HL Deb 15 March 2005 vol 670 cc501-6GC

5.58 p.m.

Baroness Amos

rose to move that the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment No. 2) Order 2005. [11th Report from the Joint Committee]

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment No. 3) Order 2005. The Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment No. 2) Order 2005 amends the provisions of Schedule 5 to the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 relating to the control of persons entering polling stations during local elections. It will allow the presiding officer to admit Electoral Commission members and persons authorised by it to a polling station.

It is now government policy that the Electoral Commission and other observers should be allowed that form of access to polling stations throughout the United Kingdom. Access in this manner has already been granted for Northern Ireland Assembly elections and for European parliamentary elections.

The second order, the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment No. 3) Order 2005, increases the maximum expenses that can be claimed by candidates at local government elections in Northern Ireland by amending the current limits in the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962.

The current limits in the Act were inserted four years ago by the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2001. They are £242 per candidate, plus 4.8 pence per elector on the register, in the district electoral area. In England and Wales, the current limits, set on 4 March this year, are now £600 and five pence respectively. The reason for such a large differential is that local elections in Northern Ireland take place only every four years and the limits have not been updated since 2001. The new figures will bring Northern Ireland into line with England and Wales. The orders are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. They are being made in exercise of the powers conferred on Her Majesty by Section 84(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I commend the orders to the Committee.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment No. 2) Order 2005 [11th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Amos.)

Lord Glentoran

I thank the Lord President of the Council for bringing the orders forward. This seems almost to be tidying-up legislation to bring Northern Ireland again into line with the UK. I have no difficulty in supporting it.

Lord Smith of Clifton

I thank the Lord President of the Council for introducing these orders. It is useful to raise the expenses limit in line with inflation and so on. The orders will be useful also in facilitating the presence of Ukrainian observers at polling stations.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

I too thank the Lord President of the Council for bringing these orders forward. As well as bringing us into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, they may be of considerable benefit as far as elections are concerned, given the circumstances that maintain in Northern Ireland.

It is known that we tried to hold elections without adequate legislation for many years. It was not until the Electoral Reform Act 2002 that the basis on which elections were run in Northern Ireland was tidied up. Albeit belatedly, I pay some tribute to Mr Bradley, who was the Chief Electoral Officer in those difficult times, and to those who worked with him. We certainly got a great deal more assurance from that administration of the electoral office than we do under the present Chief Electoral Officer and his staff. But perhaps that is a matter for another day. Suffice it to say that we have seen some considerable anomalies in the past in elections in Northern Ireland. One could cite as an example the situation of a very decent man who was once the SDLP Member for West Belfast in the other place. His name escapes me for the moment—

Lord Smith of Clifton

Joe Hendron.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

I apologise; his name slipped my mind. Joe Hendron committed a technical mistake at an election. He paid what a newspaper asked him for an advertisement, but that amount turned out to be less than the newspaper would have charged any of the rest of us for a different type of advertisement. He was brought before an electoral court and found guilty of infringing electoral law.

On the other hand, we had a situation in which Sinn Fein held a presiding officer and his staff almost prisoners in a polling station. The polling station was kept open for much longer than was intended and Sinn Fein insisted on bringing people in to vote after the polling station should have closed. A court—not an electoral court—decided that that was permissible. I believe there is a huge anomaly. I hope that the Electoral Commission will be able to look at behaviour within polling stations and at how the Chief Electoral Officer and his staff conduct elections in Northern Ireland so that those anomalies do not become the order of the day.

Perhaps it will not be necessary for the Electoral Commission to come into polling stations on election day to deal with the matter but, none the less, it is important that I mention it because the Electoral Commission has been remiss in one area, which brings me to the second order.

A party like Sinn Fein produces figures which suggest that it has spent about £40,000 plus on an election, whereas my party and the SDLP spend around a quarter of a million pounds. We all have the same number of broadcasts, for which we now have to pay. We do not have a quarter of the very expensive posters stuck up from one end of the Province to the other that Sinn Fein has, and yet it apparently can conduct the campaign at 15 or 20 per cent of what it costs other parties.

The Electoral Commission needs to look particularly carefully at expenditure. I suppose it is more difficult for my party as it has to account for the money coming in and going out. I suppose that Sinn Fein does not have to account for money coming in and there is little need for the party to account for it going out. Given the war chest that it now has, I am sure that it will be delighted that it can spend an extra 0.2 pence per elector in the forthcoming elections.

Perhaps I should declare an interest as I shall be standing again for my borough council. The extra 0.2 pence will enable me to spend an extra £10 or £12. I am being light-hearted about it, but there is a serious problem about equity and balance between the parties. When ridiculous figures are accepted by the Electoral Commission, it is right that I should give it a little nudge and suggest that it could be more diligent in the way in which it scrutinises the figures.

I want to touch on another matter, but if I am straying outside the scope of the two orders, I apologise. It will not take me long to say what I have to say. Recently we passed an amendment to the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. I disapproved of it, but it brought back 83,000 voters who had been missing from the electoral register in Northern Ireland. Quite honestly, I felt that the Chief Electoral Officer and his staff had been remiss in simply recommending the return of so many voters—people who did not do what they were supposed to do under the law in order to retain their place on the electoral register.

At that time I asked the noble Baroness whether the staff of the Chief Electoral Officer had successfully visited any of those 83,000 voters and whether pilot trawls had been set up to establish the reasons for non-registration. I should have thought that was a reasonable question, carrying the reasonable expectation of an answer. The noble Baroness, Lady Amos, indicated that the Chief Electoral Officer would write to me.

I know how busy the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council is and she may not have had time to look at the Chief Electoral Officer's letter, which has been placed in the Library. However, I would ask her to read it and consider whether she is wholly satisfied that that letter dated 4 March from the Chief Electoral Officer properly addresses my specific question, or whether he and his staff could be better targeted in the exercise of their duties. That is something which, again, the Electoral Commission could have drawn attention to, and I hope that that will be done.

To conclude, again I thank the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council. The order for Amendment No.2 is useful, while obviously the order for Amendment No. 3 is routine. However, we always welcome just a little bit more spending power.

Baroness Amos

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken to the orders. On the specific points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass, I should say that since 2001 the number of polling stations has increased by 25 per cent and all polling station staff will be given thorough training. I can also assure the noble Lord that no one will be allowed into polling stations after 10 p.m. The commission will report on the conduct of the Chief Electoral Officer and his staff in administering the elections.

Turning to the point raised by the noble Lord about Sinn Fein, the Electoral Commission went through the accounts supplied by the organisation with the same rigour as that for all the parties following the 2003 Assembly elections. In relation to local elections, the commissioner has no remit to check expenditure by individual candidates.

On the final point raised by the noble Lord concerning the 83,000 people who have been put back on to the register as a result of the order we debated in the House not too long ago, while I cannot remember the detail of the letter sent by the Chief Electoral Officer—I will look at it—I recall saying in the Chamber that one development was that research would be carried out into this issue and that we would come back to the noble Lord. I will check where we have got to on the research being conducted and write to the noble Lord when we have more information.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

Dare I suggest that, since this adjustment is a short-term measure, and while I appreciate that something will now be done, in respect of what has been done, it is a little like closing the stable door when the horse has bolted?

6.15 p.m.

Baroness Amos

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, may recall that we were going to look at the reasons why people had not re-registered. However, a number of initiatives were being put in place to deal with those hard-to-reach groups. In the debate that we had in Chamber there was a focus on reaching young people. However, it is important that initiatives are taken in respect of a number of other groups to ensure that they are included on the register. We are looking at ways of ensuring that the Chief Electoral Officer is more proactive in reaching all sections of the community. I heard that loud and clear when noble Lords discussed that issue. We shall continue to review the matter.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

Will the noble Baroness clarify the 10 o'clock deadline. For example, if a polling station comprises a decent-sized school hall, and at 9.58 p.m. several people walk in, I imagine that it might be five past 10 or 10 past 10 before they have voted. If, on the other hand, a polling station is the size of a telephone box, there is no way they will get into it, and therefore they will be queuing outside. There then comes a point when no one else ought to be allowed to join the queue. Over the years I have seen many polling stations where you cannot get many people into the building. There needs to be clarity about the deadline in those circumstances because polling stations vary; some are incredibly commodious but others are fairly tight.

Baroness Amos

I appreciate that point. I imagine that we would follow general practice across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, if it is intended to differ from that I shall, of course, write to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

Perhaps I can help the noble Baroness on this matter. I have stood for election more times certainly than anyone in this company. It is well into double figures.

Lord Shutt of Greetland


Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

Yes, more than that. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, measures up to me very well but I think that I probably beat him by a short head. There has been no tradition in Northern Ireland of large queues outside polling stations. Where there are a number of people, they are brought in, the doors are locked, they are allowed to vote and there is no difficulty. However, if the measure that we are discussing is facilitated to any great degree, it will be exploited by the likes of Sinn Fein who will say to their people, "Don't turn up to the polling station until five minutes to 10 and then we'll crowd it out. There will be panic and we'll manage to abuse the electoral system". I add that as a word of caution.

Baroness Amos

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, for that point of clarification. As regards the noble Lord's other point on how many times he has stood for election as opposed to anyone else in this room, I, of course, cannot comment as I have never stood for election.

I thank noble Lords for the spirit in which the Grand Committee was conducted today. Sometimes, difficult issues must be addressed, but I always welcome the thoughtfulness with which noble Lords approach issues relating to Northern Ireland. I hope that I can commend the orders to the Committee.

Lord Smith of Clifton

We thank the noble Baroness for thanking us. The Palace of Westminster abounds with rumour. There is a rumour that maybe the Prime Minister will go to Buckingham Palace to ask for the dissolution of Parliament. There is another that the noble Baroness may well be moving to the next stage of her career as an international civil servant.

I am sure that I speak for all of us when I say that we have been very impressed by the way in which she has conducted herself in handling the Northern Ireland portfolio. She has always been conscientious; she has always made her staff in the Northern Ireland Office available to us; and her door has never been shut to those who wanted to talk to her. My colleagues and I wish her well whatever happens, even if those rumours prove unfounded. If it does come about, we wish her well in the next stage of her career, at which we are sure she will be as successful as she has been with us.

Baroness Amos

It is a long-standing government tradition that we do not comment on rumours, and I would not dream of commenting on the first rumour mentioned by the noble Lord. Lord Smith of Clifton. The second is not a rumour. I have been nominated by the Government to run the United Nations development agency. It is a process; there are a number of other candidates. I thank noble Lords very much for wishing me well.

On Question, Motion agreed to.