HC Deb 22 April 1998 vol 310 cc890-5 8.11 pm
Mr. William Ross

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 13, leave out '108' and insert '90'.

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 24, in page 1, line 13, leave out '108' and insert '54'.

No. 25, in page 1, leave out line 18 and insert—

'(5) Northern Ireland shall be divided into nine constituencies created by amalgamating two joining parliamentary constituencies and each of these nine constituencies shall return six members.'.

No. 4, in page 1, line 18, leave out 'six' and insert `five'.

Mr. Ross

The amendments bring to the attention of the Committee the number of Members that should comprise the assembly. The amendments fall into two groups and I hope that it will be understood that amendments Nos. 3 and 4 go together, as do Nos. 24 and 25. I hope, Mr. Lord, that you will permit two separate Divisions when we come to the end of the debate on the amendments. They set out alternative ways of creating what I think would be more reasonable numbers for the Northern Ireland assembly.

Amendment No. 3 would reduce to 90 the total number of Members, and the means of doing that is set out in amendment No. 4, which provides that instead of having six Members per parliamentary constituency we should have only five, which would give a total of 90.

Over many years—since the single transferable vote system of elections was introduced in Northern Ireland—five has been about the representation in every constituency. It is argued that if representation is less than five, we do not have a fair spread. If there is very much more than five, we end up with such a wide variety of representatives that folk with less than one seventh of the vote will be elected. The elected body could find itself at the mercy of a tiny minority of people who were elected late in the counts in the proportional STV system. Four or five have therefore been the preferred numbers for each constituency.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) is able to catch your eye, Mr. Lord, he will detail the consequences of my analysis in the context of Scotland and Wales. It is obvious that representation in Northern Ireland is far higher per head of population than it is in Scotland or Wales. Given that Scotland has a full-blown legislative majority rule system, if it can handle that system with a relatively small number of Members, there is no good reason—the same goes for Wales—for having 108 Members in Northern Ireland.

I have grave concerns about having 90 Members. For an efficient and sensible assembly in Northern Ireland, 90 Members is far too many.

Amendments Nos. 24 and 25 would reduce representation from 108 to 54. To achieve a fairer spread across the community, the amendments would tie each two adjoining parliamentary constituencies together, thereby creating nine electoral areas with six Members per area, giving a total of 54. I would be happy with only five per area, but others have said that there should be six. That would be closer to the number of Members who sat in the old Stormont parliamentary system. 1 think that 52 Members were elected to Stormont. They were able to operate in a perfectly satisfactory fashion, given the powers that they had, which were much more extensive than those that the new assembly will ever have.

No one has told us what sort of salaries and allowances will be paid to the proposed 108 Members. I see no good reason for expending moneys on 108 when we could have half that number being paid more than would be paid to 108, with better back-up and secretarial allowances so that they could operate properly within the Northern Ireland context.

I have set out the reasoning behind the two sets of amendments. If the Minister says that the Government will be happy with 90 Members, I shall be reasonably content. If the Minister says that 54 would be a much better number, I shall be very happy. I think that 54 Members would be reasonable representation. Wales, with a much larger electorate, has 60 Members. Scotland, with a vastly larger electorate, has 129. Why should Northern Ireland have so many Members? There is no good reason for it.

I have great pleasure in proposing the amendments. I express the sincere hope that the Government will accept reason on this issue, if on no other, so that we might arrive at a far more sensible and better arrangement for the government of Northern Ireland and for the operation of the elected body within it.

Mr. Paul Murphy

I fear that I must recommend that the Committee reject the amendments.

I understand what the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) is saying about Wales and Scotland—Wales with 60 Members and Scotland with 129 although they both have larger populations. The Government did not decide that there should be 108 Members. It was the agreement that resulted in that number. During the strand 1 negotiations and talks, which I had the privilege of chairing, and which continued for many months, numbers was a matter of considerable concern. Other parties in the talks wanted a different system of election altogether. Some wanted the additional member system while others wanted a list system. In the end, the talks came to the conclusion that the best system to use was the single transferable vote, because it had been tried and tested in Northern Ireland.

In addition, the participants in the talks believed that by having six instead of five Members there was an opportunity for greater inclusivity in the assembly when it was elected. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that the leader of his party, with the leaders of the Social Democratic and Labour party and other parties in the talks, were in agreement with that. For that reason, I fear that I must ask the Committee to reject the amendments.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I understand the Minister's point but I share the views of our friend the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) when he spoke earlier about federalism. I happen to believe in federalism and I have argued for it for a good many years.

This is one of the opportunities that we have as a Parliament to come to a decision. Surely one of the duties of Parliament is to vote supply, which involves the public purse.

I have listened to the arguments. I understand why people had to accept some provisions in the agreement, but something is out of kilter. If we go for 108 Members, there would be one for every 10,900 of the electorate. In Scotland, the ratio is one to 30,613 and in Wales it is one to 36,717. Until the English regions start to develop, England has, on average, one hon. Member for every 69,000 people. In the early days, we debated what would be necessary for committee responsibility and proper coverage throughout the Province, and it was decided that 90 would be sufficient.

I understand the reasoning for 54 Members. 1 was involved in many discussions over the years that resulted in our going for a unicameral system rather than for one with a Commons and a Senate. If my memory is correct, the old Northern Ireland Parliament had 52 Members in the Commons and 26 in the Senate. To deal with the changing political pattern it was decided to go for a membership of 90, but I am not convinced that broadening the scope will help good governance. It will certainly add pressure to public finances, so in future I do not want to hear any hon. Member complaining about subventions to Northern Ireland.

Mr. Beggs

Does my hon. Friend agree that the large figure of 108 Members is giving rise in local government in Northern Ireland to the feeling that meaningful powers may not be transferred to it?

Rev. Martin Smyth

I understand my hon. Friend's point. I picked up some vibrations from not being invited to the assembly or to engage in the forum talks, but, being the party's Chief Whip and representing its interests here. I remained in touch with what was going on. The Minister was correct when he said that discussions were taking place. To the best of my knowledge, most of the later discussions resulted in a compromise from 118 to 108 Members. There is some speculation about whether that is to keep people happy or whether a journalist is producing figures to entice other journalists to stand. Media reports suggest that each Member of the Assembly will receive a salary of £32,000 to £38,000. We have not had official figures. If those figures are correct, councils will think that the Government's commitment to giving powers to them will be set aside.

The Second Deputy Chairman

Before I call the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), I should point out that it is not normal for one hon. Member to move two amendments that are entirely different. I propose to put the Question on amendment No. 3 and it will be up to the hon. Gentleman to decide whether he wants to press it to a vote.

Mr. Ross

It was remiss of me not to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) to move the second group of amendments. 1 am greatly attracted to a provision for 54 Members because that would add to their status. My hon. Friend gave some figures. If there were 90 Members, each one would represent an average of just over 13,000 people. If there were 54, the average would be 21,814, which is still well below the averages for Scotland and Wales. Any rational, logical examination shows no good reason for that vast disparity.

If we applied the Scottish figures there would be 38 Members of the Assembly; application of the Welsh figures would result in 32 Members. Those figures are probably too low, but 50, 54 or 55 seem sensible and reasonable. The Government are not prepared to accept that, but I cannot accept the Minister's explanation. The law is not made by an elected body in Belfast. This country's law is supposed to be made in this Chamber, which is where it should be made.

I see no good reason to go well over the top with such a huge number of people. It is quite unrealistic, unless of course it is for some other reason. On Second Reading, I gave what I thought was the real reason; I said that the only possible reason for going down this road is to ensure the election of representatives of murder and terror organisations. That is unacceptable to any decent man or woman.

For me, the issue contains not only the question of reasonableness but the questions of principle, honour and decency for ordinary men and women. We should not bend the rules to get murderers or representatives of terrorism elected. It is clear that the threat is, "If you do not provide a system that will allow us to get elected, we will go back to the gun and the bullet and the things that we do best." If the Minister wants to live with the immorality, or perhaps the amorality, of the Government's proposals, on his head be it. I certainly cannot go along with them.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 274.

Division No. 252] [8.26 pm
Forsythe, Clifford Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Robertson, Laurence (Tewkb'ry) Tellers for the Ayes:
Ross, William (E Lond'y) Rev. Martin Smyth and
Thompson, William Mr. Roy Beggs.
Abbott, Ms Diane Begg, Miss Anne
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Bell, Martin (Tatton)
Ainger, Nick Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Alexander, Douglas Bennett, Andrew F
Allan, Richard Benton, Joe
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Berry, Roger
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Best, Harold
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Blackman, Liz
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Blears, Ms Hazel
Atherton, Ms Candy Borrow, David
Austin, John Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)
Baker, Norman Brinton, Mrs Helen
Ballard, Mrs Jackie Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)
Barnes, Harry Brown, Russell (Dumfries)
Barron, Kevin Browne, Desmond
Battle, John Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Bayley, Hugh Buck, Ms Karen
Beard, Nigel Burnett, John
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Butler, Mrs Christine
Byers, Stephen Hepburn, Stephen
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife) Heppell, John
Campbell-Savours, Dale Hewitt, Ms patricia
Canavan, Dennis Hill, Keith
Cann, Jamie Hinchliffe, David
Caplin, Ivor Home Robertson, John
Casale, Roger Hoon, Geoffrey
Caton, Martin Hope, Phil
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Hopkins, Kelvin
Chidgey, David Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Chisholm, Malcolm Howells, Dr Kim
Church, Ms Judith Humble, Mrs Joan
Clapham, Michael Iddon, Dr Brian
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Ingram, Adam
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Jamieson, David
Clelland, David Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Clwyd, Ann Johnson, Miss Melanie
Coaker, Vernon (Welwyn Hatfield)
Colman, Tony Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Cooper, Yvette Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)
Corbett, Robin Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Corbyn, Jeremy Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Corston, Ms Jean Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Cotter, Brian Keeble, Ms Sally
Cousins, Jim Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Cranston, Ross Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Crausby, David Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Cummings, John Khabra, Piara S
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Kilfoyle, Peter
Dafis, Cynog Kirkwood, Archy
Darvill, Keith Kumar, Dr Ashok
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Davidson, Ian Lawrence, Ms Jackie
Dean, Mrs Janet Laxton, Bob
Dismore, Andrew Lepper, David
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank Leslie, Christopher
Donohoe, Brian H Levitt, Tom
Doran, Frank Liddell, Mrs Helen
Dowd, Jim Linton, Martin
Drown, Ms Julia Livingstone, Ken
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Livsey, Richard
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Love, Andrew
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) McAllion, John
Edwards, Huw McAvoy, Thomas
Ewing, Mrs Margaret McCafferty, Ms Chris
Fearn, Ronnie McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
Field, Rt Hon Frank McDonagh, Siobhain
Fitzpatrick, Jim McFall, John
Fitzsimons, Lorna McGrady, Eddie
Follett, Barbara McGuire, Mrs Anne
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Mackinaly, Andrew
Gapes, Mike Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
George, Andrew (St Ives) McNulty, Tony
Gibson, Dr Ian MacShane, Denis
Gilroy, Mrs Linda Mactaggart, Fiona
Godman, Dr Norman A McWilliam, John
Goggins, Paul Mahon, Mrs Alice
Golding, Mrs Llin Mallon, Seamus
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Gorrie, Donald Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Grant, Bernie Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Grocott, Bruce Martlew, Eric
Grogan, John Maxton, John
Gunnell, John Meale, Alan
Hain, Peter Merron, Gillian
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Milburn, Alan
Hanson, David Moore, Michael
Harvey, Nick Moran, Ms Margaret
Heal, Mrs Sylvia Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N))
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Morley, Elliot
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie
Mudie, George Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Mullin, Chris Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Murphy, Paul (Torfaen) Southworth, Ms Helen
Norris, Dan Squire, Ms Rachel
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Starkey, Dr Phyllis
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Olner, Bill Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
O'Neill, Martin Stinchcombe, Paul
Organ, Mrs Diana Stoate, Dr Howard
Palmer, Dr Nick Stott, Roger
Pearson, Ian Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Pickthall, Colin Stuart, Ms Gisela
Pike, Peter L Sutcliffe, Gerry
Plaskitt, James Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
Pond, Chris (Dewsbury)
Pope, Greg Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Pound, Stephen Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Powell, Sir Raymond Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Timms, Stephen
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Todd, Mark
Primarolo, Dawn Touhig, Don
Quinn, Lawrie Trickett, Jon
Radice, Giles Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Rapson, Syd Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Raynsford, Nick Tyler, Paul
Reid, Dr John (Hamilton N) Vaz, Keith
Rendel, David Wallace, James
Robertson, Rt Hon George Ward, Ms Claire
(Hamilton S) Wareing, Robert N
Rooker, Jeff Watts, David
Rooney, Terry White Brain
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Whitehead, Dr Alan
Rowlands, Ted Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Roy, Frank William, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Ruddock, Ms Joan Willis, Phil
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Wills, Michael
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Winnick, David
Salter, Martin Woolas, Phil
Sanders, Adrian Worthington, Tony
Savidge, Malcolm Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Sedgemore, Brian Wyatt, Derek
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Tellers for the Noes:
Skinner, Dennis Mr. Robert Ainsworth and
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Mr. Hon Owen Jones.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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