HL Deb 04 August 1972 vol 334 cc674-86

2.9 p.m.

THE MINISTER OF STATE FOR NORTHERN IRELAND (LORD WINDLESHAM) rose to move, That the Draft Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, laid before the House on July 18, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, this Order relates mainly to local government elections in Northern Ireland, and except in one or two instances which I shall mention, its main provisions do not affect either Stormont elections or Westminster elections.

The Order has been made necessary by the reorganisation of local government following on the proposals of the Local Government Review Body chaired by Sir Patrick Macrory. In place of the existing local authorties, of which there are 68, there will in future be 26 district councils. Under recent Stormont legislation, the Electoral Law Act 1971, elections for members of these new district councils must take place in the calendar year 1972, and thereafter every four years. This increased life span from three to four years is both in accordance with the recommendations of Macrory, and in line with the provisions of the Local Government Bill now before Parliament.

It had previously been intended that these local government elections should take place in October of this year, but following consultations with a number of groups and interests in Northern Ireland, and with the Opposition at Westminster, the Secretary of State decided that the local government elections this year should be on the basis of proportional representation. Some noble Lords may remember that this was the aim of the Private Member's Bill which was put forward earlier in the Session by the noble Lord, Lord Archibald, and was the aim of an earlier Private Member's Bill put forward in the previous Session by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway. The Secretary of State emphasised that his decision related to the 1972 elections only, and did not prejudge the methods to be used in subsequent elections in Northern Ireland, whether provincial or local.

Secondly, he made clear that proportional representation had been used in Northern Ireland—unlike the rest of the United Kingdom—in the 1920s, and it seemed to us worth experimenting to see whether it would result in the better representation of minority Parties. There are many people who believe this to be so, and it seemed worth putting it to the test in this particular election later on this year.

The Order before your Lordships to-day therefore differs from the Bill which had been through most of its stages at Stormont before Prorogation, in that Article 4 has been added—that is the Article on page 4 of the draft Order headed, "Special Provisions as to the Local General Elections to be held in 1972". It is this Article that sets out the special provisions which will determine the form of the electoral system to be used in the local elections this year.

Section (2) of Article 4 states that any contested elections in what is described as a "district electoral area" shall be according to the principle of proportional representation, each elector having one transferable vote. The single transferable vote method—S.T.V. for short—has been chosen because it is the system which was previously used in Northern Ireland and is currently used in the Republic of Ireland as well as in other parts of the world, and because it enables people to indicate their preferences among candidates standing for Parties other than their own. Moreover, the system is a simple one for the elector to understand, since all he has to do is to indicate on the ballot paper the order of preference for as many candidates as he wishes.

The calculations that follow by the electoral officer are a great deal more complicated. I will spare the House at this stage a detailed explanation of that matter, although I have come prepared and, if necessary, can go through it when I reply to the debate. I should perhaps add that the proposal was made by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, and by others in this House that the Electoral Law Reform Society might have a contribution to make, and I can say that we are making full use of the expertise of the Society whose officers are helping us in working out the details of the scheme.

One of the consequences of the decision to introduce proportional representation in the 1972 local elections, was the need to form electoral areas which were large enough to enable proportional representation to function effectively. In implementing the Macrory proposal that there should be 26 district councils, the previous Government of Northern Ireland appointed a Boundary Commissioner. A well-known member of the Bar of Northern Ireland, Mr. Frank Harrison, Q.C., who is President of the Lands Tribunal, took on this task, and he recommended what should be the boundaries for the 26 new districts, and for the wards with in the districts. This was a considerable undertaking of a quasi-judicial nature, in order that local representations could be heard and fully taken into account and it was carried out in a most thorough and independent manner. The Secretary of State and I have already personally thanked Mr. Harrison and his staff for the considerable service which they have rendered to the public in this matter, and I should like to place that on record again to-day.

The Boundary Commissioner has recommended the exact areas to be covered by the new district councils and the boundaries of 526 new wards within the district areas. These would have been small single-member wards to encourage the closest possible contact between the local councillors and the people they were elected to represent. The Secretary of State then considered a number of further local objections, but decided that it was right to accept the Boundary Commissioner's recommendations in full and without amendment. However, in order to obtain the benefits of proportional representation and to allow the system to operate effectively, it is necessary to have larger electoral units than single-seater wards, and this will be done by grouping the new Harrison wards together into clusters of not less than four nor more than eight, and the remaining steps that need to be taken are set out in Article 4, Sections (4), (5) and (6) of the draft Order. As noble Lords will see, these deal with the making and publishing of proposals concerning the grouping of wards by the Chief Electoral Officer, the procedure for handling objections by the Chief Electoral Officer and the submission of proposals to the Secretary of State, and the making of regulations by the Secretary of State.

To summarise my introduction to your Lordships, this part of the Order is concerned merely with the grouping together of these new wards into clusters of between four and eight, the boundaries of which have already, as a result of an extremely thorough process, been set by the Boundary Commissioner whose recommendations we have accepted. It will be seen from what I have said that a considerable amount of work still remains to be done, and as a result the Secretary of State has said that it will be necessary to postpone the elections from October until later in the year. No date has yet been fixed but every effort will be made to complete the remaining stages as quickly as possible.

The other main provision of the Order to which I should draw your Lordships' attention is the creation of a new post of Chief Electoral Officer. This is contained in Article 6 which also sets out the provisions concerning persons appointed to assist the Chief Electoral Officer in the discharge of his duties. The Chief Electoral Officer will be an independent statutory official, in normal circumstances appointed by the Governor of Northern Ireland, who can be removed from office only by the Governor in certain specified circumstances. His responsibilities cover the implementation and administration of the electoral laws of Northern Ireland, the preparation and publication of electoral registers and the conduct of elections. It will be seen from subsection (4), in the middle of page 6 of the Draft Order, that the Chief Electoral Officer's responsibilities extend to Parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland as well as to local government elections.

My Lords, the type of independent, centralised electoral machinery which is proposed is, broadly, similar to that which operates satisfactorily in a number of Commonwealth countries. This part of the Order was contained in a Bill which had been considered by the Parliament of Northern Ireland before Prorogation, and had reached Third Reading in the Senate. It was generally regarded as a useful change to make at a time when local government was being reorganised, with the result that some new arrangements would be needed in any event. This brief description covers the main provisions of the Draft Order. It will be seen that the Order is fairly limited in its scope, but we believe these are useful changes to make and that the results of the experiment with P.R. will be watched with considerable interest. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, laid before the House on July 18, be approved.—(Lord Windlesham.)

2.21 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for a very short and extremely interesting account—and, if I may say so, rather thorough account, considering the short time he took—of an extremely complicated subject. I propose to speak only very briefly, first because there is a further important debate coming on—but that would not stop me if I thought it was right to do otherwise—but also because this Order has not only been through Stormont virtually, although some Amendments have been made since, but it has been debated twice at very great length, the first time on a Supply Day in another place; and it has had a general welcome. It is not amendable; nor would we wish to amend it, although I have one or two queries and one point I should like to make at this moment. I take it that if it proves necessary in the process of the working out of this new and somewhat unfamiliar procedure—which, as the noble Lord made clear, is really going to present electoral officers, candidates and others with a good deal of hard thinking in order to make it work—the Government will not hesitate to come hack with a further Order to amend any aspect.

But the important thing, apart from the many other arrangements, is the introduction of proportional representation, and I should like to say that, not for the first time, my noble friend Lord Brockway can be satisfied with his pioneer efforts in this direction. I find it maddening, after I have been in disagreement with my noble friend Lord Brockway, when I find that he was more right earlier than I was. But I really think that this is a constructive move. Of course, if we had had it earlier, and if we had had it in the elections for Stormont, it is quite possible we should not be in the situation in which we are to-day. It is quite possible, for instance, that Lord O'Neill of the Maine and others—and this is pure speculation—by the use of the single transferable vote might in fact have been strengthened instead of falling. To this extent, proportional representation has an advantage, particularly in a community where there is polarisation; and there is no doubt that Northern Ireland is classically a place where it should be applied. But I must make it clear—and I say so with all respect to the noble Lords on the Liberal Benches, who must also have some satisfaction at this moment—that I am not in favour of its being applied elsewhere. If by any chance we should find ourselves in a situation in which we have regional Parliaments—which heaven forbid!—in this country, then I think that we should again have to think seriously as to whether, for all sorts of reasons, proportional representation would be necessary there. But that is a disaster which I hope is not likely to come. None the less, it may be that I shall find myself wrong again.

It is right to introduce proportional representation in Northern Ireland. As I understand it (I cannot remember whether I heard the noble Lord on this) this particular draft electoral law applies only to the next Elections and a further Order will be necessary at the end of a four-year period (is it?) or a three-year period. Perhaps the noble Lord will deal with this when he comes to reply: it is not a point of great substance. What this Order should do is to give much more of a chance for the moderate Parties—the Northern Ireland Labour Party, the Alliance Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party—to do well, and tend to weaken the position of those of more extreme views. We shall see. It will be extremely interesting, but I believe that this will be a real contribution towards peaceful development in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I have one or two further small points to make. First, I think we all find it rather odd that a deposit will be required for local government candidates. My first reaction was that this is the sort of thing that would make it more difficult for new Parties of a sensible kind to emerge, because it would be too costly. But I think I am convinced—and other noble Lords may be interested to hear what the noble Lord has further to say—that this is probably unavoidable in the present circumstances. I hope that at the earliest moment these deposits will be abolished. I understand that within this rather complicated system the proportion of votes that has to be obtained before a deposit is lost is not very great. If the noble Lord could say a word on this aspect it would be helpful.

Finally, I should like just to say this. I am increasingly bothered about the proposal about a plebiscite in Northern Ireland. I know that it is consistent with views expressed by Government, but let me make it clear—particularly in view of the "Hear, hear!" from my noble friend behind me—that I am not in favour of plebiscites or of consultative referenda, though I do not wish to re-introduce that subject here. Also, in the purely Northern Ireland context, the result is foregone. Everybody knows that the majority of the population of Northern Ireland will vote to remain in the United Kingdom. So we shall be no further on in this matter; and I am very much afraid that it may be provocative. Although the noble Lord may feel that he is in honour committed, and the Government are in honour committed (I fully acknowledge that this may be so), to hold a plebiscite, I can see great advantages in at least having the local government elections first and seeing what emerges from them. This will very probably give a much more accurate picture of where the feelings lie than one of these blank plebiscite votes of a kind which are unsatisfactory and which may even be boycotted.

My Lords, having said that, I should like again to echo what the noble Lord has said about Mr. Harrison and the work of those who have been concerned with boundaries. I think it right to pay tribute to those who are not merely talking but actually working hard in the interests of a better and more peaceful Northern Ireland. It may be that we shall be in for more and bitter disappointments, but this at least is a right and a hopeful step. I hope that this will be the last Order that will come to us in this way and that in future we shall have a Select Committee, even if the Government will not agree to our having a Select Committee to examine treaties and legislation emanating from the E.E.C.

2.30 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to give the support of the Liberal Benches to this Instrument and, in particular, to Section (2) of Article 4 which introduces proportional representation with the single transferable vote. I should also like to disabuse your Lordships' minds of any idea that this is a routine Liberal genuflexion to the idol of P.R. In fact, vulnerable though P.R. obviously is to the point of view of any minority Party, the characteristics of P.R. which make it highly acceptable to us make it uniquely necessary in the situation of Northern Ireland. Democracy is not just about majority rule. It is about involving people in the important political decisions which affect their lives. And when you have an electoral system which for 50 long years has left a minority, and a large minority at that, in permanent opposition, you cannot claim that democracy is working. In fact, the electoral system as it is in Northern Ireland has created a sense of impotence in that minority and an impotence accompanied by frustration and rage, the effects of which are now before us.

We believe that in three very important ways proportional representation will help to heal the wounds of Northern Ireland. We believe that in the course of time it will give the minority an opportunity really to take part in the decisions which affect them, so that sense of impotence will be removed. Not less important, we believe that there will now be a choice within Parties and not only a choice between Parties—a choice within Parties which means that a Roman Catholic can vote for a Roman Catholic who is also a trade unionist; or if he wishes, for a Roman Catholic who represents interests other than sectarian interests. This may mean—and what could be more important?—that we could move the political division in Northern Ireland from one which is basically sectarian to a modern division based on the usual interests and attitudes which divide Parties, rather than the sterile division between religious communities that we have to-day.

Further, as the noble Lord. Lord Shackleton, suggested, it may well mean that we have the election of more moderate rather than extremist persons to positions of authority. I would echo what the noble Lord said, and if the election of moderates had been possible in Northern Ireland over the last 50 years, as began to take place while proportional representation ruled in Northern Ireland, and as has taken place in the South where there has been proportional representation for many decades, as was confirmed in the election on that very issue in 1968 then behind the very people who have striven to give a moderate leadership to Northern Ireland there would have rallied a large number who have not been able to express themselves through the ballot box, and many people who are dead would be alive today.

2.35 p.m.


My Lords, my speech will consist only of a few sentences: I just want to welcome this Order. The Minister of State made reference to the fact that this proposal was included in the Bill which I introduced a year ago, when I was opposed by both Front Benches. Perhaps I should welcome the fact that the Leader of the Opposition generously made reference to that Bill, not only today but before.

I am very glad that the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, is now fulfilling these responsibilities in Northern Ireland. I do not know anyone on the Government Benches who could contribute towards the terribly difficult situation in Northern Ireland in a more constructive and conciliatory way than he. Let me add that I regret very much the fact that he is not in his old position, because one is having more difficulties today than when he occupied that post. I believe that this Order is a great and constructive contribution towards the policy of a political rather than a military solution in Northern Ireland. But for this proposal to have proportional representation in local government elections, there would have been a great danger that those elections would have been boycotted by the minority. I hope that this Order will mean that such a situation will not arise and that there will not be developments in other directions to prevent the co-operation of the minority when elections take place.

May I say a word in support of what my noble friend Lord Shackleton said regarding the plebiscite? We all take the view that the issue of Northern Ireland and the unity of the whole of Ireland must be matters for consent, but I would add to what has been said a warning that there is a very great danger that unless the situation in other directions creates an atmosphere of co-operation, an early plebiscite might actually intensify the antagonisms because of the campaign which would necessarily occur before it took place. I therefore urge that the Minister should be very careful indeed in any recommendation that this plebiscite should either precede the local elections or follow them immediately. While maintaining the policy that there should be a plebiscite, the Government should wait for a moment when it could take place without an intensification of the confrontation.

2.38 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the three noble Lords who have spoken for the general welcome they have extended to this Order. The question of deposits was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton. He is quite correct in saying that deposits do not apply in local government elections in Great Britain, although they apply in Parliamentary elections. The situation in Northern Ireland has been different for many years. The deposit there has been £25 in the case of candidates standing for election to county councils and county borough councils, and £10 for those standing for election to urban and rural district councils. We accept that there is a case for saying the situation in Northern Ireland should be the same as in the remainder of the United Kingdom, but we took the view that in present circumstances it would not be wise to drop the practice of deposits, particularly with the introduction of P.R. This gives rise to a lot of names on the ballot paper, particularly in urban districts such as Belfast. The likelihood is that there will be a very considerable number of names on the ballot paper, so that the full benefits of P.R. may be obtained. Northern Ireland politics being what they are, it would be a simple matter to disrupt the elections completely. Informal groups could put up a whole host of names which would then have to appear on the ballot paper. This small deposit, only £15, is an effective deterrent because if a group of people were disposed to put up say 100 candidates for the purposes of disruption then £15 for each of them would add up. At this particular period of time, it seemed to us right to retain a deposit. However, our minds are in no sense closed for the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, asked what proportion of the votes must be obtained if a candidate is to retain his deposit. I can give him the answer, but it may not mean a good deal to him. It is a quarter of the quota. In order to know how many actual votes are needed you have to know what the quota is. This is a technical matter—and I see the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, nodding her head—


May I interrupt the noble Lord for a moment? I have no doubt that the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, will be able to explain it to us both afterwards—but may I take it that the quota is something less than the total number of votes cast? "A quarter sounded rather a lot to me, but I take it that a quarter of the quota is a smaller amount.


The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, need not wait for the noble Baroness to explain it to him, because I can do it now. The quota is very much less than the total number of votes. It is the total number of votes cast, divided by one more than the number of vacant seats, plus one.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord. This is a subject that we might next discuss in Committee on the European Communities Bill.


The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, also asked whether the provisions of the Order applied only to the 1972 local government elections. Article 4, which is the one that concerns proportional representation, indeed applies only to the 1972 elections. Therefore at some time in the four-year life of the new district councils there will need to be further legislation. The third point raised by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition concerned the plebiscite. This was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway. The proposed plebiscite is outside the terms of this draft Order, but I take the point that this debate provides an opportunity for both noble Lords to put their views on record. The Secretary of State discussed the plebiscite during Question Time in another place yesterday, and I do not think it would be right for me to try to add to what he said then.

I was most interested in the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, not just on the mechanical workings of proportional representation but on what she sees as the real advantage of more effective representation—that a stronger local democracy should result. What we need to do is to see how this works out in practice. Many people feel as the noble Baroness does, and I have met several groups which have put forward arguments in similar terms in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, there are those who are not so sure that all these benefits will follow on the introduction of proportional representation, even if they hope that they will. There is very little contemporary evidence to go on, and as what there is comes from communities where conditions are very different from those in Northern Ireland, it is of only limited validity. So what we need to do is to see what the results of these local elections are, and then make some assessments for the future.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, for his personal tribute. I came back from Belfast this morning. The darkness follows light so quickly that it is extremely difficult for anyone who is close to events to keep a sense of vision. It is most important to do so for many different reasons, particularly where the legislative programme is concerned. This series of Orders in Council are of fundamental structural importance. It is very easy to take our eye off them because of the more urgent pressures of the day-to-day situation. It would not be in the interests of, in this case, the future of local government in Northern Ireland if we were to allow ourselves to do so.

That covers, I think, all the points raised in this short debate. I am grateful for the reaction to this draft Order, and commend it to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.