HL Deb 06 December 1973 vol 347 cc841-5

7.38 p.m.

THE PARLIAMENTARY UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE, NORTHERN IRELAND OFFICE (LORD BELSTEAD) rose to move, That the Draft Local Government Reorganisation (Consequential Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1973, laid before the House on November 8, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. As your Lordships are no doubt aware, local government in Northern Ireland was recently reorganised and, with effect from October 1 this year as a consequence of this reorganisation, certain Acts of the United Kingdom required adjustment.

May I call the attention of the House to the more important matters which are included in the Order. The first of these is contained in Article 2 which provides for the transfer of certain functions to the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland. Prior to the reorganisation of local government in Northern Ireland, the duties under the Representation of the People Acts for the registration of electors for the Parliament of Westminster were carried out by officers of the local authorities, namely the Town Clerk of the County Borough of Belfast and the Secretaries of each of the six county councils. As these posts no longer exist, it is necessary to make alternative arrangements, and the logical solution to the problem is to vest these duties in the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, which has already been given the responsibility of preparing an annual register for, and the organisation and conduct of, the Northern Ireland Assembly and local elections by the Electoral Law Order, Northern Ireland, 1972. As a single register is sufficient for all elections, it is proposed that the responsibility for its preparation should rest with the Chief Electoral Officer.

In the past, the duty of organising and conducting elections for the 12 Westminster constituencies has been carried out in a most efficient manner by the Under-Sheriffs of Belfast and the Six Counties—who are, incidentally, solicitors in private practice. I am sure that the Chief Electoral Officer of Northern Ireland and his staff will prove to be equally dedicated and will carry out their official duties no less efficiently than did their predecessors.

Article 3 seeks to standardise the method of appointment and the period of terms of service of high sheriffs in Northern Ireland, whether they are serving in areas which have been county boroughs or county areas. Finally, may [mention that Article 4 seeks to extend to the public bodies mentioned therein the provisions of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act which prohibit discrimination in the public sector on religious or political grounds, and the requirement of certain oaths and undertakings as a condition of employment. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Local Government Reorganisation (Consequential Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1973, laid before the House on 8th November be approved.—(Lord Belstead.)

7.41 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for the explanation he has given of this Order. Since the passing of the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act 1972, we have already had 51 items of legislation, and the three Orders before the House to-night will bring the total to 54 —five Bills and 49 Orders. This seems to me an appropriate moment to extend a warm welcome to the Executive Designate of Northern Ireland, and despite the difficulties created by a minority, to offer to the Leaders of the Unionist, Social Democratic and Labour and Alliance Parties our congratulations and good wishes in the unique power-sharing which promises to bring Catholic and Protestant politicians together for mutual benefit. May I also say that on this side we hope that the tripartite talks which started to-day will result in an effective Council of Ireland and that the time may be nearer when the inadequate procedures for direct rule from this place will no longer be necessary. I was delighted to see on the tapes just now that those talks appear to have got off to a pretty good start. One hopes they will prove to be outstandingly successful.

The Local Government Order is non-controversial, and we on this side certainly do not oppose it; but I should like to make one or two observations and to ask one or two questions. The noble Lord referred to the appointment of certain sheriffs under Article 3. I do not know whether the noble Lord can tell us who is going to nominate them. Certainly the nomination of sheriffs and high sheriffs in this country is to most people something of a secret, and perhaps it might be as well if we could be told who is to do the nominating for Northern Ireland. Article 4, to which the noble Lord referred, itself refers to Sections 19 and 21 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act of 1973. Section 19, I believe, prohibits discrimination against any person or class of person on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion, and Section 21 makes it an offence to require any person to take an oath. Those two provisions are extended in this Order to four Area Boards on health and social services. I think it would be helpful if the noble Lord could tell us the position regarding the five Area Boards for education and libraries. I wonder whether he could either remind us or inform us. As it is, I wonder why the two sets of Boards were not dealt with at one and the same time, and why it has been necessary to take two bites at this particular cherry.

Since Article 4 refers to the Constitution Act, may I refer to Section 20 of the same Act, which establishes a Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights in Northern Ireland. While congratulating the Government on the appointment of Mr. Vic. Feather as Chairman, may we be told when the other members of the Commission will be appointed and, perhaps even more importantly, when the Commission will start work and when we can expect legislation to be published dealing with discrimination in private employment in Northern Ireland? I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, will not find those questions too difficult. It will be appreciated if he is able to give replies to them. All those involved in the reorganisation of local government in Northern Ireland are to be congratulated on a smooth achievement, and we all wish to extend our best wishes to Mr. Austin Curry, who has been selected as head of the Department of Local Government and Planning in the National Executive Designate. As I have already said, my Lords, we on this side of the House do not intend to oppose the Order.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, for the good wishes he has expressed for the future of the Executive Designate in Northern Ireland and for the preliminary talks now taking place. The answer to his question on Article 3 is that nominations which were made by the county borough councils of Belfast and Londonderry will now be made—as they are, and have been, made by the counties—by the Crown Judge at Assize, and the appointment will be confirmed by the Secretary of State.

Referring to Article 4, the noble Lord has questioned why the education and libraries boards do not figure in Article 4 of this Order. The reason is because the Education and Libraries Order (Northern Ireland) 1972 provides that the education and libraries boards should be added to Schedule 1 to the Commissioner for Complaints (Northern Ireland) Act 1969. Since this section of the Order came into effect on March 20, 1973—in other words, before the Constitution Act —the boards are clearly within the scope of Clause 19 of the Constitution Act. I agree with the noble Lord that this is an important point, and I am glad that he has given me the opportunity of clarifying it.

As to the Advisory Commission on Human Rights, I would concur with the noble Lord's remarks about welcoming its most distinguished chairman, Mr. Feather. The other members of the Commission will certainly be appointed as soon as practicable, and I should like to assure the noble Lord that legislation on private employment in Northern Ireland, which was mentioned in the gracious Speech, is now being considered. With those answers, I hope that your Lordships will now approve these provisions.


My Lords, there is just one small point I should like to raise. Can the noble Lord give any idea at all when the Commission is likely to begin work?


No, my Lords; without notice I am afraid I cannot do so this evening.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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