HC Deb 24 July 1998 vol 316 cc1360-71
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I beg to move amendment No. 100, in page 14, leave out lines 9 to 11 and insert— '(2) Subject to subsection (2A) below an order under subsection (1) shall provide that where a seat was last filled by a member of a registered party, any vacancy shall be filled by another member nominated by that party (without a by-election). (2A) Provided that where the condition mentioned in subsection (2) is not met, a vacancy shall be filled by—

  1. (a) a by-election, or
  2. (b) such other method as the Secretary of State may prescribe in the order.'.

The Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 151, in page 14, line 9, leave out 'or substitutes'.

No. 92, in page 14, line 10, leave out from 'substitutes' to end of line 11 and insert— '(2A) The Secretary of State shall also provide a scheme for updating and replacing substitutes.'.

Mr. Mackinlay

Amendment No. 100 would write into the Bill the requirement that, if a vacancy occurs in the Assembly's membership, the vacancy shall be filled by a member of the party that had ownership—if I may use that term—of the seat at the time of the Assembly election. The Bill leaves the method of filling the vacancy vague. It gives the Secretary of State the discretion to fill the vacancy in the way that I have just outlined, or to hold a by-election, or to use some other method.

Now that we have had considerable discussion of this Bill and the earlier Northern Ireland (Elections) Bill, it is time that we clarified how vacancies are to be filled. Vacancies will inevitably occur, and there must be clarity and precision on the matter now. In our discussions on the earlier Bill, the Minister implied that the Government would have resolved the matter by the time this Bill reached the House. I do not complain about the fact that they have not moved forward since then, but it is appropriate now that we resolve that vacancies shall automatically be filled by members of the same party as previously held the seat.

My amendment also provides for circumstances in which that condition cannot be fulfilled—for example, because the member was an independent. Only then would a by-election be the correct method of filling the vacancy. That is a common-sense approach.

In our earlier debates, we drew attention to the fact that, under the proposed electoral system, a perverse situation could arise where a member of the nationalist minority lost the seat in a constituency where there was a numerical majority for the Unionist persuasion. If a by-election were held, the Unionist persuasion would inevitably win, which would be a source of considerable irritation, and demonstrably unfair. The opposite could happen in a constituency with a nationalist majority, where someone of the Unionist persuasion might feel unfairly treated.

We used as an analogy the European Parliament seat of Northern Ireland. If, for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) had sought the presidency of the Irish Republic and got it, there would have been a vacancy. If there had subsequently been a by-election for the European Parliament, the seat would have been won by someone of the Unionist persuasion. That is a matter of fact. The absence of a provision such as I am outlining would create enormous difficulties.

With respect to the Secretary of State, I believe that we must resolve the matter now, rather than some weeks or months down the road. Such a vacancy could occur at any time. Numbers are critical to all parties in the Assembly, as we see from the complicated criteria for votes. I hope that the Minister will be persuaded that my amendment improves the Bill.

Rev. Ian Paisley

When the elections were held, each candidate had to list in order a number of persons whom he would want to fill the seat if anything happened to him. What is the use of such a list, if there is no intention of using it? When I was fighting the election and I was asked who would get the seat if anything happened to me, I could refer to the list that I had drawn up.

10.15 am
Mr. Mackinlay

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is correct. One of the up-sides of the electoral system is that, if the amendment is adopted, it will be clear who the substitute, the suppliant or the alternative member will be. It is good for the electorate to understand that.

That is the principle envisaged for future European elections in England, Wales and Scotland. The same also applies, I think, to Northern Ireland, but I need to check that. At the next European parliamentary elections on a multi-member constituency basis, the intention is that there will not be by-elections. If a vacancy occurs, a replacement will be supplied from the existing ranking order of the party list. That seems sensible.

Rev. Ian Paisley

There was nothing in the legislation to deal with the Northern Ireland single transferable vote system. There would be by-elections. I agree with the hon. Gentleman in this sense: if anything happened to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), for example and a vacancy arose, there is no way, on an ordinary vote, that a member of the Unionist family would not take that seat. That is unfair. Under those circumstances, the seat should be retained by a member of the same party as held it previously. However, that was not touched on by the legislation that deals with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Mackinlay

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I hesitated because I thought that, perversely, Northern Ireland was the exception in European Union legislation. I trespass on that merely to buttress my argument that England, Wales and Scotland will have the arrangements that I propose in my amendment. It is profoundly sensible and I hope that it commends itself to the Committee.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I concur with the call for clarification of the matter. The appropriate time for that was before the election to the Assembly, when the situation was extremely vague. The Secretary of State by an order brought into play the substitute system. Many of us would prefer by-elections, if a by-election could produce a fair result.

If the Assembly is to be frozen for four years, that ensures that no matter what changes take place in the community, the Assembly is cut off from them. If by-elections do not occur because of the substitute system, no account is taken of changes that occur democratically in society. That is one of the dangers of the proposed system.

If a party that was in the minority in a constituency lost the seat through resignation or by some other means, it would have little or no chance of winning it in a by-election, and would therefore be disadvantaged for the remainder of that term.

Alongside the amendment, we must consider our earlier discussion of the designation of political parties. I think that the Government should reconsider the provision.

Under the substitute system, the party did not have control of the substitutes: it was the candidate who had that control. Some put in more than others, but they were in complete control of who their substitutes were. Suppose that a candidate was elected as a Member representing one political party but transferred his allegiance to another. I am sure that he would wish to change his substitutes, who would be members of the party with which he had previously been aligned. There must be some provision for that, and such provision does not at present exist within the Secretary of State' s New Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order. Amendment No. 92 is, to a large extent, a probing amendment to give those on the Government Front Bench the opportunity to say that the Secretary of State will modify the order to allow for the natural change that may take place over time.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the electorate should have some rights in these matters and that, if there is to be substitute provision, the names of those persons who are likely to be appointed should also be made known to the electorate at the time of the election?

Mr. Robinson

It is my recollection that the chief electoral officer indicated that the names of those persons would be available at the polling stations. However, when I went to vote I never saw any of the names of substitutes at the polling station. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that the electorate have a right to know. It could be a circuitous route to get an unelectable individual into the Assembly. A popular person might stand with an unelectable individual as his substitute. He may be elected and then hand the seat over to that substitute. I suppose that that is possible. I agree that the electorate have the right to know.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Does the hon. Gentleman not think that the Bill is turning back the tide of electoral reform to a pocket borough situation?

Mr. Robinson

Many arguments can be advanced against the substitute system, but I do not see a better option if we are to have a system that provides for multi-Member constituencies. In those circumstances, it is the best that can be made of the system. That is what makes me rather concerned about the option that the Secretary of State seems to leave open within the clause, which refers to such other method of filling vacancies as the Secretary of State thinks fit. It is my recollection that those words, or words similar to them, are in earlier legislation. Yet since then the Secretary of State has come down in favour of a substitute system, which is in play. However, the right hon. Lady still wants to maintain the option of changing the rules of the game somewhere down the line.

We either have by-elections or we have substitutes: an unknown alternative which the Secretary of State wants to keep close to her chest is unacceptable. That provision should be deleted so that we run with the two options available to us, with the Secretary of State redefining the order to ensure that there can be updating. That updating does not take place simply because a Member has changed his party. A substitute may have died or may have made known their intention not to take up a seat. That would force us into by-elections unless those substitutes were replaced. For the good working of the Assembly, it is appropriate that the order should be updated to take into account the possibilities to which I have referred.

Dr. Godman

With your permission, Sir Alan, I shall speak to amendment No. 151. I shall not detain the Committee for long because there is little support for my views in this instance. My hon. Friends the Members for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) disagree utterly and completely with my view that vacancies should be filled only by way of by-elections. My hon. Friend the Member for South Down pointed out to me that substitutes are the case for local elections in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North reminded me that Norway and Sweden have provisions for substitutes. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock reminded me, in a not very gentle way, that I had voted for a similar system for the European Parliament elections. Nevertheless, despite this inconsistency, my view is that, in an ideal world, vacancies in any sort of Assembly, whether local authority Assembly or Parliament, should be filled by way of a by-election.

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) asked in an intervention, "What about the concerns of the electorate?" We have experienced in recent years in Scotland the disaffection of the electorate with the Labour party in by-elections. All parties suffer that fate; it is not peculiar to the Scottish Labour party. I acknowledge the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, but it is my view that we should aim for vacancies being filled eventually by by-elections. That is the position in the Irish Republic, which has a similar electoral system for its long-established Parliament. I would perhaps go along with the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who said that there should just be the alternatives of substitutes or by-elections rather than the clause giving powers to the Secretary of State.

The helpful guidance notes state: The thinking behind a system of substitutes is based on the impact of vacancies in a system combining election by a multi-member STV system and an Assembly based on the principles of proportionality. I can understand that, but it still seems to me that we must take into consideration the views of the electorate. I correct slightly what my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock said about the Scottish system in comparison with what is proposed for Northern Ireland. I refer to the Scottish system in terms of comparative evidence. There is a different electoral system for our Scottish Parliament. Clause 8 of the Scotland Bill provides for constituency by-elections and clause 9 refers to where the seat of a regional member is vacant. My hon. Friend is correct to some extent because clause 9 provides that a vacancy in a regional Member seat that had been allocated to a registered political party will be filled by the nomination of another person from the same party list. However, that party list is known. That answers the concern that has been voiced in this context. My only support comes from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe), who is not in her place at the moment.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) sends her apologies to my hon. Friend. She has a meeting at the Scottish Office.

Dr. Godman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The name of my hon. Friend the Member for Maryhill is appended to amendment No. 151.

It seems that I am perhaps being over-idealistic in advocating that vacancies should be filled only by by-elections. I am keenly aware of the social, political and economic circumstances of Northern Ireland. However, as an old-fashioned democrat, I believe that we should aim for a system whereby vacancies are filled only by by-elections. At the end of the day, we have to win the consent of the people whom we seek to govern.

From time to time, the local electorate may become disaffected with a party, its policies and practices. In between elections, the electorate should be given the right to demonstrate how they feel about a party. If, God forbid, there were to be a by-election shortly in Greenock and Inverclyde, it would be a by-election with a number of candidates representing different parties. That is the ideal for which we should aim in all assemblies—not just within the multinational state that we call the United Kingdom, but everywhere.

I make no apologies for detaining the Committee briefly, even though I know that I have no support from my hon. Friends. I have difficulties with the single transferable vote system. Even the Scottish system has difficulties, but it is a hell of a lot better than the system in Northern Ireland. The regional list of registered members of political parties will be known to the Scottish electorate. If there is a vacancy in a constituency where someone won under the first-past-the-post rules, there will, rightly and properly, be a by-election to fill that vacancy.

I stick to my guns, although I acknowledge the serious concerns of my hon. Friends at my advocacy of the system. However, one day, I hope that, in Northern Ireland as elsewhere, vacancies will be filled by the tried and trusted procedure of a by-election. That way, we meet four-square the concerns, expectations, needs and desires of the electorate. At the end of the day, the electorate must reign supreme over elections.

10.30 am
Mr. Öpik

This is something of a triumph for the Liberal Democrats. Just over a year ago, we had no proportional representation at all. Now it looks as if Britain will have every kind of PR we can think of. I thank the Government on behalf of my party.

It is necessary to have clarification now, rather than leaving the matter to a point when we are faced with a by-election. The more specific and objective that we can be about the rules, the less likely it will be that we shall have problems later. I was impressed by the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), which tries to clarify the process, rather than leaving it to a decision as and when we need one.

Having said that, there are problems with any system that we propose. If we depend on substitutes, we are under an obligation to make sure that those substitutes are known. As with Scotland and Wales, it is clear that, in a regional list system, the substitutes should be clearly defined and advertised by the parties. My understanding is the same as that of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson)—very few people, if anybody, knew who the substitutes were when the elections took place in Northern Ireland. Whatever else we do, we must make sure that that situation is amended for future elections.

The substitute system is not so much of a problem in Wales or Scotland because the system is rather different. In Wales and Scotland, the first-past-the-post system will be used for individual constituencies and the list system for regional constituencies. STV presents a rather different problem.

I do not agree with the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman)—not so much because of social or political concerns in Northern Ireland, but because of practical concerns about the spirit of proportional representation. That spirit would not be achieved if we simply had a by-election in the simplest form in a multi-seat constituency. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman's intention, which is a form of democratic purism, but it would not be achieved by a by-election. An individual by-election—depending on how it is organized—is unlikely to uphold the principle of proportionality in a multi-seat constituency. I am sure that some colleagues could think of a formula that would correct that, but I shall leave that to the anoraks.

Dr. Godman

What I suggest is not in any way a panacea. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that, in the Irish Republic not so long ago, the Irish Labour party won seats in by-elections in two constituencies, causing some difficulties for the Administration? There are difficulties with every kind of system. It might be democratic purism, but the concept of vacancies being filled by by-elections is long established.

Mr. Õpik

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and in fact Liberal Democrats tend to poll better in first-past-the-post by-elections to this Chamber. It is a workable system, and I have no objections to it in principle. I am looking at it from a practical consideration of proportionality. We have a difference in judgment. We could formulate a system of by-elections in Northern Ireland that would achieve everything that the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde and the rest of us want—a fair system of filling vacancies that maintains the principle of proportionality. However, in my judgment, it is hard to see how that can happen, given the multi-seat STV process that we have in place. We must then add the secondary point of the political sensitivities in Northern Ireland, which are not quite so prevalent in, for example, the Republic of Ireland.

A system of by-elections could create problems, and we would have to be explicit about the terms. For example, the Winchester by-election was called because the original result was regarded as nullified or unsafe. The majority was two, and it was decided that more than two votes could not be reliably considered to have fallen one way or the other. If we followed the process recommended by the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde, we would have to be explicit about the context of the by-elections, and when they would be acceptable or unacceptable. Needless to say, there could be a lot of acrimony in any such situation, and we would need to fall back on objective facts. The Winchester by-election involved a great deal of time in the courts. That could create even more frictions if it were to occur in Northern Ireland.

Ministers should consider seriously the clarifications that are being proposed. If we do not have a more objective system in the Bill, it will be a recipe for trouble. It is inevitable that, if a by-election is called and we do not have objective criteria, vested interests will cause acrimony and conflict. That may obscure the true intent of the by-election, which is to fill a vacancy in the Assembly. There is an urgency now, and I hope that we can receive objective clarification of how we proceed. We must not wait for the first by-election to become a hostage to fortune and descend into potential conflict of exactly the type that we are seeking to avoid.

Mr. McGrady

Thank you, Mr. Martin, for allowing me to participate in the debate.

The question before the Committee is how properly, adequately and continually to represent to the views of the electorate. For Northern Ireland, another overriding consideration is added to that: we desire an Administration who represent a deep cross-section of our community and a system which enables minority groupings to have political expression and representation. That is the basis on which we should be approaching the structures and the way in which people are elected to them.

We have not only proportional representation, which is the foundation of such a model, but six-member constituencies, which is a high number per constituency. The purpose is to ensure the maximum possible representation of a broad political spectrum. We should keep those two principles in mind, because they should be the yardstick by which we measure the filling of vacancies. Under PR, minority grouping representation could go out of the window in by-elections because, by the mathematics of the situation, the largest party in any constituency will inevitably win every by-election. In England, there may be a swing from one side to the other, but there have not been dramatic swings in Northern Ireland since it came into existence in 1920, so representation by minority groupings would be withdrawn from the electorate.

A Member may change party allegiance during his term of office. Notwithstanding that, the electorate would still have elected a person on a party ticket. If allegiance were transferred, that would be the fault of the representative, who would deny those who voted for him and for his party or philosophy.

On substitution, it is intriguing that participants in the Assembly elections were required in their nomination papers to nominate a maximum of six substitutes. As I recall, that was not a legal requirement, but it was a legal opportunity. The electorate could and should have made themselves aware of whether substitutes were of the same temperament or of the same political party or philosophy as the primary candidate. They made their decisions on the basis of candidates' nomination papers and their nominated substitutes, so what is the legal situation and what would it be if we made a change?

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) said that I have already reminded him of this practical point, but I must do so again: in the 26 district councils in Northern Ireland, which are also elected by PR, it is the norm to fill a vacancy by substitution, through the nomination of the party whose representative previously occupied that elected position. Indeed, I can recall no recent by-elections. The community already accepts and operates—

Dr. Godman


Rev. Ian Paisley


Mr. McGrady

I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde.

Dr. Godman

I think that I was first to ask.

I readily acknowledge that my hon. Friend presents a powerful case for substitutes, but does he agree with clause 27(2)? It states: Such provision may be made by reference to by-elections or substitutes or such other method of filling vacancies as the Secretary of State thinks fit. Does he think that we should we have by-elections or substitutes, not a three-options system?

Mr. McGrady

I now give way to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley).

Rev. Ian Paisley

Although such a system may be the norm, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there has to be unanimity in the council chamber, and that, if anyone objects to not holding a by-election, he overrules the council? The hon. Gentleman will agree, because he has wide experience of local government, that holding an election, perhaps six months before the whole council went to the electorate, would throw the electorate into spending a lot of money.

10.45 am
Mr. McGrady

The hon. Gentleman has made a helpful contribution, which is unusual in my experience. To take the point further, in multi-party council chambers, there is usually agreement across the parties that vacancies should be filled through substitution by the party that has a vacancy. That has been the norm in local government for about a decade; there is nothing unusual or unacceptable about it, and it has cross-party support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde referred to clause 27(2). I probed this matter earlier; substitutes have already been nominated in the electoral process, and his question is difficult to answer because we need clarification of the legal situation. If the current legal position is to continue, how can we make changes midstream when the electorate have already cast their votes?

There is much validity in all the arguments about filling vacancies, but I draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that we are basing our decision on the special circumstances of Northern Ireland. We are endeavouring to achieve the greatest participation by the greatest number of parties and philosophies. The tenor of the Bill is based on cross-community, cross-party support for the way forward. In that context, substitution, as predicated by the electoral process, is probably best, although I hope that there will be evolution as time goes on.

Mr. McNamara

I thank you, Mr. Martin, for calling me to speak after my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), not after the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Õpik). I woke up this morning saying, "X is equal to minus B, plus or minus the square root of B squared, minus 4AC, all over 2A—or is it?" I did not want to go back to using squared paper.

Mr. Öpik

The hon. Gentleman's membership card is in the post.

Mr. McNamara

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman means a Mensa membership. I can remember mensa, mensam, mensae, mensa, but that is thanks to the Irish Christian Brothers, not the academicals attended by the hon. Gentleman.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) demolished his own case. He considered all the examples and everything that had been said, and was left hanging on to the straw of what happens in the Irish Republic. There is considerable difference between what happens in the Irish Republic and what is happening in Northern Ireland. First, people in the Republic vote for a sovereign Government, not for a devolved Assembly. The second and more important difference is that, by and large, candidates in the Republic of Ireland accept the political institutions and the allegiances to, and sovereignty of, the state. That does not apply in Northern Ireland, and the agreement recognises that in its references to citizenship.

In our electoral system, parties divide on a class or ideological basis—if one is able to talk in those terms nowadays—and, especially in Northern Ireland, according to allegiances. The proportional system was introduced in Northern Ireland specifically to allow allegiances, and differences of opinion within those allegiances, to be adequately represented. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Down has said, if we change to a system of by-elections, the majority in a particular constituency could take the day. I shall refer only obliquely and briefly to last night's debate, Mr. Martin. If that were to happen, it would mean challenging the acceptance of the whole basis of the d'Hondt system.

That brings us back to the question whether a person in the new Northern Ireland Assembly should be able to cross the Floor, to change party or to change designation if that would upset the arrangements under which the elections took place. The electorate vote for candidates for a particular purpose. People vote for the Democratic Unionist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Ulster Unionist party or the Alliance party knowing where that party stands on constitutional, social, political and economic matters, and believing that, if the successful candidate died, someone from the list of substitutes would take that person's place on the basis of his allegiances and his known stance.

If we do not have substitutes and if we give the Secretary of State the discretion provided in the Bill—although she will have to bring the orders before the House for resolution—we shall be leaving matters up in the air. The most sensible thing to do is for the Secretary of State to adopt the proposition of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock either in a new clause or a new schedule outlining the specific means of substitution. We should also specify what should happen if a person crosses the Floor or changes his political allegiance.

The position in Northern Ireland is different. People are elected not only for their innate qualities—I am sure that that applies to every Member of this august Assembly—but for their political allegiances and their understanding of how that can affect matters in the overall body of the Assembly. That is of the utmost importance.

Dr. Godman

I have never denied the strength of the case put by my hon. Friends the Members for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and for South Down (Mr. McGrady). I am sorry that my hon. Friend for Hull, North thinks that my view that the electorate should reign supreme hangs by a straw. I think that he was referring to the example, which I used to strengthen my case, of what happens in the Republic. Does my hon. Friend think that the reference to by-elections in clause 27(2) or the phrase such other method of filling vacancies should be deleted?

Mr. McNamara

I think that both should be deleted. I suggest that the Secretary of State, either in a new clause or in a new schedule—the latter is probably the best place—should outline the precise system and should say how substitution should be treated when a person crosses the floor. It is important that the electorate should not be misled. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde said that I do not believe that the people are sovereign. I hope that he will support my ten-minute Bill on Wednesday, which will show that the people are sovereign on membership of the House. However, we are talking about a devolved Assembly that will be elected, we hope, for a fixed period. People will know what is happening and will seek to ensure that their views are represented in a particular way. That is best achieved by a system of substitutes, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will table an amendment in the other place to meet the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock and others.

Mr. Paul Murphy

The debate, which was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), has been interesting and useful. Schedule 14 to the Bill provides that the New Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 1998 remains in force after the appointed day. If a vacancy occurred, it would be filled by a substitute from the list submitted by a candidate at the 25 June elections.

Much of the debate has centred on the principle of substitutes versus by-elections. During the consideration of the previous Bill dealing with this matter, there was no doubt that a system of substitutes must inevitably be the one we use. I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who said that, for the system of elections to the Assembly, there is no real alternative to the use of substitutes in order to maintain proportionality and the important cross-community aspects of the Assembly. The Government propose to ensure that the substitute system remains.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock wanted more detail included in the Bill. His amendment refers to registered political parties. We shall see what impact the Registration of Political Parties Bill has on Northern Ireland. We shall have to consult political parties in Northern Ireland on that matter.

We can make any necessary changes to the system of substitution in future through an amendment to the New Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 1998, to which the hon. Member for Belfast, East referred. Under the provisions of schedule 14, that will continue to apply to elections to the Assembly. I propose to discuss this matter further with the parties, because I know that they regard it as an important issue. There is the matter of by-elections being held if substitutes die or do not wish to take up their place. We shall have further consultation on that. It may require changes, although not necessarily to the Bill.

Mr. Peter Robinson

The Minister referred to by-elections and to the substitute system. What was in the Government's mind when they added the rider or such other method of filling vacancies as the Secretary of State thinks fit"?

Mr. Murphy

That is exactly why we need to consult further. It is unclear. We should consider how we deal with by-elections if a substitute does not want to take up his seat, dies or moves away. Because of the lack of clarity, we need to talk with parties in Northern Ireland. Changes could be made by order and not necessarily by amendments to the Bill. I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Mackinlay

I hope to hear further news from the Minister over the summer. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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