§ 3.48 p.m.
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read for a second time. This is a simple Bill with a simple object. It aims to bring the representation of Northern Ireland in the other place into line with the representation of the rest of the United Kingdom. In doing so it follows precisely the recommendations of an all-Party Speaker's Conference. At the moment Northern Ireland has 12 Members of Parliament, each of whom represents on average 86,000 electors. The comparable average for Scottish MPs is 54,000; for Welsh MPs it is 57,000; and for English MPs 66,000.
This under-representation of Northern Ireland at Westminster has existed since 1920. At that time Northern Ireland was the only part of the United Kingdom which had a devolved Government. And the existence of a local Parliament at Stormont, which could debate and legislate on a wide range of matters, led to a widespread acceptance that Northern Ireland's representation at Westminster should be at a lower level than that of England, Scotland and Wales, all of whose affairs were dealt with by Westminster. But circumstances have changed since 1920; among other 1409 things, the importance of central Government has greatly increased. It was against the background of an increased awareness of the need for adequate representation at Westminster that consideration was given last year to the question of what should happen to the representation of Scotland and Wales after the creation of devolved Assemblies there. In considering an Amendment to the Scotland and Wales Bill in February 1977, the other place rejected any reduction in Scottish or Welsh representation after devolution. And in passing the Scotland Act and Wales Act last Session, Parliament endorsed that view. That February vote had immediate repercussions for Northern Ireland. If Scotland and Wales deserved full representation even after devolution, how was it possible any longer to justify Northern Ireland continuing to have a deliberately reduced level of representation?
The Government decided that this could not be justified. In March 1977 my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced that he would ask a Speaker's Conference to consider Northern Ireland's representation. In the early summer of 1977 Mr. Speaker agreed to preside over this Conference. Its members included representatives of all three main Parties of both political traditions in Northern Ireland. Its terms of reference wereto consider, and make recommendations on, the number of parliamentary constituencies that there should be in Northern Ireland".The Conference met eight times, heard oral evidence and considered written submissions. With one vote against, the Conference recommended:That the number of parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland should be seventeen but that the Boundary Commission should be given the power to vary that number, subject to a minimum of sixteen and a maximum of eighteen".This Bill will implement that recommendation. The Bill sets the target figure for Northern Ireland's representation at 17. But it allows for this to be varied to 16 or 18 if the Boundary Commission so recommends. That ability to vary is not expected to be used at first, but it may prove useful in later years to help the Commission cope with population movement in particular areas. The other Boundary Commissions already have some flexibility. The Bill also includes some 1410 additional minor provisions, all of which are consequential on the increase in the number of seats. When this Bill becomes law, there will not be an immediate increase in Northern Ireland's representation. That must wait first on the recommendations of the independent Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland which will have the job of dividing Norrhern Ireland up into the larger number of new constituencies. In due course—after perhaps two years, giving time for objections to be made and considered—the Commission will report to the Secretary of State. It will then be for Parliament to approve a draft Order in Council, giving effect to the Commission's recommendations.
That is almost all that I want to say about the Bill. But I should like to say a brief word about the criticisms that have been made of the Government's decision to introduce it. There is by now almost nothing new to say about the claim that the Bill is aimed at securing Unionist votes in the other place. Those who believe this, despite the strong denials of my right honourable friends—and of the leaders of the Official Unionists—are unlikely to be convinced by anything I might say. I shall say only that any examination of the Unionists'voting record scarcely bears out the view that this Bill has transformed them into Government supporters. A perhaps more understandable criticism of the Bill comes from those who fear that it will lead (and perhaps that it was intended to lead) to a closer integration of Northern Ireland with Great Britain. There is, in fact, no reason at all for concern on that score. The Government's decision to introduce this Bill in no way lessens our determination to work towards the creation of a system of devolved government in Northern Ireland that is acceptable to both parts of the community there. Full representation of Scotland and Wales in the other place has not prevented major constitutional changes being made for those two parts of the United Kingdom. It will not prevent such changes in Northern Ireland. There is no reason at all why fair representation in Parliament should stand in the way of political progress in Northern Ireland. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Melchett.)1411
§ 3.55 p.m.
§ Lord BELSTEAD
My Lords, during 1977 and early 1978 Mr. Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law considered the number of parliamentary constituencies for Northern Ireland, and the evidence which the Conference discovered provides a compelling case for the passage of this Bill. In his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has given the figures for the different electoral quotas according to which part of the United Kingdom one refers. The disparity in representation shown by these figures—incidentally, the noble Lord's figures have been updated since the Conference reported—persuaded the members of the Conference to agree, by 22 votes to one, that Northern Ireland's parliamentary seats should be increased from 12 to a number, which the noble Lord explained in a little detail, that was not less than 16 and not more than 18. That recommendation is provided for in Clause 1 of the Bill.
I should like to make one observation on this. I believe that this new total will, as nearly as possible, give Northern Ireland similar representation to that for the other parts of the United Kingdom, and that is only fair. When it is considered, from the figures given to us by the noble Lord, that on average each Northern Ireland Member of Parliament represents some 20,000 more electors than each Member for an English constituency and on average over 30,000 more electors than are represented by each Scottish Member, one can see the measure of the workload which falls upon Northern Ireland Members of Parliament, and that is the extent of the under-representation of most of the electors of Northern Ireland.
In essence, that is the case for the Bill which the Government have explained to us this afternoon in greater detail. I welcome the fact that if this legislation becomes law, it will also create far more workable terms of reference for the Northern Ireland Boundary Commission. Rule 1 for the Redistribution of Seats, as set out in Schedule 2 to the 1949 Act, provides that whereas the total number of constituencies for Great Britain can be altered either upwards or downwards, within reason, and for Scotland and Wales the number of seats can be increased, the total for Northern Ireland has been fixed at 12 exactly. Therefore, as over the 1412 years the size of the electorate in the Province has increased—and since 1949 the increase in the quota for Northern Ireland has been greater than that in any other part of the United Kingdom—so Rule 1 has increasingly deprived the Boundary Commission of almost any flexibility in being able to redraw the constituency boundaries.
Therefore, the increase provided for in the Bill will enable the requirement of Rule 5 to be met. Rule 5 states that constituencies should be as near to the electoral quota as is practicable. However, there is one important question which I should like to ask the Minister. Can the noble Lord confirm that in discharging its responsibility under Rule 5, the Boundary Commission will have regard to Rule 6?— which provides for special geographical conditions to be taken into account. I ask that question because if one looks at Rule 6 one sees that it is a permissive rule. Rule 6 is obviously of special relevance in this context because Northern Ireland has large rural areas where the population is thin compared to some of the densely-populated areas in the United Kingdom. Of course, the noble Lord will know better than I that the population in the West of the Province is of a different nature from that of the density of the population in the East. It needs to be said clearly that Rule 6 will be taken into account by the Northern Ireland Boundary Commission.
I join with the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, in saying that I can find nothing in the Bill which need prevent or discourage any devolution of government to Northern Ireland in the future. The Royal Commission on the Constitution, under the chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Kilbrandon, recommended that all parts of the United Kingdom should have their parliamentary representation decided by the same rules. Your Lordships may remember that it concluded that the number of Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland should be about 17.
If I may just turn aside for a moment and conjecture as to what conclusion a Speaker's Conference on Scottish representation in the future might reach, then my conclusion is that it would reach none. Certainly Parliament has accepted the view put forward by your Lordships' 1413 House during the Scotland Bill that some second thought is necessary when English legislation is to be passed by virtue of the votes of Scottish Members of Parliament, who are over-represented anyway in another place. But none of that has any bearing at all upon the Northern Ireland situation, for in Northern Ireland the Province is substantially under-represented, and of course there are no devolved powers at issue at the moment so far as Northern Ireland is concerned—I think to the regret of all parts of your Lordships' House.
I join with the noble Lord again in saying that I do not find anything in this Bill to persuade me that this legislation would in some way integrate Northern Ireland more closely with Great Britain. After all the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom has been confirmed in legislation on two occasions by Governments of the Conservative Party and the Labour Party since the war. The case for this Bill is not involved therefore, I believe, in any arguments either for devolution or integration. Equality of parliamentary representation rests upon its merits. Maybe noble Lords will not agree with me in this, but nor do I think that it is practicable for a fundamental change to be made in this Bill so far as the method of voting is concerned. Of course it is true that the single transferable vote method of voting is in use in Northern Ireland for local government, was used for the Northern Ireland Assembly and is to be used for the European Assembly elections. But it was possible for proportional representation to be used for local government and the Assembly elections without any need to compare the way in which people were voting in Northern Ireland with the way in which people would be voting in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Whereas the European Assembly Members in Northern Ireland, I admit, will be elected on a different system from those in Great Britain, but for the same Assembly, that, as I understand it, is almost certainly only going to be a transitory arrangement. Incidentally, it is an arrangement of which I and many of my colleagues on these Benches would not approve. However, to depart from a uniform system of voting for all parts of the United Kingdom at a General 1414 Election would be an innovation demanding consultation and, if possible, agreement between the political Parties.
The whole strength, as I understand it, of a Speaker's Conference is that when possible such a Conference is set up with agreement. There was that agreement between the main political Parties to the setting up of the Conference in another place. At the conclusion of its work the Conference was also almost unanimous in agreeing on the number of constituencies that should be redistributed in Northern Ireland. But Mr. Speaker's Conference did not consider the method of voting, and consequently the Long Title of this Bill is concerned only with the number of Northern Ireland constituencies.
It is not possible—it is clear from what the noble Lord said from the Government Front Bench—to forecast how long the Boundary Commission will need to complete its work. All we know is that the provisions of this Bill are justified and are overdue. On this side of the House, we shall give our support so that this Bill can be passed into law as swiftly as possible.
§ 4.4 p.m.
§ Lord HAMPTON
My Lords, since the Education (Northern Ireland) Bill was first given a Second Reading in your Lordships' House in June 1977 there has been a real sense of accord between the three main Parties in discussions about Northern Ireland. This has been most welcome, but I fear that there is a distinct difference of opinion over this Bill today. I look forward to hearing the Alliance Party's views from my noble friend Lord Dunleath, and also the views of other noble Lords from the Province and from the Republic.
The history of Ulster has not been happy, I need hardly tell you this. The Liberal Party agree that it would be disastrous to bow to the "Brits out" call by threatening to withdraw our troops in a hurry. Westminster has all too often shown a tragic lack of concern for the problems of Ireland, and it would be to follow a counsel of despair and supposed self-interest if we were abruptly to withdraw and leave a divided populace, 1415 literally perhaps to fight the matter out in a bloody civil war. Tensions have built up over a long time and they cannot be resolved overnight. We must help the people of Northern Ireland to work for a happier future. We must not deny them reasonable help. We, too, do not forget that in the long run we want to make it possible for Northern Ireland again to be self-governing, and we want it to take its place alongside the regions and nations of a federal Europe.
As for the Bill we are considering today, the Liberal position is virtually unchanged from when we gave evidence on the subject to the Speaker's Conference in October 1977. First, we then argued and agreed that Ulster was clearly under-represented at Westminster, and simple arithmetic suggested that an increase of four extra Members would be almost exactly right. The present probability of an increase by five we have no intention of opposing, but we take this opportunity to remind the Government that the task of a Boundary Commission, seeking to change the representation in single-Member constituencies, would be much harder than in multi-Member constituencies.
The precise location of boundary in single-Member constituencies can sometimes swing the vote between one Party and another, while the location of boundaries for a multi-Member constituency, whose Members are elected by proportional representation (PR), does not in itself govern the Party proportion of seats. For this reason, agreeing boundaries is made much easier. We should like to see four multi-Member constituencies rather than 17. I hope that your Lordships will at least agree with me that it should be much easier to divide the present 12 by four rather than by 17.
We stated, secondly, in 1977 our firm belief that common fairness demanded not only that there should be more Members for Northern Ireland at Westminster but that these Members should be elected by the method of proportional representation known as the single transferable vote. And here, I fear, I must cross swords with the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, when I submit that the Government have not been playing altogether fair; but I shall of course listen with great 1416 interest to what the noble Lord the Minister has to say when he winds up at the end of the debate.
I have two points. First, the imposition of direct rule in 1972 caused renewed demands for more seats, but these demands were regularly resisted by Governments of both Parties until March 1977. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has commented that some people have suggested that this is a policy of convenience. I will not put that point. Secondly, the Irish Times of 10th October 1978 said this:The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Mason, has promised the SDLP that he will seriously consider the possibilities of introducing PR for Northern Ireland in future Westminster elections. Such a move, if it did come about, should enhance the chances of non-Unionist Parties winning seats".The article continues:Mr. Mason gave his assurance at a private dinner party with the SDLP's six top officials at Stormont Castle … according to reliable sources in Belfast. His guests, especially past chairman Mr. Denis Haughey, put up a spirited case for changing the present straight vote system to PR.The Secretary of State listened to their arguments, then while stressing that he could not promise anything, gave an undertaking to study the proposal seriously".I might add that it seems extraordinary, or odd, to say the least, that this Bill was drafted in such a fashion that there was no way in which the other place could introduce what the Secretary of State had said he would consider so seriously.
In the Second Reading debate of 28th November last year in the other place, the Secretary of State said at column 243:It is right that Northern Ireland should now have its fair representation".He meant only, it seems, the proportion of MPs to electorate, for later he said at column 246:It do not think that this is the time to discuss proportional representation, which is a major constitutional issue deserving of quite separate consideration".The number of seats is to be increased by nearly 50 per cent., which is a very large change, and such a large change in the electoral conditions makes a very suitable occasion for a change here also.
I therefore hope the Minister will say what occasion—I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, is not on our side—the Government think would be 1417 appropriate for discussing PR for Members for Northern Ireland at Westminster. When a Statement on Northern Ireland representation at Westminster was briefly debated in your Lordships' House on 19th April 1978 the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, made it clear that the Government viewpoint was—that it would not be desirable to have elections to another place in some parts of the United Kingdom held 0:1 one basis and in other parts held on a different basis".—[Official Report, col. 1174.]I submit that if the question is looked at from the point of view of Northern Ireland, the logical deduction might well be different. After all, elections by PR (Lord Belstead mentioned this, too) have been held over there in all these cases: for university MPs from 1921 to 1965; for the Assembly in 1973; for the Constitutional Convention in 1975; and for local councils in 1973 and 1977. The elections in Northern Ireland to the European Assembly this year, as has been said, are also to be held by PR. Thus, the only important elections in Northern Ireland which are not by proportional representation are the elections to Westminster. It can be added that in Great Britain, anyway, the elections for certain university seats at Westminster from 1918 to 1945 were also by PR, and it seems that that has worked extremely well.
To sum up on this point, Northern Ireland will have had elections by PR—by the single transferable vote—in 1973, 1975, 1977 and 1979 and it will be the elections to Westminster by X-voting that will be the exception rather than the rule. Further, it is difficult to see how the Government justify a supposed mandate here based on 38 per cent. of the votes cast or 29 per cent. of the electorate. As Miss Enid Lakeman, that expert on How Democracies Vote, wrote on the February 1974 election:The result of that election might have been designed to illustrate all the anomalies of the single member first-past-the-post system and to demonstrate that it cannot be relied upon to fulfil any of the purposes for which an election might be designed".We are concerned in this debate with Northern Ireland. What some noble Lords may not realise is that in February 1974—and the October election was only marginally fairer—the United Ulster Unionist Coalition, the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party and the Democratic 1418 Unionist Party had a bare majority of 51.1 per cent. of the votes cast but won 11 out of 12 seats; that is, 92 per cent. Mr. Brian Faulkner's pro-Assembly Unionists won 13.1 per cent. of the votes but won no representation at all. I believe it is perhaps even more vital in Ulster than anywhere else that justice should not only be done but be seen to be done.
A final comment. The British electoral system is often defended on the grounds that although admittedly unfair—based on simple arithmetic—none the less it leads to strong and stable government. I would, with respect, ask your Lordships to consider that view very seriously in the light of our present national predicament.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord BLEASE
My Lords, in the political context of Northern Ireland, I believe the arguments for and against the Bill have been much exaggerated. Apart from the considerable coverage in the media, especially the media in Ireland, the Second Reading and Committee debates in another place were contained in over 292 columns of Hansard. However, it is perhaps important to remember that in Northern Ireland every matter of proposed political change can take on an incredible symbolic significance, and it is perhaps that symbolic significance that I should be dealing with more than the context of the Bill.
It is my view that the Bill itself will not form a basis for reconciliation and any significant progress in Northern Ireland; nor will it place any great obstacle in the way of such reconciliation and political progress. Nevertheless, it would be naive not to recognise that the Bill is a clear and unambiguous expression of the commitment of the United Kingdom Government to uphold the constitutional status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. As such, it is natural that the Bill should be looked on with dismay by those who feel that the logic of events in Northern Ireland over the past 10 years might have suggested that, with direct rule and the formal recognition of the Irish dimension, those were steps towards disengagement rather than what now appears to be the case; namely, a closer integration of the Province within the United Kingdom.
1419 Successive Governments and Secretaries of State have committed themselves to the view that any pattern of government in Northern Ireland must be acceptable both to the Parliament of the United Kingdom and to both sections of the community in Northern Ireland; and, since Northern Ireland shares a common border with the Irish Republic, a commitment to the view that there is an Irish dimension must also be taken into account. In the Labour Party's last Election Manifesto, in October 1974, it was stated:There must be some form of power-sharing and partnership, because no political system will be secure, or be supported, unless there is widespread acceptance of it within the community. There must be a genuine participation by both communities in the direction of affairs".Moreover, that Manifesto contained no reference to increased Northern Ireland representation at Westminster. It will be noted, however, that the demand for more seats for Ulster at Westminster came earlier in 1974; it came from a conference held at Portrush, County Antrim, on 26th April 1974. That conference was comprised of delegates from the three Ulster loyalist Parties—the official Unionists, the DUP and the VUPP—together with representatives from the two Protestant para-military bodies, the Ulster Vanguard Force and the Ulster Defence Association.
As well as the demand for additional seats, that conference also called for the abolition of the power-sharing Executive, an end to the idea of a Council of Ireland, and for the re-establishment of a regional parliament. Two of those objectives were achieved a month later, in May 1974, despite the fact that power-sharing and the cross-border dialogue were supported by every Party in the United Kingdom Parliament and in the Republic of Ireland.
With the granting of the extra seats at Westminster and with the talk by Opposition spokesmen of local government powers being devolved to a regional council, it is not at all surprising that some people of goodwill suspect that what is afoot is nothing less than a return to the past and a complete retreat from the principles of reconciliation and the building of non-sectarian political structures in Northern Ireland. I wish to say firmly that I do not share those views, for while I believe there are many in Northern Ireland, perhaps too many, 1420 who have learned nothing from the 10 years of civil strife and suffering—and who have perhaps forgotten nothing, either—I am convinced there is now a substantial body in the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Parties at Westminster who will not allow either community in Northern Ireland to be abandoned by institutionalising the permanent ascendancy or dominance by one community over the other in Northern Ireland.
Nevertheless, the issue does not turn on the "original sin" of some of the Bill's supporters; nor should it be considered in the context of a possible recurrence of the 1964 election result, when, (as has been suggested in another place) had an additional five Ulter Unionist seats been available, they could have secured the return of Sir Alec Douglas-Home as Prime Minister. The pages of history might have been different; today we share and benefit from the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Home of the Hirsel, in this House. So, while some may speculate and some may postulate about what might have been in the past, and what may be in the future, I should prefer to accept the position expressed by the late Archbishop of Ireland, Cardinal William Conway, when in a similar political situation he advised:Let us take the action that in conscience appears fair and just, and leave the rest to history".Indeed, the issue is a simple one. It is simple once we accept the pledge given on behalf of the United Kingdom Government by Clement Attlee in the 1948 Government of Northern Ireland Act. The pledge was that the people of Northern Ireland would not be coerced out of the United Kingdom against the wishes of the majority. That pledge has been reiterated by successive United Kingdom Governments. It has also been accepted by the Governments of the Irish Republic, and by the Northern Ireland Social Democratic and Labour Party.
The issue is also simple when we reflect that, in the so-termed "border poll" held in Northern Ireland in 1973, 591,820 electors in Ulster voted to remain citizens of the United Kingdom, and only 6,463 voted to join the Irish Republic out of an electorate of 1 million. So long as the right is accepted that Northern Ireland remains within the United Kingdom, it is 1421 entirely consistent that a Labour Government should accept Northern Ireland's entitlement to an equitable share of seats.
I know that there are some doubts cast on the integrity of the Government, and indeed on the Speaker's Conference Report in regard to this matter. However, I would argue that once the Kil-brandon Constitutional Commission—and indeed Parliament itself, in February 1977—accepted that the principle of devolution does not justify under-representation, there is no way, in logic or in principle, in which the Government could resist the demand for greater representation. As well as this, had the Government refused to act on the additional seats issue, there would be little hope of preserving the bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland matters, since the Conservative Party is already committed to the proposal for additional representation.
In another place, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State has already declared that, with the increasing role of central Government, the people of Northern Ireland are no less entitled to a say in the decisions of the sovereign Parliament. This point has already been made this afternoon by the Minister from the Front Bench. There is also the fact that constituents should have greater access to more representation; each MP having an easier work load in terms of numbers.
Arising from doubts expressed concerning the possible impartiality of the Boundary Commission, I welcome, and wish to draw attention to, a reply by the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Concannon. He said,It is up to the Boundary Commission to make recommendations and to hear appeals, but it will be Parliament that will have the final say on the boundaries for the new seats".This point, too, was referred to by the Minister in introducing the debate.
I agree with a point made by many of those who spoke when the Bill was debated in another place. The point is that we cannot consider Westminster representation in isolation from all the other aspects of the Northern Ireland problem. I am indeed sorry that the Government were unable to realise the expressed hope of the previous Northern Ireland Secretary of State that this additional seats proposal would be considered along with the proposal for a wider acceptable form of. local administration.
1422 Indeed, while it may not be the fault of the present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that these two issues—additional seats and devolved government—have been divorced, in parliamentary discussion terms, it is unfortunately being interpreted as a victory for the very people who are unwilling to support the kind of local administration which would meet the approval of this Parliament. Nevertheless, I believe that, paradoxically, the Bill should now make it more difficult for those politicians who are opposed to participation by the minority in Government and to the recognition of the Irish dimension. It will make it more difficult for them to do as they did in 1974 and persuade large sections of the Northern Ireland population that partnership government and some form of a Council of Ireland are part of a plot to submerge the majority, against their wish, into an all-Ireland Republic.
The measures in the Bill take nothing away from any section of the Northern Ireland community. What the Bill can do is to provide a basis for confidence and trust for those of the majority community whose fears have been exploited in the past—exploited by those who, for narrow Party political gain, wish to destroy any attempts at reconciliation, the fostering of goodwill within Northern Ireland, and the promotion of genuine cross-border co-operation.
Increased representation firmly underpins the guarantees which have been given to the Northern Ireland people. It demonstrates that there is no ambiguity on the part of any political party at Westminster. It resolutely confirms the position of the United Kingdom Parliament concerning the men of violence: that their methods are without hope, and that the bomb, the bullet, and intimidation cannot succeed in creating progressive change of policy on the part of the United Kingdom Government. I believe that this position is also shared by the Government of the Irish Republic.
It appears to me that the time may now be opportune to achieve agreement between the main political Parties in Northern Ireland. I realise that hitherto the SDLP has opposed more representation at Westminster. The Unionist Parties have opposed partnership government and cross-border co-operation.
1423 I believe that the relevance, or irrelevance, of the Bill will be judged in years to come by its effect on the two basic issues now facing those who represent the people of Northern Ireland. The first is that, now that the representation of Northern Ireland is to be enhanced at Westminster, will the Unionists now move some way towards guaranteeing the form of participation in local administration to allay the fears of the minority, and thus obtain devolution from Westminster?
The same position can apply to the second issue; namely, cross-border cooperation, or the Irish dimension. There is no doubt that from 1969 to 1974 many peace-loving people in Northern Ireland were genuinely afraid that a United Kingdom Government—probably a Labour Government—would declare their intention to reunite Ireland by abandoning Northern Ireland.
The fact that a Labour Government have conceded the case for additional seats at Westminster demonstrates that the Ulster people have nothing to fear, and much to gain, from more direct and designed cross-border co-operation. It is quite farcical that in June this year Ireland will be sending representatives from Northern Ireland and from the Irish Republic to meet on the Continent of Europe, and yet if they met in Belfast or in Dublin, to consult on matters of mutual benefit, some politicians could be calling for sections of workers to disrupt industry and public services, or possibly for even harsher forms of action.
In terms of cold logic, the Bill does little to hinder or promote political solutions to the Northern Ireland problem. In terms of the symbolism which is so potent a force in Irish politics, it may be represented as a victory for the majority, and consequently a defeat for the minority. But let us direct this force into something more positive. The controversy and discussion arising out of the Bill could provide a new opportunity to proceed earnestly to achieve a normal, healthy society.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Roy Mason, in a speech on 2nd January last, said:Devolution is there, and ready to be graspedIs it too much to hope that Her Majesty's 1424 Government will achieve a generous and statesmanlike response in the negotiations with the Northern Ireland MPs, some of whom have in the past so blatantly misrepresented the Government's intentions with regard to partnership government in Northern Ireland, cross-border co-operation, and the additional Westminster seats for Northern Ireland? Let us hope that our Northern Ireland political leaders will themselves make progress towards solving our own Northern Ireland problems in a spirit of fairness, justice and honourable politics.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Lord O'NEILL of the MAINE
My Lords, first of all I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Blease, on having joined us in this House. Unfortunately I was not able to be here when he made his maiden speech, so perhaps I might, instead, congratulate him on his speech and on his presence, and to congratulate the Government on being wise enough to ensure that what I might describe as the working voice of Belfast should be heard in your Lordships' Chamber. Secondly, I should like to say to the Minister that, owing to a previous engagement, I may not be able to be here when he winds up the debate.
My Lords, I shall confine my remarks largely to the question of proportional representation, and first, if I may, I will do so on a national basis. I have to declare an interest. I have for some time now been a member of CAER, which, for those of your Lordships who do not know, stands for Conservative Action for Electoral Reform. I am also a member of the National Committee for Electoral Reform. Incidentally, both these organisations sit under a Tory Peer. Lastly, I was a member of Lord Blake's committee (which I think helped to change the climate of opinion in Britain), which sat under the aegis of the Hansard Society some three years ago; and Lord Blake, too, I would remind your Lordships, is a Tory Peer. So those who feel that proportional representation is some dangerous, new-fangled idea which nobody should consider for a minute, should bear in mind the facts. They should also bear in mind the fact that immediately after the First World War both Houses at Westminster came out in favour of proportional representation; but the sad 1425 thing is that the House of Lords and the House of Commons could not agree on the method—should it be STV, or should it be some other system?—and as a result we still have the first-past-the-post system. So much, my Lords, for national PR.
Now I should like to move on to the system in operation in Northern Ireland today. The noble Lord, Lord Hampton, mentioned the fact that both the Assembly in 1973 and the Convention in 1975 were elected under that system; and now, as your Lordships know, the new European Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland will be elected under that system. The Blake Committee actually recommended the additional-Member system, and I think probably that is a better system nationally, but as the single transferable vote is already in operation in Northern Ireland, obviously that would be the system to pursue if it was going to be pursued. Or—and I do not think this would be as good a way to do it—you could, I suppose, turn the whole Province into a multi-Member constituency; but I would not really advise that.
The facts are, my Lords, that the five extra seats—and let us assume it will be five—could all go to members of the majority community. I am not saying that they will or that they would, but they could. Why was PR insisted upon for Europe? It as largely to allow one Catholic to win one seat. Surely, under a system which would be seen to be manifestly fair, this system should at least be adopted for the additional seats, and ideally for all the Northern Ireland seats at Westminster. Let us consider for a moment the position of Scotland and Wales, because I always find, when discussing these matters with people in England, that they have no idea of the fact that one of the only ways in which the Labour Party wins an Election is with the assistance of Scotland and Wales.
It is for that reason (if not largely, anyway, for that reason) that that section of Kilbrandon was rejected as being impossible. I do not myself believe that we would be considering this Bill today if Lord Kilbrandon's suggestions with regard to a reduction in the number of Members coming to Westminster from Scotland and Wales, because of the fact that there might be Assemblies in those 1426 two countries, had been adopted. Of course, my Lords, there may be other pressing political reasons at the moment why we are considering this Bill, but I will not go into them. I will merely confine myself to expressing the hope that the Government will carefully consider PR as a fairer method of increasing the number of Northern Ireland seats.
§ 4.35 p.m.
§ Lord MONSON
My Lords, the merits of this Bill are so self-evident, and the necessity to rectify a long-standing injustice to the people of Northern Ireland so obvious, that I wondered in advance of this debate what on earth any speaker could find to say, other than to wish this Bill a swift and unhindered passage, and perhaps to express contrition to the people of Northern Ireland for having allowed this evident injustice to continue for such a long period of time.
I should have realised that the Liberals were bound to flog their proportional representation hobby-horse. I must admit that I had not realised that the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, shared these ideas. But here I can only agree with the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, that it would be quite intolerable to have different voting systems for different parts of the United Kingdom for a General Election. When I use the phrase "United Kingdom", I should like to stress the word "United". Northern Ireland is already an integral part of the United Kingdom, and has been so for very many decades, as various statutes dating back well over 50 years make clear. I think there is a confusion of definition here. When we talk about closer integration, what we really mean is closer har-monisation. Integration as such is already a reality.
When referring to the continuing injustice, I used the words "a long period of time". Had a similar Bill been brought in 18 months ago, I could not have employed that phrase because it would have been an exaggeration, as then the anomaly or the injustice (call it what you will) would have applied only for not quite 5½ years—since the abolition of the Stormont Parliament in the early spring of 1972, in other words. However, the Scottish devolution legislation last year has put an entirely different 1427 complexion on things. We all know the maxim, "No taxation without representation". Perhaps we have not appreciated its logical corollary, "Itnadequate representation deserves lower taxation".
Cynics, and those hostile to Northern Ireland—I am afraid there are all too many such people—will say that Northern Ireland receives more in benefits than it contributes by way of taxation, and that therefore lower representation is justified. But precisely the same element of subsidy applies to the North-East of England, to the greater part of Wales, to Scotland and, indeed, to other peripheral parts of the United Kingdom. Do we find below-average representation in these areas? We do not. The average electorate per Glasgow constituency is less than 44,500. In contrast, the average electorate per Belfast constituency is over 73,500. The obvious injustice is easy to see. The disparity between large rural areas in Scotland and Northern Ireland, respectively, is, I suspect, even greater.
The entirely different complexion that the Scotland Act has put on this problem stems from the evident determination of two of the three major political parties in this country to maintain Scottish over-representation in the event of a Scottish Assembly coming into being. The attitude of the third major political party is equivocal, but I doubt that one could expect swift or positive action from that quarter in the event of their coming to power. In other words, the principle has been established, for the time being, at any rate, that the existence of a devolved Parliament is no barrier to the full and, in some cases, excessive representation of a particular part of the United Kingdom at Westminster. This being so, it is clear that the injustice of under-representation for Northern Ireland has continued not just for almost seven years but for over 57 years. I welcome this Bill and I hope that it will speedily become law.
§ 4.40 p.m.
§ Lord KILBRACKEN
My Lords, it was such a pleasure to hear the Belfast accents of my noble friend Lord Blease ringing out across the Chamber; and what he said on the wide range of subjects that he covered had a great emotional appeal to me. Like him, I cannot oppose the 1428 proposal that the number of seats for Northern Ireland, so long as it remains a part of the United Kingdom, should be increased, as is proposed, from 12 to 17 or thereabouts for the reasons that have already been given. These are not based on the fact that Stormont or some devolved Government does not for the time being exist, but because when there is a devolved Government in Scotland and in Wales the electoral quota will still be less than it is in Northern Ireland, whether there is a devolved Government or not.
My one regret is that we are still left with some doubt as to the number of constituencies that there will be. This is left to the Boundaries Commission. I should have thought that it was a matter that could have been decided upon by Her Majesty's Government and the precise number put into the Bill. We already have all the relevant facts: we know the number of electors and we should be able to calculate the correct number of seats—which, in my opinion, should be 17.
But, my Lords, I find that I cannot support the Bill because I feel that there is no adequate safeguard that the minority community will be properly represented under the Bill as it stands at present. It is impossible to tell how the different Parties will be represented when the number of seats has increased. The Secretary of State in another place suggested that four or five of the 17 seats could well go to anti-Unionist Parties. If that were the case, it would still give the Unionists two extra seats in the House of Commons compared with the anti-Unionists.
Although one can only guess at the number of supporters that there are for each Party—and I know that we can completely dismiss the EEC poll of which the Secretary of State made so much in his broadcast the Sunday before last, because it was completely unrepresentative and one-third of the people taking part in it did not reply to the vote—my own opinion is that if there were at Westminster a democratic representation for Northern Ireland, there would be at least six or seven anti-Unionists; and among them I include members of the Alliance Party who are represented in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath. It seems to me that the obvious solution in a case like this—and I am glad that in this we have the powerful support of the noble Lord, 1429 Lord O'Neill of the Maine, to add to that expressed by the Liberal Party through the noble Lord, Lord Hampton—is proportional representation with the single transferable vote in one form or another, whether there are six constituencies, four constituencies or a single constituency.
My Lords, it has been pointed out over and over again that the precedents for that now exist in elections which have taken place in the past and in elections that will take place in the future, not only for the European Assembly but, we are given to understand, for any future form of devolved Government in the Six Counties. Since Parliament is, after all, omnipotent, I cannot see any reason why Amendments to such an effect cannot be put down, as was decided in another place. I will certainly say, particularly in view of the support that this proposal has had, that should the Liberal Party or noble Lords of any other Party put down Amendments to that effect, I would give them my small support.
My Lords, if proportional representation is not employed, then the whole matter is in the hands of the Boundary Commission. Although what the Boundary Commission recommends is subject to parliamentary approval, there is not really very much that we can do about it if we do not agree with what it proposes. The Boundary Commission has extremely wide powers and really very few limitations, except only that electoral quotas should be more or less equal in the 17-odd constituencies and that constituencies should not cross local government boundaries. But this is absolutely at the heart of the matter because the important question is whether the minority community and the members of the Alliance Party are adequately represented. Given the situation that exists in the North at present, and given the very few limitations placed on the Boundary Commission, I would guarantee to be able to sit down and so draw the constituencies that, on the one hand, the anti-Unionist Parties get two out of the 17 or, on the other hand, they get eight out of the 17. It is simply a matter of gerrymandering or, as it is sometimes called in Northern Ireland, through what has so often happened in that city, "Derrymandering".
§ Viscount BROOKEBOROUGH
My Lords, is the noble Lord saying in advance that the Boundary Commission, under an eminent lawyer, is in fact going to gerrymander the seats? I find that very hard to take.
§ Lord KILBRACKEN
My Lords, the noble Viscount is misrepresenting me. I did not say that the Boundary Commission is going to do that; I said that I should be quite confident that I should be able to do it. I am saying that it is possible to do it. I am saying that we do not know how the Boundary Commission is going to act. Although its chairman is Mr. Speaker—and no one for a moment would impute any partiality to him—and although the deputy chairman is a judge of the High Court, Mr. Justice Murray, and one assumes that he also is impartial, we do not know how the Commission works or how it deliberates or how it makes its decisions. The Commission has five other members. I tried to find out more about them. They are possibly all known to the noble Viscount and to noble Lords and, certainly, to the Minister. I have only discovered the names of the three assessors and the two nominees of the Secretary of State. I know nothing about them but I can certainly say that, from their names and the positions that they hold, they look much more likely to be Unionists than to be anti-Unionists.
There are so many matters that can be decided one way or the other. Are Fermanagh and South Tyrone going to remain as one constituency or are they going to be two? This is of great interest to the noble Viscount. Will Armagh be one constituency? Will it be divided into North and South Armagh, which will certainly give one seat to the anti-Unionists? It can be divided in so many different ways. Previous Boundary Commissions have not been wholly satisfactory, and certainly I would say that the support of the Unionists for this proposal and the general opposition of the SDLP would indicate that the minority community will be even less fairly represented than they are already. My Lords, in view of these uncertainties in how the subsequent elections will work out, I fear that I cannot give my support to the Bill.
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ Lord ELLENBOROUGH
My Lords, I hope that it will not be considered amiss if I, as an English Back-Bencher, say a few words on this Bill. I welcome the Bill as a step in the right direction particularly since, during the prolonged devolution debates in this House, I supported the view that, so far as possible, the four parts of the United Kingdom should have a parity of representation according to population. On the assumption that Northern Ireland will obtain 17 seats, Northern Ireland will then be virtually on the same footing as the United Kingdom as a whole; a bit better off than England, slightly worse off than Wales but considerably worse off than Scotland. Indeed, a quite respectable argument can be made to give Northern Ireland up to 20 seats so as to compare equally with Scotland, especially as Northern Ireland—unlike most of Scotland—is separated from the mainland by a stretch of water which creates obvious transport and communication problems. I do not think Northern Ireland has very much cause for great celebration on this Bill because there is no question of them obtaining these extra seats until, at any rate, around 1984.
I should like to comment on the closing remarks on Second Reading, of the Minister of State for Northern Ireland in another place, Mr. Concannon, who said that the Bill arises from the acceptance in the light of devolution proposals for Scotland and Wales that the people of Northern Ireland were under-represented at Westminster. The Bill provides for an increase in seats in Northern Ireland to the same pro rata level as that in the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland, with an average electorate of 86,000, has been grossly under-represented for many years—some may say ever since Ulster was set up in 1920, certainly ever since the abolition of Stormont. I do not see what devolution in respect of Scotland and Wales has to do with that. In any case, there is every chance, the way things are going, that the devolution proposals for Scotland and Wales will be rejected. What happens then? Is Northern Ireland going to revert to having only 12 seats? It may be that Northern Ireland will one day get its own Assembly or Parliament, and what is going to happen then?
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord. What my right honourable friend the Minister of State said in another place I said at rather greater length in introducing the Bill. The point was that once Parliament have accepted the principle that a part of the United Kingdom that might have a devolved Government in the future should nevertheless retain the same level of representation at Westminster as other parts of the United Kingdom, that fundamentally alters the position which, up to then, had been accepted by everybody so far as Northern Ireland representation is concerned.
§ Lord ELLENBOROUGH
My Lords, I accept that. My point has been that Northern Ireland has been under-represented even before devolution for Scotland and Wales was seriously thought about. My main justification for speaking is just this. I believe in the very simple premise that Members of another place should represent, no matter from where he or she comes, roughly the same number of people. This was the conclusion of the Kilbrandon Royal Commission Majority Report in 1973. I accept, of course, that there are obvious geographical arguments and other considerations which mean that it is not always possible or desirable to reach an absolutely exact mathematical quota for every constituency, or that the four parts of the United Kingdom should have absolutely equal representation according to population.
However, I cannot believe that for much longer we can continue the system which creates such an enormous imbalance between the size of various regions in the United Kingdom, particularly between England and Scotland. I think that my noble friend Lord Monson touched on that. The average size of a constituency in England is 66,400 electors and in Scotland it is 53,600 electors. If—Heaven forbid!—Assemblies in Wales and Scotland are set up, the position will be far worse. Northern Ireland in that case will have every right to feel a deep grievance even despite this Bill. It is something that England will never put up with. Within the lifetime of a Parliament something will have to be done.
One national newspaper this week described the Prime Minister as a "cynical 1433 old horse-trader". Not for nothing the word "gerrymandering" has been replaced by "Callaghmandering". I must say that "Derrymandering" is new so far as I am concerned. I could hardly believe my ears when I heard the Prime Minister's speech on Monday night in Glasgow, when he said that a Scottish Assembly would in no way impair Scottish influence at Westminster. Surely, it is just because of the dawning realisation on the part of the Scottish people that their influence and representation at Westminster would inevitably be reduced that the forces supporting the rejection of devolution are gaining ground. The Scottish people are realising that they are voting on a false prospectus.
I mention this because devolution and the setting up of Assemblies has a profound effect on Ulster. However, all I wish to say, apart from that, is that I fully support the Second Reading of this Bill which I feel puts right a gross injustice to Northern Ireland, something which should have been put right a long time ago. Northern Ireland only having 12 Members at the present time, must present an intolerable burden to them, particularly with all the troubles and conflicts there, and the sooner that there are a few more Ulster Members in another place to keep Members there better informed about what goes on in Ulster, the better. I wish this Bill a speedy passage.
§ 4.58 p.m.
My Lords, before I proceed to speak on the Bill which is the subject of this debate, perhaps your Lordships will permit me to endorse what the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, said, in expressing my pleasure at seeing the noble Lord, Lord Blease, here. I, too, was unfortunate enough to miss his maiden speech; but it was a great pleasure to hear him speak today. I think that I should be out of order in referring to the noble Lord, Lord Blease, as "my noble friend" because he is not a Member of my Party. However, if it is not a presumption, I shall say that he has been my "ignoble" friend for a good 15 years. I have been an admirer of his for very much longer than that. It is the noble Lord's personal influence and leadership which has resulted in our having a trades union movement in 1434 Northern Ireland which is second to none for reasonableness, constructiveness, fair-mindedness and absence of sectarianism or racialism of any sort. The day that the noble Lord was elevated to your Lordships' House was one of the best that Northern Ireland has had for many a year. I personally am delighted to see the noble Lord here.
The Party which I represent in your Lordships' House, the Alliance Party, of which I am Leader in this House, Chief Whip and chairman of the Back-Benchers Committee, in its submission to the Speaker's Conference in October 1977 advocated that there should be an in crease of seats in Northern Ireland from 12 to approximately 20. My demographic research unit tells me it would take about 20 to achieve parity with Scotland and Wales, although, as noble Lords have said, Scotland and Wales are perhaps over-represented by comparison with England—
§ Lord KILBRACKEN
My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to interrupt? I have done that sum and worked out that if there were 20 the electoral quota would be 51,600, so that Northern Ireland would be much more over-represented than even Scotland or Wales.
My Lords, I am grateful for that intervention. I would suggest that consideration should be given to the amending of line 10 on page 1 of the Bill so that it would read:Not greater than 20 or less than 16".That would give the Boundary Commission more latitude if they should see fit to increase the number to perhaps 19. However, I would not pursue that matter further at the moment. I might possibly consider tabling an amendment for consideration in Committee, but will respectfully wait to hear what the noble Lord on the Front Bench has to say in his winding-up speech.
The additional seats, as has already been said, would not in any way undermine the argument for a devolved Assembly or Parliament in Northern Ireland, because there is the likelihood that Scotland and Wales will receive such devolved powers in the foreseeable future; but the important thing is that with the serious economic and social problems we have in Northern 1435 Ireland, full representation really is essential in the other place. I quote, for example, this matter of the cost of energy and it was because that was in my mind that I presumed to intervene during Question Time and put a question to Her Majesty's Government about the matter of an under-sea pipeline to convey gas from the Scottish grid to Northern Ireland. This is the sort of thing which is adding burdens to the people of Northern Ireland and it is the sort of thing for which we really need full representation in another place, to make sure that a fair deal is received.
The size of the constituencies at the moment in Northern Ireland is such that I just do not know how the MPs can manage. It keeps me busy enough looking after a small local government constituency; and how they can manage, coming to Westminster once a week and trying to look after a constituency of 100,000 or so, I just do not know. Therefore, in the interests of democratic representation, I have no reservations at all about the principles of this Bill.
The Alliance Party's attitude has been entirely consistent over this, unlike the official Unionists, who advocated a reduction in Northern Ireland's representation in Europe from three seats to two, but who are advocating an increase in representation at Westminster. Then, too, the Social Democratic and Labour Party do not wish to see increased representation at Westminster but do wish to see it in the European Parliament. I am sorry to have to say that it seems that these Parties are putting their sectional interests before those of the Province as a whole.
My main point, which has been touched on very effectively by other noble Lords, is that we have consistently from the beginning advocated that elections should be carried out on proportional representation, single transferable vote. We have said we thought it would be desirable not only for Northern Ireland but that it should be done also throughout the United Kingdom. I realise that Her Majesty's Government and also, I think, Her Majesty's Opposition, are not entirely in favour of this—though I am sure they will not hesistate to correct me if I am wrong—but we do most strongly advocate this for Northern Ireland. We have been voting in local elections and in 1436 provincial elections on the single transferable vote system of proportional representation since 1973 and it has worked extremely well. There were many fears that voters would be confused and that they would put down Xs instead of 1, 2, and 3. That has happened in the odd case, but on the whole it has gone down well and I think it has worked well. Here again, with respect, I shall wait to see what the noble Lord on the Front Bench says, but I may table an Amendment for consideration in Committee. The argument can be put forward that this would mean there would be different forms of voting for the same election: there would be the first-past-the-post system in Great Britain, but STV in Northern Ireland. Well, that is the way it is going to be for the European elections, and if it is going to work for those I do not see why it should not work for Westminster as well.
My next main point is this. As I think has been admitted, inevitably there will be a quite considerable delay in the implementation of this Bill because the Boundary Commission are going to have to carry out their deliberations and then I think a period of two years was suggested as being the length of time that would have to elapse for objections and revisions to be reviewed. Therefore, I should like to make what perhaps may be considered as rather a surprising suggestion: that is, that whatever number of additional seats are initially agreed upon—whether it be 17, 18 or, as I am suggesting, 19—those seats should be granted for the next Election which has to take place before October. I would suggest that whereas the 12 existing seats should be voted for on the first-past-the-post system, the way it is at the moment—it would be too soon to change that—the additional five, six or seven seats, or whatever it may be, should be elected by proportional representation, by single transferable vote, treating the entire Province as one constituency. Therefore, any future deliberations of the Boundary Commission would not be prejudiced and it would mean that we should get our extra representation in the quickest, most efficient and most democratic manner.
In making that suggestion, I find it difficult to envisage how the Unionists could disagree with it because, after all, it would be meeting their wishes in bringing about increased representation at as early a date as possible. Similarly, I find it 1437 difficult to envisage how the Social Democratic and Labour Party could object, because we are advocating proportional representation, which they favour; and so hopefully this could be a compromise for the benefit of Northern Ireland and it would be a compromise which would be acceptable to the major political Parties, of which I count mine as being one. Again, I shall listen with interest to what the noble Lord on the Front Bench says about that. My Lords, I have thought this through pretty carefully and if there are any snags to my proposal which I have not appreciated, I should be most grateful if they could be pointed out to me and I will certainly think about it again and consult with my colleagues before deciding to take part in the Committee stage of this Bill. So I am certainly in favour of the Bill. My party backs it, and with those three possible Amendments in mind we look forward to hearing what the noble Lord on the Front Bench has to say.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Viscount BROOKEBOROUGH
My Lords, may I join with other noble Lords in saying how extremely pleased I am that the noble Lord, Lord Blease, is here, and a little later I shall have something to say about some other people who ought to be here. I approve of proportional representation in devolved legislatures. I think that the case for it is extremely good, and I am sorry that the PR system was not put into the devolution Bills for Scotland and Wales. I must remind the House that, from 1968 to this day in Northern Ireland, the Unionist people have been subjected to a continual barrage telling us that our standards are not British standards. In the space of 18 months, in the Government of Northern Ireland of which I was a Member, we passed a mass of legislation bringing in ombudsmen, and goodness knows what, until now we have more protection for minorities than any other part of the United Kingdom.
Indeed, I am very surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken, a citizen of a foreign State does not crusade for the introduction of ombudsmen, and all the other safeguards which we have in Northern Ireland, for his State of Eire. But on this question of proportional representation, we must have British standards. I know that I speak for the 1438 Unionist population, when I say that they would consider anything else an insult, a further deprivation of our British standards, so we should not consider the question of PR for Northern Ireland separately from the rest of Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, said that this Bill is of constitutional importance and that the way was laid open for the increase in seats by the passing of the Scotland Bill and the Wales Bill. I certainly wish this Bill a very speedy passage. I believe that it strengthens the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and it is seen in that light by people in Northern Ireland who support the union. It is one of the first tangible things that has come out of Parliament since the destruction of Stormont in 1972. If it took us 18 months to pass all that legislation, it is a pity that we were not facing this Bill and rendering this justice, for I consider that this Bill is giving justice to the people of Northern Ireland. It has taken from 1972 until now to reach this stage, and it will be another two years before we get fair representation. It will bring fairness back to the Mother of Parliaments.
We had the phrase Derrymandering and gerrymandering. What greater gerrymander could there be than for Glasgow to have a Member with an electorate of 20,000, and for South Antrim—and I saw the Member for South Antrim here—to have an electorate of 126,000. It is a great injustice and a total denial of civil rights, and it has taken this Parliament far too long to remedy that situation. This Bill will also ease the burden on the existing Northern Ireland Members of Parliament. After this Bill is passed, they may find it easier to go into the Lobbies with a clear conscience judging only the issues of the day, such as the future of the present Government. I hope that by speeding this Bill through we shall make it possible for them to take a more balanced view.
We have covered a fairly broad field in the debate today and I should like to follow that trend. Here, may I say what a tremendous job the Secretary of State has done, in giving confidence to people in Northern Ireland by his last television appearance, which was a magnificent performance and, certainly, a performance which was totally required. One of the problems in Northern Ireland, when you 1439 talk about reconciliation, is the question of confidence in the future of the United Kingdom. In spite of the Secretary of State's optimism, I believe we must now accept that local Ulster politicians will be unable to manufacture a system of government, of institutions, which has the acceptance of parties in Westminster, and which also has widespread acceptance and support in Northern Ireland. I am afraid that the possibility of that is very remote indeed. Every time that the Government try and fail to bring parties together to produce an acceptable solution, the parties end up further apart.
The problem in Northern Ireland is that the Government have no body, elected for that purpose, with whom they can consult and discuss, except the party caucuses; and I wonder how representative party caucuses are throughout the community. I am not referring to one party or another. But are party caucuses really representative? Therefore, we in this Parliament should take the precedents of Scotland and Wales and. after a Royal Commission or a Commission of Inquiry, enact a devolution Act which should be submitted to the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum. But it should be made absolutely clear that, if the people of Northern Ireland refuse that devolution, then there should be no further talk about it, because that would not be constructive. I believe that there should be no further discussion of devolution for 10 years, or some period such as the length of the Border poll, and then, if the people of Northern Ireland said that they accepted devolution, politicians would be freed from any tie they had to convention reports, or what have you, and they could get ahead and work it. That will take a certain amount of time.
I think that many members of the Government, certainly those in another place, do not really approve of this House but we are a bicameral Parliament, and we should remember that in dealing with the question of under-representation. Ulster has done badly in regard to Life Peers and, on the other side, we have only the noble Lord, Lord Blease. I believe that we should have experts from every field, from both sides of industry, from agriculture and from the professions, to help us with the deliberations in this House. That would vastly improve the debates 1440 and the help which people could give to the Government. We had a complicated order before us today and, certainly, I did not feel that I could contribute to any great extent on that. As well as that, we should use Parliamentary devices to try to remove a lot of the detailed work from the Floor of the House.
As I have said before, it is not realised how catastrophically bad the reorganisation of local government was in the situation in Northern Ireland, when we lost our devolved Government. If there is a hole in a road on a housing estate, it is the job of the Department of the Environment, whose Minister is a Westminster Minister, to fill in that hole, but if there is litter in the hole it is the job of the local council to deal with that litter. That may be a ridiculous example, but that is what goes on and on and, in spite of the tremendous efforts of the Northern Ireland Office, to whom I pay tribute, under the present Secretary of State, it is an unsatisfactory situation. We must recognise this and develop direct rule in order to make matters more efficient and more responsive, and to ease the burden from Ministers who are very far travelled. Having said all that, I support the Bill.
§ 5.19 p.m.
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, may I start by welcoming what, I think, was support from all noble Lords who spoke for the principle that Northern Ireland should have additional representatives in another place, although there was clearly some disagreement either with the content of the Bill or, more often, with things that were not actually in the Bill, to which I shall come in my remarks.
If I could deal with the point which has just been made by the noble Viscount regarding your Lordships' House—because again this is rather outside the scope of the Bill—I would say only that successive Governments have recognised that a number of people from Northern Ireland should receive peerages and they have come to your Lordships' House. At least two of them have spoken in the debate today. However, it would be quite wrong and impracticable to suggest that any region of the United Kingdom containing 1½ million people should have a particular quota of people who should 1441 come to your Lordships' House, regardless. Other than that, the existing system is probably the only one that is likely to be workable until we come to look at the composition of your Lordships' House on a rather wider basis and, indeed, at its future as a whole.
The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, asked me a particular question—and I am grateful to him for his support of the Bill and its contents—about Rule 6 which governs the procedures under which the Boundary Commission work. As the noble Lord pointed out, Rule 6, which covers the Commission's taking into account geographical factors, is permissive. The Bill does not change that. The Boundary Commission, therefore, may take special account of geographical considerations but they are not under an absolute obligation to do so. That is probably right, and I think that probably it should continue. In other words, the Boundary Commission, in this as in a number of other matters, have a degree of discretion and I am sure—I shall be returning to this point about the Boundary Commission—that we can rely upon them to discharge their functions very carefully and responsibly. The procedures for the publication of their proposals and for local inquiries into them, if there are objections to their proposals, will ensure that those kinds of factors are taken into account, whether the Boundary Commission themselves, in their initial work, do or not—and, as I say, I am sure that they will.
My noble friend Lord Kilbracken and the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, both raised questions about the number of seats mentioned in the Bill, although I think it is fair to say that the proposed number or 17 seats received fairly wide acceptance from the noble Lords who spoke. My noble friend asked me why we could not be completely precise about the number of seats: why should we give the Boundary Commission power to recommend? May I emphasise that the Boundary Commission simply recommend to the Secretary of State, who then has to lay an order before Parliament. It is Parliament who decides, not the Boundary Commission or the Secretary of State. However, the Bill gives to the Boundary Commission the power to work within a flexible framework of from 16 to 18, while making it clear in Clause 1(2) of the Bill 1442 that 17 is the number that they are working on. To some extent, therefore, my noble friend's point is met by Clause 1(2). The reason why some flexibility is given is that if in future there are major population movements in one part of Northern Ireland—for example, a move from one part of a city to another part of the same city—it will be possible for Boundary Commissions to alter some constituencies without altering all of them—probably by reducing, say, three constituencies to two, or by increasing one or two constituencies by one. It will be possible to organise the new constituencies without having to redraw the boundaries of all 17. As I said when I introduced the Bill, this kind of flexibility is available to the Boundary Commissions in England, Scotland, and Wales. It was recommended by the Speaker's Conference, and in the Government's view this is a sensible provision to include in the Bill.
I have touched on the fact that Clause 1 (2) makes it clear that 17 should be the number of seats that the Boundary Commission work towards. The noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, suggested that the Bill should have a much wider range of flexibility. Unless the noble Lord is suggesting that Clause 1(2) should be amended, I do not think that in practice this would make very much difference. It would simply extend the flexibility which the Boundary Commission might have in future to increase the number of seats, should population movements and other things make that desirable. However, the degree of flexibility that is already given in the Bill accords with the kind of flexibility that is available in England, Scotland and Wales, although it is not precisely the same. Therefore, the only way that the noble Lord is likely to get an increased number of seats being recommended by the Boundary Commission is if he tells the Boundary Commission to work to a different total figure. Therefore, it would not be a question of altering the range. It would be a question of altering the figure in Clause 1(2) from 17 to some other figure and still having a range of one on either side. The Government's opinion is that we should accept the near-unanimous view of Mr. Speaker's Conference on the number of seats which would be given to Northern Ireland.
My noble friend mentioned the composition of the Boundary Commission. If 1443 I heard him aright, I do not think that he had the composition quite correct. The position is that Mr. Speaker is the chairman of all four Boundary Commissions: the Boundary Commissions for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. The deputy chairman is appointed by the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, and is, as my noble friend said, Mr. Justice Murray. The other two members—and I think that this is where I may have lost my noble friend—are Mr. Ewing, who is Registrar of the New University of Ulster, who was appointed in 1973, and Mr. G. P. Duffy, a company director who was appointed in October of last year. They are the members of the Boundary Commission and, as I have already said, I am sure that they will carry out their duties with the utmost consideration for the rules which are laid down for them to do so and without any hint of bias or any other kind of thing which my noble friend suggested that he might be capable of but which I can assure my noble friend the Boundary Commission will not be capable of.
§ Lord KILBRACKEN
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for those remarks, but for the information of the House could he explain what are the functions of the three assessors, Mr. Kerr, Mr. Farr and Mr. Boston.
§ Lord MELCHETT
Yes, my Lords. The assessors are there simply to give expert advice to the Commission on particular points. I am not sure which assessors represent which particular expertise, but they are there to give expert advice on particular aspects of the Commission's work. They are not members of the Commission and they do not have any say in the deliberations and conclusions which the Commission reach.
The noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, suggested an ingenious way of circumventing—if that is a fair word—the length of time which I think he rightly recognised the Boundary Commission will take to do their work. He asked whether anybody could see any snags in what he suggested was an efficient procedure. Of course, the main argument against the use of proportional representation in Northern Ireland for elections to the House of Commons is that it would be wrong to 1444 use different methods of election for people coming to the House of Commons from different parts of the United Kingdom. If there is any weight at all in that argument—and the Government see considerable weight in it—surely it must be even more forceful an argument when applied to one region of the United Kingdom where, under the noble Lord's suggestion, one would have 12 Members of another place elected by one method, and five by another. I confess that I do not think that this would be likely to be simple, easily understood, efficient or without snags, were we to attempt to introduce it sometime between now and next October when the General Election, as noble Lords know, is likely to take place.
My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that there is going to be a different form of election in Northern Ireland for the European Parliament from that which is going to be effective in the rest of the United Kingdom? Would not the noble Lord agree that, whereas local authority elections in Northern Ireland have been held under the proportional representation system, Westminster Elections have been held under the first-past-the-post system, and in the event this has not resulted in a great deal of confusion? Perhaps the people of Northern Ireland are not quite so stupid as the noble Lord suggests.
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, I was not aware that I suggested, nor would I dream of doing so, that the people of Northern Ireland are stupid and I hope that the noble Lord will not attempt to put such unworthy and unlikely words into my mouth. Certainly I agree, as the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, reminded us, that the European Elections are being held under a number of different systems in different countries of the EEC for the first time when elections to the European Parliament take place, but the clear intention is that this should be an interim stage and that a common method of election should be laid down for all people elected to the European Parliament, as I understand it, in subsequent elections. So I do not think that this is a particularly good analogy. Certainly it is true that different methods of election have been used in different elections in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord has suggested 1445 to your Lordships that different methods of election should be used in the same election: electing people to the same place.
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, No. The noble Lord says "to Europe", but he was speaking about elections to another place and was suggesting that there should be two different methods of electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons from Northern Ireland in the same election. So far as I am aware, that has not been tried before anywhere in the world, and I think that it might prove to be complicated, however intelligent the people of Northern Ireland may be.
§ Lord HAMPTON
My Lords, may I just say, as I said earlier, that university members have been elected before to Westminster by a different method of voting and it worked very satisfactorily.
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, I confess that, coming from a Party as dedicated as I know the noble Lord's party is to the principles of democracy, the use of university seats, which I had imagined the noble Lord, along with members of my own party, would not have looked on all that kindly as an example of the way of securing democratic representation in this country, I have found that analogy a difficult one to follow. It may be that the noble Lord sees some advantages in the existence of university seats which escaped, as I understood it, many of his colleagues up till now; but I confess that I do not think that they provide a very sound basis on which to give Northern Ireland adequate democratic representation in another place.
§ Lord BANKS
My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would not agree that there is a great deal of difference between the question as to whether the universities were entitled to representation and the question as to whether the particular system used worked satisfactorily, because it was the latter point that my noble friend was making.
§ Lord MELCHETT
Yes, my Lords, I follow that, but I was trying to make the 1446 point, as kindly as I could, that at the time when there were separate methods of election for university representatives and another method of election for representatives of the rest of the community, I do not think that those of us who believe in democracy thought that was a satisfactory system. As I understand it, that is why those seats were abolished—and a very good thing, too. I do not think it would be wise to start introducing that sort of complication and lack of democracy into Northern Ireland. It is clear that as the Bill proceeds we shall have the opportunity to discuss the issue of proportional representation for all the seats, which is a separate issue. As I have said, the Bill implements the recommendations—and only implements the recommendations of an all-party Speaker's Conference; and the terms of reference agreed by the major parties when the Speaker's Conference was set up did not include the method of election, but simply included the number of constituencies for Northern Ireland. That is why the method of election is not considered at all by the Bill, and I think there are strong arguments for suggesting that it would not be right to consider different methods of election to another place.
Perhaps I may now turn to the question which a number of noble Lords have raised, about who the extra seats are likely to go to. If I may say so, it is quite impracticable to speculate on this simply because past experience in Northern Ireland shows that very often this depends on the existence, or lack, of pacts between different parties representing the minority community and different Unionist parties. That has been a much more fundamental factor in some seats in recent elections than has the relative balance betwen those communities in the particular constituency. However, it is clear, looking at the existing constituencies and their boundaries in Northern Ireland, that, if there are 17 seats, the electoral quota, which will have to be as close as possible for all those seats, will be just over 60,000. Thus, for example, Londonderry with an electorate of some 95,000 will be affected just as, for example, will North Down with an electorate at the moment of 99,000. I would, therefore, expect to find that the number of both Unionist and non-Unionist Members in another place will increase if this Bill becomes law.
1447 I should like to join, rather late in my speech, with other noble Lords who have welcomed my noble friend Lord Blease to your Lordships' House. I have not had an opportunity of doing so before today. I do not think I could possibly add to the tributes which were paid to him by other noble Lords, and particularly by the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine. If I may say so, I strongly agree with one thing that my noble friend said. This Bill is not, and does not pretend to be, taking a step towards reconciliation in Northern Ireland but, as my noble friend said, it is not taking a step away from that, either. It is clear that the system of government in Northern Ireland should be a devolved Government. It should be one which is acceptable to Parliament and acceptable to both communities in Northern Ireland. As I said in introducing the Bill, there is nothing in giving Northern Ireland a fair number of representatives in another place which prevents our introducing a system of devolved government in Northern Ireland, and the fact that Scotland and Wales now have the opportunity for devolved Government I should have thought would make that perfectly clear.
If I may finish on a slightly acrimonious note, for which I apologise, and particularly as the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, as he said in his speech, is not able to be here. He, and, I think, the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, referred in their speeches to the fact that there might be some other reason for introducing the Bill now than the one I gave in my opening speech. The noble Lord, Lord O'Neill, referred to "other pressing political reasons." As I made clear, and I should like to repeat, the reason that the Bill and the reference to a Speaker's Conference became a necessity was the decision by Parliament that Scotland and Wales should maintain their existing representation even if they had devolved governments. It is the policy of all major parties in your Lordships' House that Northern Ireland should have devolved government.
In the past it has been accepted widely that with a devolved government Northern Ireland needed less representation at Westminster, but that view clearly became quite untenable once Parliament made the decision about the level of representation in another place of Scotland and Wales. 1448 That is why the Government referred the question to a Speaker's Conference and that is why this Bill is now before your Lordships' House. There have been no deals, no pacts and no other pressing political reasons of any sort, and if anyone wants confirmation of that, as I said in opening this debate, they have only to look at the Unionists' voting record in another place.
§ Viscount BROOKEBOROUGH
My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? I do not think that I abused the Government. What I said was that it would ease the conscience of the Unionist Members in another place so as to enable them to vote clearly on the issue at stake and not on any issue of delaying the defeat of the Government.
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, I hope I may come to the end of my remarks. I do not think that the Unionist Members in another place, if one takes them as a whole, have shown a particularly consistent record of voting together on any particular issue. Whether or not this Bill will help them in that, I do not know, but I doubt whether it will make them any more opposed to the Government than clearly they are already.
§ Lord KILBRACKEN
My Lords, may I return for a moment to the question of the Boundary Commission? When the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, interrupted me I had not got the Act in my hands, as I have now, and I find that according to Schedule 1 to the Redistribution of Seats Act 1949:The Commission of Northern Ireland shall consist of the Chairman, Mr. Speaker, the Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages,"—which is Mr. Kerr—the Commissioner of Valuation for Northern Ireland"—which is Mr. Farr. A later Act of 1958 included a judge of the High Court. So that these are members of the Commission as well as those officers which the noble Lord mentioned.
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, I have given my noble friend the information that I have as affected by the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Acts 1949 and 1958. As I said, there is a deputy chairman, Mr. Justice Murray, and two members of the Commission. So far as 1449 I know, that information is absolutely accurate, but if I find anything to the contrary I will let my noble friend know.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.