HL Deb 05 February 1985 vol 459 cc1005-14

7.45 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Lyell)

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft District Electoral Areas (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which was laid before the House on 19th December last year, be approved.

This order, if it were to be approved, will give effect without modification to the recommendations of the District Electoral Areas Commissioner for the grouping together of local government wards in Northern Ireland into district electoral areas. These recommendations are contained in the report which the Commissioner, Sir Frank Harrison, presented to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State on 27th November, and which he in turn laid before Parliament on 5th December. Before describing the provisions of the draft order itself, it may be helpful to noble Lords if I first remind the House of the background to our deliberations this evening.

As your Lordships will be aware, local government elections in Northern Ireland take place under a system of proportional representation, with each elector casting one transferable vote in a multimember constituency. The constituencies used for this purpose are called district electoral areas, and each is composed of a number of local government wards: each electoral area returning a number of councillors equal to the number of wards it contains. At present, the composition of the district electoral areas remains as set down in 1973, originally under the provisions of the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Order 1972.

The first stage in the necessary process of revising the basis of the electoral areas was the recent work of the local government boundaries commissioner. A major part of his task was to review the number, boundaries and names of the electoral wards into which each of Northern Ireland's 26 local government districts is divided. The Boundary Commissioner's final recommendations were published on 18th January 1984, and given legislative effect in the Local Government (Boundaries) Order (Northern Ireland) 1984.

The District Electoral Areas Commissioner was subsequently appointed to recommend the grouping of these wards into electoral areas—to advise, as it were, how the building bricks of the most basic electoral units could best be put together to make coherent structures. In carrying out this task, the commissioner was obliged to act in accordance with certain rules determined by Parliament. These rules are to be found in schedule 3 to the District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) Order 1984, and your Lordships will bear with me if I run through them briefly.

The rules are, first, that no ward can be included partly in one electoral area and partly in another; secondly, that each electoral area must consist of five, six or seven wards; and thirdly, that each ward must have at least one boundary in common with another ward in the same electoral area. In addition, each electoral area is to be given a name.

Within this legal framework, the District Electoral Areas Commissioner would propose such groupings of wards as he saw fit, although Schedule 2 to the same order prescribed certain procedural requirements in the conduct of the review. The most important of these—and I believe of great value in ensuring the success of the whole exercise—was the requirement for the commissioner to make public his provisional recommendations and to invite written representations on them within one month of publication. If such representations were received from district councils, or from more than one hundred electors in any local government district, the commissioner was to hold public hearings to consider them. He was also given a discretionary power to hold additional public hearings in response to representations which did not meet these formal criteria.

In the introduction to his final report, the commissioner describes how these arrangements worked in practice. His provisional recommendations were published on 9th July 1984 and over the next few days were made very widely available throughout Northern Ireland. They appeared in 44 Belfast and local newspapers; were publicly displayed in about 100 locations across the province; and were sent to all Northern Ireland Members of Parliament, Assembly Members, councillors and political parties, as well as to a range of other interested bodies. Some 70 written representations were received by the due date, and during September and October the commissioner and his three assistant commissioners held public inquiries in 17 of the 26 local government districts. In the light of these hearings, at which 71 interested bodies and individuals gave oral evidence, the commissioner subsequently modified the provisional recommendations for 15 of the districts.

This seems an appropriate juncture at which once more to place on record the Government's gratitude to Sir Frank Harrison, and to his assistants and staff, for the timely and expert way in which this complex task has been discharged. Sir Frank brought to bear an unrivalled mastery of his subject matter, gained in over 10 years of service as local government boundaries commissioner in Northern Ireland, and combined fruitfully his own independent judgment with a ready willingness to consider all reasonable points put to him. Perhaps a more fitting tribute than any words of mine is the fact that Sir Frank's final report—on a subject as controversial, historically, as Northern Ireland electoral boundaries—has been accepted widely within the province as a fair and proper basis for future local elections.

I now turn briefly to the order's main provisions. Article 2 provides that the order will come into operation on 15th May 1985, which is polling day for this year's Northern Ireland district council elections. However, for all preliminary or related proceedings it will come into operation forthwith. This provision is simply to ensure that all those involved in preparing for the elections—the political parties, the district councils, and the election staff—can do so knowing the constituency areas on which they will be fought.

Article 3, in conjunction with the schedule to the order, is the core of the legislation. It provides that each local government district shall be divided into district electoral areas, and that each such area shall comprise a specified number of named wards and return a specified number of councillors. The details appear in the schedule, which noble Lords will find is organised alphabetically throughout by district, by named electoral areas within districts, and by constituent wards within electoral areas. Column 1 of the schedule lists the electoral areas and, reading across the page, the constituent wards and number of councillors appear in columns 2 and 3, respectively. Noble Lords will note that the number of councillors in any given electoral area is always five, six or seven, following the rules under which the commissioner was required to make his recommendations.

Article 4 provides that the legal provisions which contain the present list of electoral areas—Article 3 of, and Schedule 1 to, the Northern Ireland (Local Elections) Order 1977—shall cease to have effect.

I have only two further points to add. First, this order is not concerned with the principle of proportional representation, though from reading some of the contributions made in another place one might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The Government continue to believe that proportional representation is the best method of ensuring, in the particular political circumstances of Northern Ireland, that substantial minorities of the community enjoy adequate representation at local level.

Secondly, it has become apparent that certain anomalies—notably the fact that a small number of local government boundaries cross parliamentary constituency boundaries—have arisen during the recent series of reviews. The Government have already undertaken to look positively at the idea of re-ordering the sequence in which future reviews are carried out, and I repeat that assurance to this House tonight.

The Government are confident that the pattern of electoral areas which the commissioner has devised, and which this draft order embodies, provides the best possible basis for future local government elections in Northern Ireland. It is essential that the order should come into effect at the earliest opportunity, so that all those involved in the forthcoming district council elections in the Province have sufficient time to make their preparations. I commend the order to your Lordships, and I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 19th December 1984 be approved.—(Lord Lyell.)

7.55 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am grateful once again to the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, for explaining this order, and also for the assurance he gave that there will be a review of the sequence of future reviews of the local authority areas, the wards and the district electoral areas. I need hardly say that the importance of district councils is great, even though in Northern Ireland they are somewhat limited in their powers. We all know that the make-up of wards in Great Britain is of the utmost importance in organising elections, but given the electoral system in Northern Ireland, as the noble Lord the Minister has explained, the question of the make-up of the district electoral areas is also of the utmost importance.

I am glad that he mentioned what this order is not about, in one respect. He said that it is not about the electoral system, which already is the subject of legislation. Neither is it about whether or not the number of wards to make up an electoral district area should be less than five, to which there was a lot of attention given in the other place. Neither is it about the rules under which this review was conducted, because they were agreed when we debated the order which made provision for the appointment of the district electoral areas commissioner.

One thing was to be emphasised. Under the system in Northern Ireland and under this order, wards are now of no significance whatever in Northern Ireland because, although it would seem from a quick look through Schedule 3 that the number of councillors is the same as the number of wards in each of the electoral areas, they are really just units of the electoral register, and are no longer of any importance from the local government standpoint as they are in Great Britain.

I recall that when we debated the order for the appointment of the district electoral areas commissioner I stressed the need for urgency in view of the fact (as the noble Lord has mentioned) that the elections take place in May. I would also add my appreciation of the speed with which Sir Frank Harrison has worked. He has not only with his assistants, carried out the 17 inquiries in the 17 district council areas, but we have the order before us in adequate time, I believe, for the selection of candidates to proceed in the various areas.

The order for the appointment of the commissioner also laid down the procedure to be followed, and I am pleased that the noble Lord has outlined the steps taken by the commissioner to follow the rules which were laid down. I note the emphasis of the commissioner in his report—and I quote: I made it plain at the public hearings that I regarded political argument as speculative and of much less value than the identification of social and community links, which were there to be seen. Only people in the areas will know whether or not the commissioner has succeeded in that aim. All I can say is that no one has drawn my attention to anything to the contrary.

It is important of course that the new boundaries should be generally acceptable. I noted that the Minister said that in only 15 district council areas were there any variations; but I think the actual position is perhaps even better than that, if I may put it in that way. In only five was a ward, or more then one ward, transferred to another electoral district. In 10, it was merely the variation of the name of one or more of the electoral areas which was questioned. As the noble Lord says, we have before us an order bringing forward the recommendations of the commissioner without any modification whatever. The order cannot be amended, and I can only express the hope, which I believe is correct, that the commissioner has carried out his job to the best of his ability and that the proposals now before us will make up good district electoral areas and will be generally accepted throughout Northern Ireland.

8.1 p.m.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I, too, would like to thank the noble Lord the Minister for introducing the order. Sir Frank Harrison, the commissioner responsible for making these recommendations as to local government boundaries, is a highly respected person with considerable experience in this field. On representations made to him, as has been said, he modified a number of his proposals and I understand that the general feeling is that he was quite impartial in his decisions.

It will probably come as no surprise to the House when I say that we on these Benches support the acceptance of this order with enthusiasm. Elections by the single transferable vote remove at least two minority grievances. First, the system gives proper and proportional representation, and, secondly, it gets rid of the charge of gerrymandering and gives Unionists a moral basis for their majority.

Despite what the Minister has said and what the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has just said, I am going to ask a not very original question and I should be grateful if the Minister could give an original and convincing reply. My question is this. The noble Lord's honourable friend Mr. Nicholas Scott said during a debate in the other place, at column 830 on the 21st January—and I quote— It remains our convinced belief that a system of proportionality in Northern Ireland local government is essential if there is to be proper representation of differing opinions in the Province. That is the Government's considered judgment". My question is the inevitable one: if there, why not on the mainland? He has not really made this clear so far.

8.3 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, any legislation pertaining to local government in Northern Ireland has for many years been of a highly controversial nature. One will recall that in 1968, after the onset of the civil rights movement, an inquiry was held by Lord Justice Cameron and his report subsequently became known as the Cameron Report. After inquiring into every aspect of discontent and frustration in Northern Ireland, he came to the conclusion that it was because of a lot of maladministration or injustice in Northern Ireland at local government level that this was the light which set fire to the tinder in Northern Ireland. So local government has always been controversial and, on reading reports of the debate that took place in another place, one can be of the opinion that local government is still, and will be for a long time, a matter of major political interest and controversy.

All this order seeks to do is to draw out electoral boundaries with a distinctive name. I am delighted to see this improvement, because just before I left Northern Ireland the district electoral areas which had been brought in after the abolition of local government as we knew it in the 1970s, were known as "area A", "area B", "area C," and so on. They were rather soulless names, and a lot of the old traditional names were abolished—names that went back into centuries of Irish history.

For instance, there is no Dock Ward at the moment. To everyone in Northern Ireland, whether they lived in the city of Belfast or not, Dock Ward was an area both at local government level and at parliamentary or Stormont level: it had exactly the same electoral boundaries. It was always the first constituency to be declared both at local government elections and at Stormont elections. The saying was then: "Whichever way Dock voted the swing which took place would determine to a great extent what way the election was going in Northern Ireland". I represented Dock for 23 years. I no longer live there, through no fault of my own, and it is with a certain amount of sadness that I look down this list and I see no local government area known as "Dock Ward" or as the "Dock electoral area".

Standing here this evening, I can say that after the result of the elections which are scheduled to take place in May I shall recall an unfortunate thing about politics in Northern Ireland which you do not have here: there is no one here who can predict the result of the next general election, but everyone in Northern Ireland knows what the results of the next local government elections are going to be. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, that in the City of Belfast the results of the next election will be that the Alliance Party will have some eight to 10 seats on the Belfast City Council; the official Unionists will have a somewhat larger number, almost approximating to the DUP, and in the City of Belfast there will be 10 of an assorted opposition. Some will be Sinn Fein and others will be the SDLP. It is highly unlikely that the Labour Party—much to my regret—will have any seats on the Belfast City Council. That is because we do not have normal politics in Northern Ireland.

My noble friend Lord Underhill has quite rightly voiced the hope tonight that elections will be fought at local government level this year in Northern Ireland on local issues; that is, on the state of the area and the standard of living in any given electoral area. But they will not be fought on that. The local government elections in Northern Ireland will be fought on whether or not you agree with the Forum Report; whether you are for it or against it; whether or not you believe in constitutional nationalism or in the philosophy of the IRA and Sinn Fein. They are all issues which are far removed from the everyday needs of the people who will be living in those electoral areas.

But given the history of Northern Ireland, and also of Ireland, it was only to be expected that these would be the issues. Again I make a confident prediction, and it is sad to be able to make a prediction in relation to elections, because if you can give a forecast of election results in Northern Ireland it means that something must be wrong. It means you can be sure of what the outcome of that election will be, and under democracy no one should be sure of what the result of any election will be. But, given the report and the order that we have this evening, which sets out the electoral boundaries, I would make a confident prediction to the noble Lord, Lord Lyell.

After the local government elections there will be an anti-Unionist majority in the Derry City Council; there will be an anti-Unionist majority in Strabane and there will be an anti-Unionist majority in Newry and Mourne. There will be an anti-Unionist majority in Ballycastle. They are four definite predictions, and one can predict them because in those areas the majority of people who live there are Catholics. It is highly unlikely that there will be a significant minority of Catholics who will be voting for Unionist candidates. They will be voting on the history of Ireland and on conditions, as they see them, since partition.

In the city of Belfast there will be the Alliance Party, which will probably have eight or 10 seats. On one famous occasion we had an Alliance Lord Mayor and I had the pleasure of voting for the Alliance Party, but I cannot see that the SDLP will ever have either a Lord Mayor or a deputy Lord Mayor in the city. These are the facts of life. I hope that the elections will be fought on the needs of the given electoral areas, but I know that that will not be so.

The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, will be aware that in the representations that were made to Sir Frank Harrison by the Unionists, by the DUP and by the SDLP, after I ceased to be a member of the SDLP, they were drawing up their own electoral areas and, quite naturally, as political parties they wanted to include in those areas as many people as they thought would be their supporters. I recall reading in the press at the time that the SDLP made representations to have what we knew in Belfast as Carrick Hill and Court Ward included in another area, which would give them a better chance of winning that seat. I see by the recommendations that have been accepted that Sir Frank Harrison did not accede to that demand which was made by the SDLP.

I fully support the naming of the new electoral areas. It is right that this should have been done. I regret the passing of the famous old Dock Ward, both as a constituency and as a local government area. One can only express the hope that, whatever the results of the forthcoming local government elections may be, they will in some way lead to a normalisation of the political process in Northern Ireland, will bring people together and will unite them more than is the case at the present moment.

8.13 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, once again your Lordships will be very grateful for, and very impressed with, the great deal of work and study that has been put into this somewhat complicated and often amusing and quaintly named order. But I commend all of your Lordships who have spoken, and I am very grateful for the comments that have been made, which, as I understand it, were entirely of approbation. I am also very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. I am sure he will be pleased to be reminded that in. I think, January of last year—certainly before I inherited the position which I now hold—he stressed the urgency of the matter that was under consideration and said that we must implement the points made by Sir Frank Harrison in his earlier capacity.

I hope the noble Lord will be satisfied that the Government have taken on board the need for urgency and that we have stirred ourselves in producing the order tonight. We hope that we have got it right. I also thank the noble Lord for his comments on the accuracy with which the commissioner managed to fulfil his duties and on the speed with which he was able to carry them out. Once again, we pay our tributes to Sir Frank Harrison, and we are very grateful. It seems that he has rubbed most of the rough edges off the entire problem of the redrawing of boundaries.

I am very grateful for the enthusiasm of the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, for the order, and we trust, with him, that it will provide a proper basis for the elections in Northern Ireland. He used the word "gerrymandering", and we hope that, as far as possible, it will remove that. The noble Lord was kind enough to warn me that he would be raising one other point, and he went so far as to hope that I would be able to give him an original answer. We can wait and see what he thinks of it. I am grateful to the noble Lord for warning me, but perhaps he will admit, as I think his noble friend did in another place when this order was debated there, that this problem goes more than a little wide of the order which is before us this evening.

Your Lordships will appreciate that we generally accept that, in the circumstances of Northern Ireland, which were so lucidly set out by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and where political parties draw their support from a quite different and much wider spectrum than do those parties in the rest of the United Kingdom, there is a strong case for an electoral system which ensures the representation of sizeable minority parties in local political institutions. This special case has long been acknowledged, and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, will appreciate that proportional representation was used in the first ever elections to the Stormont Parliament as far back as 1921, which was a good while before my time.

With that little piece of originality, I shall have to conclude my remarks on the argument advanced by the noble Lord. I am sorry that I am not able to give him a more original answer. I can only say that the matter goes a little wide of the order that is before us tonight. Perhaps he will have another opportunity of raising it in the Northern Ireland context—

Lord Underhill

My Lords, will the noble Lord agree that there is an additional original point which he could have mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Hampton? When it was accepted that this system of election was right for Northern Ireland, because of its special circumstances, there was general agreement that that would never be used as an argument for introducing it elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I think the noble Lord is quite right there. I shall leave my remarks as they are, but I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, will accept the point that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. I am grateful to him for pointing that out. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. I have been searching desperately through the schedules to find Dock Ward, though he warned me that I would not find it there. I hope that even the noble Lord will admit that there are other fascinating and quaint names. The little so-called wards will not mean much to the noble Lord if they are redrawn and fresh, interesting and imaginative new names have to be found for them.

I appreciated very much the noble Lord's predictions. We can all buy little cassette tapes of the noble Lord's remarks this evening and we can all play them happily on the evening of the elections—and the noble Lord may find himself quoted widely for his predictions. I am not a betting man, but we might take short odds on whether the noble Lord has it right. However, we can leave that to another occasion.

Finally, the Government are very grateful for the careful study which your Lordships have made of this order. We hope that we have it right. We certainly believe that Sir Frank Harrison has done a tremendous job on two different fronts in a fairly short space of time. With that, I commend the order to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.