obtaining an application form from him. According to the legislation, that is entirely incorrect.

Mr. Ancram

This is an important point. The chief electoral officer will accept the information needed for a postal vote application and is not worried about the form.

Mr. McGrady

I thank the Minister for that important clarification, which will be welcome to the activists on the ground in Northern Ireland who are already engaged in the election.

Rev. Martin Smyth

We appreciate the guidance that the Minister has just given, but can he assure us that the officials in the various electoral offices have been given that information, because no later than this morning they were saying something entirely different? It is important that there is consistency among the electoral offices.

Mr. McGrady

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Unfortunately, it is not within my power to reply on the Minister's behalf—as yet. No doubt I shall be glad to do so at some future venue on some future date.

The issue of identification was raised on Third Reading of the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Bill in the small hours of last Wednesday morning. We attached importance to the problem of impersonation, particularly in certain areas. In response to a colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron), the Minister suggested that he would give further consideration to the subject of the eradication of impersonation—multiple impersonations. When he winds up, will the Minister address that problem?

We must all admit that this is an unsatisfactory way in which to deal with the situation. But we shall all do our best to run with it because the prize is beyond price. If the negotiating talks take place on 10 June, the prize of peace and stability in Northern Ireland will be worth all the heartbreak, despair and annoyance that we have suffered over the electoral process. My party would like to give it as fair a wind as possible, to enable the people to be represented—in the broadest sense—at that negotiating table.

9.47 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I can certainly follow from where the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) left off in terms of saying that the provision is unsatisfactory. The hon. Gentleman considerably understates the case—the measure is a grotesque affront to the democratic process; it is a contempt of the House; it is a most disgraceful way for a Government to behave. If one was looking for an example of bad practice, the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office has provided it with the legislation.

I listened to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), who spoke on behalf of the official Opposition. He suggested that he first laid eyes on the legislation some time on Monday afternoon. He is one of the less favoured ones—some people saw it before then. Would the Minister like to intervene and give us the full list of those he favoured with a draft copy of the legislation last week? Did he send it to the leader of the Provisional IRA-Sinn Fein organisation? Did he send it to the loyalist paramilitary organisations of the Progressive Unionist party and the Ulster Democratic party? Did he send it to other parties that are not represented in the House?

Mr. Ancram

It is important to make it clear that, in light of the short time scale, I thought that it was proper that the party leaders of Northern Ireland parties represented in the House should have an advance copy of what was then an incomplete draft—those who received it know that it contained some hieroglyphics. Copies were sent to the party leaders of all parties from Northern Ireland represented in the House, including the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), who speaks for the Opposition on the subject, and the Liberal spokesman.

Mr. Robinson

The Minister confirms that a draft was available last week and that he was prepared to ignore the existence of hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies in this House by refusing to make it available upon request—even when hon. Members said that they would be leading for their parties in the debate.

We are supposed to have an intelligent debate about a complex measure at short notice. It was made clear to the Minister that, although he had sent a copy to my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. I. Paisley), I would not see my hon. Friend before I left for the United States. Therefore, I sought a copy before I left the country and the Minister refused to allow his staff to fax one to me. I did not receive a copy of the measure before today, so any remarks that I make tonight have the degree of preciseness that one would expect to gain from a cursory glance at 30 pages of legislation.

The legislation cannot be read in isolation. One must refer to a stack of other legislation, as each part of the schedule refers to a section or a clause from some other legislation. When I sought to obtain the associated legislation from the Vote Office today, I was told that it was not available to hon. Members. I had to go to great lengths to secure it.

The hon. Member for South Down described the election as an unnecessary creation of the Unionist parties. Of course, political parties do not need to hold an election in order to sit down and participate in negotiations. If constitutional parties in Northern Ireland had wanted to engage in negotiations, they could have done so. But that is not what is proposed by this process. The hon. Gentleman hopes that those who are not members of constitutional political parties and those who do not have an electoral mandate will be brought into the process. Clearly, if people have no electoral mandate, there is no justification for their presence, other than allowing them an opportunity to secure such a mandate. At least the election gives people that opportunity.

The scrutiny of the measure is limited not only by the short period that hon. Members may debate it in this House, but by the type of debate that we are having. We are considering it as an Order in Council on a "take it or leave it" basis. Of course, we know that it is the latter as the Government will trundle the measure through the House as they did with the rest of the legislation—without any opportunity to put forward amendments or to test the validity of the many complex issues in this instrument.

I do not share the faith that the Minister and some other hon. Members have in our broadcasting media. I do not believe that the broadcasting media will make valiant efforts to be fair-minded, balanced and even-handed in reporting the election. If they do, it will be the first time without a legislative requirement. Hon. Members know that the media will undoubtedly allow representatives of the IRA to appear on programmes with those of other political parties as though the IRA were a normal political party. While the Government will not sit down with the Provisional IRA, because of the legislation, parties in Northern Ireland will be required either to sit down with the IRA or to opt out of the opportunity of speaking on television programmes.

Mr. William Ross

The mere fact that the Government do not appear to sit down with the IRA does not prevent them from sending other members of their party to do it for them.

Mr. Robinson

No.—particularly when it is someone who has flown kites for the Government on a number of issues. I shall not test your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, by going off at a tangent on that issue; however, many people may consider that the Government had greater knowledge of such contacts than they would like people to believe.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there will be a greater demand for engraved watches in the near future.

Mr. Robinson

Yes—no matter what the inscription may be.

To be honest with the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, there is no reason why political parties will find it difficult to operate within the limits that are laid down in the order. Indeed, when the system is applied to the whole of Northern Ireland, costs will be reduced considerably as the larger political parties will send out the same literature in South Down, North Down and other constituencies unless, as the Ulster Unionists appear to do, they want to concentrate on local candidates. However, there is absolutely no reason why there should not be considerable savings on printing costs, which are a major expense in an election campaign.

I have no difficulty with the amounts that are specified, but nor will any political party that wants to go beyond those limits. Provided that they hire the right lawyer, they will be able spend whatever they want. The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) has already raced a coach and horses through that legislation. Anyone who feels that the figures are a wee bit tight should not be too concerned. They will simply have to spend an extra few thousand pounds on a proper defence thereafter.

The Minister would be disappointed if I did not raise the matter of party names. As I understand the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations etc.) Act and the list in schedule 1 to that Act, it states that the only parties entitled to stand in an election are those on the list. It contains no requirement—I shall be interested if the Minister can draw my attention to one—for nomination papers to refer to political parties by the names that are listed in the schedule to the Act.

I shall be interested if the Minister tells me that I am wrong, but if I am right, neither the Act nor the elections order specifies how parties should present themselves. It specifies the parties that are on the list, but it does not state that they have to present themselves under those names.

There is precedent for that. I am a member of the Ulster Democratic Unionist party. That is the official title of my party, but I have never stood as an Ulster Democratic Unionist party candidate. I have never put that name on the ballot paper. I have stood as a Democratic Unionist candidate, a DUP candidate, or even as a Democratic Unionist-DUP candidate, but I have never stood as an Ulster Democratic Unionist party candidate.

Under past procedures, there was never a requirement to put alongside my name on the nomination form the official name of my party. Nor do I see in the election order any requirement for me to specify my party in the terms that it is in the schedule to the entries and negotiations measure. Again I look to the Minister for advice, as he may be aware that this matter is likely to be tested.

If parties are not prepared to stand for election under names other than the ones that they present to the chief electoral officer, what powers does he have to change their names or to remove them if they are clearly the parties included in the schedule to the Act? I see no such power given to the chief electoral office in this order. The Minister therefore needs to turn his mind to the problem. He should not assume that what he says in the House becomes the law. The established law allows political parties to describe themselves in whatever form they wish—the precedent for that is clear. If the Minister does not sort out this question, there wil be considerable difficulties with the nominating process.

It would seem, moreover, that the tossing of a coin will decide which candidates are selected in some cases. Besides the other farce of the whole system, if there is a tie for votes, the outcome will be decided—what could be fairer?—by the drawing of lots, the tossing of a coin or the drawing of straws. I do not have a clue what the Minister was thinking of, but surely he could have found a more scientifically based system. If he is short of ideas, might I suggest that the party that has contested the smallest number of constituencies should be entitled to the disputed seat? We can presume that a party with a candidate in another area might at least have received one vote—

M. William Ross

I am sorry to interrupt remarks with which I agree, but does the hon. Gentleman recall that, if there was a tie in a parliamentary election, it was decided by counting the pink ballot papers in the box?

Mr. Robinson

Yes, those are the papers given when someone has stolen his vote. That would certainly cast the whole system into considerable doubt. Another idea would be to lock the two candidates in a room and see which one came out. The Minister must have a better idea than casting lots. Imagine arriving at the forum and bumping into another delegate who stated that he was elected because he called tails. It is farcical to choose people to enter a mature forum so as to take part in serious negotiations in this way. The Government could surely have done better.

The hon. Member for South Down mentioned vertical and horizontal ballot papers. The Government have provided for something akin to a Littlewoods football coupon, on which people can choose numbers across the paper or down the paper, or across and down. I can think of nothing more likely to lead to confusion for the voter. Northern Ireland's voters have had single transferable vote elections, first-past-the-post elections and European-style elections with the whole Province involved; but they have never been faced with a ballot paper that goes across as well as down. I would not like to represent the party stuck somewhere in the middle of the paper, rather than at the top left or top right. A distinct advantage would be attached to the placing of a party on the paper if it were different from a standard ballot paper on which the parties are listed one below the other.

No matter how long the ballot paper—it could be the length of a toilet roll—Northern Ireland's voters have always been used to the names of the parties appearing one under the other; and the chief electoral officer would be greatly mistaken if he produced a different ballot paper that led to confusion and advantaged some parties at the expense of others.

I say that in the context of someone who has an alphabetical disadvantage. My surname starts with the letter R, and usually places me fairly close to the bottom of the list. I am never at the very top of the ballot paper, as some Members have the good fortune to be. I would rather be towards the bottom of the ballot paper, however, where there is one continuous list, than somewhere in the middle if names are to go across the page as well. I hope that the Minister will think twice and give advice to the chief electoral officer not to take that route.

We have an election that was set to meet an IRA deadline. We have a system that was rigged to ensure that certain gunmen would get to the negotiating table. We have a ballot paper that the Minister tried to determine to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others in terms of the names that would be permitted on the ballot paper. In addition to all that, we have a system that is nothing short of a farce in its operation. The best that I can say to the Minister is that the parties in Northern Ireland will contest the election in the hope of producing a satisfactory result, not with the Government's help but in spite of the Government.

10.6 pm

Mr. Ancram

With the leave of the House, I shall reply.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) is upset that I was not able to make available to him an early draft of the order. I felt that it was an important courtesy to allow the party leaders to have sight of an early draft. It was an exceptional step to do that. I thought that it would help. The normal procedure would have been to wait until the order was published, which was on Monday. I am sorry that what was intended to help the parties, including the party which the hon. Member for Belfast, East represents, has caused him such distress.

For all the remarks of the hon. Member for Belfast, East, the drawing of lots is a normal procedure for both parliamentary and European elections in the context in which we are discussing the order. In my experience, it has been used. It is for the returning officer to decide on the method to be used.

Mr. William Ross

What about the pink ballot papers? Is it not laid down in legislation that they are to be used as the determining factor?

Mr. Ancram

I am saying that the drawing of lots is the system used in both parliamentary and European elections. In the context of the election that we are discussing, which will involve party lists, we felt that it was the best system to use. I believe that that is the position where there is a parity of votes.

Mr. Ross

Surely the system, whatever it may be—I object to what the Minister has been saying—would apply only to the last seat and not to any of the first four.

Mr. Ancram

The context in which it is applied is in relation to the aggregating of votes. I think that that is dealt with in paragraph 6. It applies where the aggregated votes are equal. The process will be used to decide whether they are in the top 10 and, therefore, get the two top-up seats. Lots will be drawn. It is proper that that should be done in those circumstances.

Several hon. Members have talked about party names on ballot papers. The point was raised originally by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington). It is an important matter and I would not wish there to be any misunderstanding. The Act determines how party names appear on the ballot paper. Paragraph 7(2) of part I of the schedule prescribes that the ballot paper will show the names of the relevant parties for each constituency. I am informed that the effect of the legislation is that the names will be as set out in part II of the schedule.

As for the consequent effect of that provision, if a list is submitted in the name of a party where the designation is different, the chief electoral officer must reject that list under rule 12(2)(c) of the election rules on page 18, which refers to the breach of requirement in paragraph 6 in part I of the schedule. He could also make a rejection under paragraph 12(2)(b) on the ground that the party is not a party listed in Part II of Schedule 1 to the 1996 Act".

I want to make this clear in case there are any efforts to produce different names. That is the effect of the legislation and the chief electoral officer will act accordingly. I hope, therefore, that there is no doubt about that, because it is an important point in terms of the way in which the elections are to be conducted. I would not want any party to find that its lists were rejected because of a misunderstanding on that point.

Mr. Worthington

This is a serious point. Both the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and I read that and I think anyone else reading it would not draw the inference that the Minister has drawn about the naming of parties. Does that mean, that, if the Green party, instead of putting down "Green party" puts down "The Green party", or if Independent MacCaffer puts down "Independent Ignatius MacCaffer", their names will be ruled out? The law does not state what the Minister says it states.

Mr. Ancram

During the previous debates on the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc.) Act 1996, I have stated its intention. I have confirmed today that I am reliably informed that that is the effect of the legislation. A constituency or regional list must state the name of the party under rule 6(2)(c), on page 18 of the order. If the party is not a party listed in part II, schedule 1 of the Act, the list must be rejected under rule 12(2)(b). I make that very clear. The hon. Gentleman recognises that this is an important and serious point and I wish there to be no misunderstanding. That is why we spent some time on the issue during the passage of the legislation.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ancram

I give way, but it is at the expense of being able to answer other questions.

Mr. Robinson

The Minister and a court could not judge that the "Democratic Unionist party (DUP—Rev. Ian Paisley) " is not the same party as the one in the schedule. We are talking not about whether the party is the same, but how it will be described on the ballot paper. Nothing in the legislation would disallow the party from putting down the name that it chooses.

Mr. Ancram

All I can say is that I have made clear what I understand to be the legislation's effect and what I am reliably informed is the effect. I hope that that is clear to all the people who will be submitting party lists for the election.

A number of other points were raised. Obviously, in the time available, I will not be able to cover them all. On broadcasting, section 93 of the Act deals with broadcasting related to constituencies or electoral areas. In this election, as with a general election, broadcasters must ensure that their coverage of the campaign generally—national or regional—reflects their obligation for balanced and fair coverage. It is only the difficulty of distinguishing constituency coverage in this election that has led us to decide not to apply section 93. It is sensible in that context.

A number of questions were raised in relation to election expenses. Of course, normally, limits apply to candidates and not parties, but this election creates unique circumstances. We saw no reason why the principle of limits should not apply to this election too. It is fair to say that we should agree that the principle of limiting expenditure is a fundamental part of our democracy.

We wanted to retain the limits for the election, but we decided to apply them on an aggregate basis to the parties contesting the election. The current limits apply for candidates in a constituency at a parliamentary election. Those will apply to a party in a constituency and, if a party chooses to contest six constituencies, it will have six times the limit.

As I have said, we envisage that the spending will not be necessarily tied to any particular constituency, which is why we have made provision for an aggregate limit. That limit allows for more flexibility and means that there will not be parties that, because they have vast resources outside, can exceed those limits. Generally, we have come to a balanced view in terms of the legislation.

I say to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) that I realise that this is complex legislation. I noted what he said about the order, but the procedure is not unusual. The Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 1986 for the European Parliamentary elections were produced in exactly the same format as the order. As I say, it is a complicated matter, but, if the hon Gentleman goes through the measure as I have done, he will find that many of the provisions suggest no modifications and that much of the existing electoral law with which the hon. Gentleman is as familiar as I am, will still apply. I hope that in practice the outcome will not be as complex as he thinks. I ask the House to approve the order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 29th April, be approved.