HL Deb 11 March 1985 vol 461 cc48-56

5.38 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which was laid before your Lordships on 14th February, he approved.

This draft order will, if approved, achieve two objectives which we believe are entirely desirable. First, and most importantly, it will ensure that the next local government elections in Northern Ireland—which take place on 15th May this year—are conducted in accordance with the same provisions against personation which now apply at parliamentary elections in the Province—I am so sorry; I have received a little note from my winged advisers. In the second place, the draft order revises the existing local elections rules for Northern Ireland, with the general effect of bringing them more closely into line with the parliamentary rules.

I should assure your Lordships at this stage that the basic aims of this order are quite straightforward and admirably few in number; even if the legislative means of attaining them is necessarily rather technical and lengthy. It may help your Lordships if I go through the main provisions of the order in a little detail.

To turn first to the provisions against personation, your Lordships will recall, from our debates ealier this year on the Elections (Northern Ireland) Bill, the main features of the Government's approach. Under Sections 1 and 2 of what is now the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985, voters at parliamentary elections in the Province must produce a specified document in order to receive a ballot paper. A list of the specified documents appears on the face of the Act. Section 3 of the Act creates a new electoral offence in respect of unlawful possession of such documents; and confers appropriate powers on the police to deal with this and related offences.

Provisions corresponding to these two central elements of the Elections Act appear in the order before your Lordships today—first, at Rule 34 in Schedule 1 to the order as regards the requirement for specified documents; and at Article 15 as regards criminal misuse of these documents. The effect will be to ensure that the safeguards which Parliament has determined should apply in Northern Ireland for elections to another place, should apply there equally at local elections. That has always been the Government's declared aim and intention.

The pressing need to bring these measures into force before the next district council elections in May this year also gave us an opportunity to revise the present body of local elections rules. These rules are currently set out in the Northern Ireland (Local Elections) Order 1977, which this order replaces. In common with the 1977 order, this draft order amends and supplements the provisions of the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962.

Most of the existing elections rules are unchanged in substance by the draft order before us, though many have been slightly redrafted for greater clarity or rearranged in sequence. The significant changes provided for by the order are as follows.

Article 3 disapplies the substance of the Northern Ireland (Local Elections) Order 1977, which, as I have said, is replaced by this order. The remaining provisions of the 1977 order—Article 3 and Schedule 1—deal with district electoral areas, and these have been superseded by the District Electoral Areas (Northern Ireland) Order, which, noble Lords will remember, we debated on 5th February. The District Electoral Areas Order comes into force on 15th May this year when the 1977 order will be revoked.

Article 4 of the draft order before us, together with Schedule 1 to the order, substitutes the new election rules in the schedule for those in Schedule 5 to the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) Act 1962. We have already examined new Rule 34 concerning the specified documents. There are four other new rules to which I should draw your Lordships' attention.

Rule 1 of Schedule 1 extends polling hours at local elections which will now be from seven in the morning until ten o'clock at night. Previously, as your Lordships may he aware, polling took place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The additional three hours thereby made available to voters should prove particularly useful at the elections this May, when voters and electoral staff will be familiarising themselves with the new procedures.

Rule 3 provides that in these rules the term "returning officer" means the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, or a deputy returning officer authorised to act under his supervision. This rule, and its application throughout the schedule, makes it clear that the chief electoral officer has sole responsibility for the fair and efficient conduct of all aspects of local elections, as he does for all other elections in Northern Ireland.

Rule 25 provides that the poll card shall be in a prescribed form; namely, that the back of the card will list the specified documents and make clear the requirement to produce one such document in order to obtain a ballot paper. This helpful addition to the poll card is intended to supplement the Government's major publicity campaign drawing voters' attention to the new arrangements, which began last week. Somewhere, I have one of these valuable blue documents. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, nods in assent. Perhaps one has even come through his door. I understand that they are already starting to filter through in Northern Ireland.

Lastly, I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to the effect of Rule 41 and, above all, to the hours of polling set out in Rule 1, to which it relates. These follow the Representation of the People Act 1983 in prohibiting the issue of ballot papers after the close of the poll. This contrasts with Rule 46 in Schedule 5 of the 1962 Electoral Law Act, which permitted those present in the polling station at the time to remain there to apply for a ballot paper and cast their vote, and on occasion, I would stress, to profit from the general confusion, and even to cast someone else's vote.

I should like now to explain briefly the remaining articles in the main body of the draft order. Article 5 provides that local elections shall take place on the basis of district electoral areas. Article 6, together with Schedule 2 to the order, makes fresh provision for absent voting at local government elections, to which the grounds for entitlement are similar to those for local electors in Great Britain under the Representation of the People Act 1983. In particular, under paragraph 2 of Part 1 to Schedule 2, all local electors who are also on the standing list for absent voters at parliamentary elections will now be entitled to apply for absent voting facilities for an indefinite period at local elections. Once this order is made, the chief electoral officer will write to everyone who is on the standing list for parliamentary elections to ask them if they wish to be entered on the equivalent list for local elections. In future, applicants for entry on one list will also be invited to apply for inclusion on the other. The establishment of a standing list for absent voters at local elections will be welcomed by many in Northern Ireland, including the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights.

Article 7 reaffirms the existing legal requirement that polling in an election year shall be held on the third Wednesday in May. Article 8 extends from three to six months the time within which the chief electoral officer must submit an account of electoral expenses to district councils. It also extends the period in which claims can be made against the returning officer. Article 9 increases the limit on candidates' expenses.

Article 10 deals with costs which may be charged for inspection of certain election documents, and Article 11 retains the existing right of candidates in Northern Ireland local elections to send their election addresses post free. Article 12 abolishes the candidate's deposit for local elections, which has long been an anomaly between Northern Ireland practice and that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Article 13 disapplies, for the purposes of local elections, a provision which applied only in Northern Ireland whereby a person wrongly charged with personation could claim compensation not exceeding £10. Any claim in future can be pursued in the ordinary way through the civil courts as at parliamentary elections.

Article 14 extends certain voting offences in the 1962 Act. More importantly, Article 15, as we have seen, deals with criminal use of specified documents. The remaining three articles make consequential amendments to earlier legislation.

I hope that I have not tested your Lordships' patience unduly again in my attempts to try to explain this necessarily technical and rather complicated draft order. I began by assuring your Lordships that the order has two main effects—to apply the new anti-personation laws to local elections in Northern Ireland, and, secondly, to make the generality of local elections rules more consonant with the parliamentary rules. With your Lordships' permission, I will rest my case on my first and, I hope, my best thoughts. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th February be approved. [12th Report from the Joint Committee.]—(Lord Lyell.)

5.48 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I rise to speak with some diffidence on detailed, technical and important matters relating to local government elections in Northern Ireland. I shall be brief. My message is that the Opposition welcome the order. We are grateful to the Minister for explaining clearly the main purpose of the order. I have read the recent reports of the Northern Ireland Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. I note that some of its suggestions have been incorporated in the draft order, but even where they have been rejected, the commission is, I believe, satisfied that the implications of its recommendations have been thoroughly examined.

I appreciate that among some people who have at heart what they perceive to be the wellbeing of the Province and its people there is a strongly held view that the order should have wiped proportional representation off the local government electoral map. It does not do that, of course. That is, for many people, a fundamental matter. The retention of proportional representation is also, for some people, a matter of some anxiety, as they fear that proportional representation might lead to electoral success by Sinn Fein. But we believe that the Government are right in seeking to maintain ways and means of ensuring the representation of minority opinion in the Province.

I must acknowledge that I am a little uneasy about the wording of Rule 22; possibly it could have been clarified. I have read and re-read the criticisms which have been levelled at this particular rule. It is important because it relates to the place of voting; democracy begins at a polling station. If the position, identity or precise location of the polling station is in doubt, the whole edifice may be fractured. I would therefore invite the Minister to give an assurance to the House that he and the department are fully satisfied that the meaning of Rule 22 is beyond dispute. With that caveat, we give full support to the draft order.

5.51 p.m.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord the Minister for introducing this order. Considerable opposition was voiced in the other place to election by single transferable vote, and the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, has just mentioned this and the way in which it may help Sinn Fein. The House will be relieved to hear that I do not propose to labour my support for STV, although I have yet to hear a convincing explanation why it is so admirable in the Province and such anathema to the Government on the mainland.

Harking back to the position of Sinn Fein, it seems to me that there is reason in the suggestion that no party should be allowed to put up a candidate who does not affirm categorically that he is against the use of violence to achieve his aims. We may come back to this.

This seems to me a sensible order. It covers arrangements to prevent personation, and we have already agreed that voters in parliamentary elections should have to produce a specified document in order to receive a ballot paper. It seems helpful to extend the hours of the poll, and no one need object. What has been more open to criticism is the suggestion that those who are present in the polling station at the close of the poll but who have not actually voted should now be banned, and this has been referred to by the noble Lord the Minister. With the extended hours I should have thought that this was a perfectly reasonable rule to prevent possible abuse of the system.

I have not analysed the many pages of the schedule, but I am prepared to accept that the arrangements are satisfactory for the equipment of polling stations, the sealing of ballot boxes, the voting by blind persons, etc. We certainly try hard, and I believe it is admirable to see that the handicapped suffer as little inconvenience as possible. I was intrigued to see on page 69 of the order an example of a special form designed for use as a declaration by a Christian Science practitioner as to the blindness of an applicant.

The order seeks to bring into force arrangements for local elections which have been agreed already for elections to Westminster and in general make the two forms of election as similar as possible, apart from the use of PR at one and not at the other. While regretting that one difference, in general I support the order as logical and sensible.

5.53 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, since the abolition of Stormont in 1972 when this Government took over responsibility under direct rule for the running of affairs in Northern Ireland, on many occasions I sat in another place and with my colleagues looked at the various orders and Bills which came before the House. We referred to them seriously and facetiously. When we looked at the Bills and listened to the Minister at the Dispatch Box promulgating the order or the Bill, there was a constant repetition of two themes: on the one hand the Bill would bring Northern Ireland into line with other regions of the United Kingdom, and on the other hand we were looking for the longest and most convenient barge pole with which to push Northern Ireland away from the United Kingdom. This order is doing exactly that. I am not objecting to the order because I know and understand the situation in Northern Ireland, and I think that the Government are honestly trying to deal with the situation which has emerged in its most serious form over the last two or three elections; it was always there, but recently it has become very serious.

We have a different set of regulations and electoral practices operating in Northern Ireland from those here. We on this side of the water—and I am now on this side of the water—would not contaminate our electoral process by having a lot of restrictions printed on the back of the polling card. We would not tolerate having to be told that we were not going to get a vote unless we produced the various documents listed in the schedule. We would not accept here lots of policemen and members of the security forces (military personnel) standing within the actual polling stations. The atmosphere in which elections take place in Northern Ireland is totally different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom.

On the question of PR, I have read the debates of the other place, and during my years as a Member there were some hotly contested debates about proportional representation. I believe that it was right and is right to have proportional representation in Northern Ireland, given its history and the division which exists between its people. But I have yet to be convinced that it would be a good thing for this part of the United Kingdom. I am not absolutely sure whether PR, if it were to be introduced in this part of the United Kingdom, would be to the advantage of our whole political process. I say that because some people will ask: how is it that you accept it in Northern Ireland and you do not accept it here in other parts of the United Kingdom? I think there is a different set of reasons in Northern Ireland for justifying the use of PR, and it does not necessarily have to be justified on this side of the Irish Sea.

A great deal of debate was taken up in another place with many objections from the elected representatives of Northern Ireland, and I think it is right that we in this House who are not elected should at all times listen very carefully to what has been said by those people in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else, for that matter, who have to face an election and justify their attitude. Almost all the Members who spoke in the debates in another place objected to the provision which has been introduced into this legislation. The increase in the number of hours was accepted, but there is a very clear delineation, a very clear stop which is placed at ten o'clock—the ballot will close at ten o'clock. I am not a Unionist, and never have been, but I have read the speeches of the Unionist members and I think that there is great validity in what they say.

You could envisage a position where five or six people, maybe more, were queuing up at a polling station, which is, in fact, the ballot box. At one minute to ten one person could be given a ballot paper and go away and sign it. The next person could come and give his name and address or document and the polling card and then the clock strikes ten. Under this order the returning officer will say "Poll closed", and the person will be standing there within seconds of receiving the ballot paper. Indeed, the position may be that the person had the ballot paper already marked and was on his way to put it into the ballot box. Would he be stopped? Many objections have been raised by elected representatives in another place on the grounds that that is likely to happen. I can predict that if it happens, if a number of people are in a queue in the polling station in the last five or ten minutes, waiting to vote, and the clock strikes and the returning officer closes the station, they will not timidly turn round, agree that they are late, and just walk out of the polling station. There will be a riot; that is to put it at its most simple. There will be serious disturbances. The Unionist Members have predicted that, and I have no hesitation in saying it.

I cannot see any great difficulty in having the regulation provide that the doors of the polling station should be closed once 10 o'clock comes but that the people who are inside and are about to claim their vote should be allowed to do so. I have spoken privately to many of the Members who spoke in another place and I think there is total agreement that if people are refused a vote because it is 10 o'clock it could lead to serious trouble at the polling station. I know that in answer to some of these objections the Minister said, "Well, we have the RUC, and the RUC will be able to deal with any trouble that may arise". That is not the way to look at affairs such as this in Northern Ireland. We could say that the police can settle any trouble; but at what a cost! It is totally unnecessary to create a situation like this when it could be done without. I urge the Minister to take note of what was said by elected representatives in another place and to listen to what I am saying this evening.

I do not think the abolition of the £15 deposit really means an awful lot. But it means that if people are wanting to abuse the political process—and certainly many people in Northern Ireland want to do that—100 different people could get nomination papers and put them in to the returning officer, and their names would appear on the ballot paper. The ballot paper would look like a toilet roll by the time it appeared in the polling stations. The abolition of the £15 deposit could lead to an abuse, and more names would appear on the ballot paper.

I believe that most people in Northern Ireland will accept that this legislation is necessary. But we have to be honest and say that it is necessary at this stage only because of the electoral successes which Sinn Fein have had in recent elections: Sinn Fein, who have claimed that they want to fight their battles with an Armalite in one hand and a ballot paper in the other. It is because of the totally illegal activities that have been employed by Sinn Fein since 1982—in fact, since 1981, in the first election which they fought in Northern Ireland and which led to such an abuse of the whole electoral process—that this legislation is necessary. After taking whatever steps we can to eliminate abuse—and most of that abuse will be committed by Sinn Fein supporters—we should not put unnecessary obstacles in the way of people who are legitimately claiming their own vote.

6.3 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, once again we are very grateful that after a lengthy afternoon on Northern Irish affairs the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, and the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, have found the time to discuss and to examine this interesting, complicated and technical order. The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davis, raised the question of PR and STV, though not necessarily in those terms; but certainly he raised the question of proportional representation. I have to say to your Lordships that when I see PR or STV it has to be forcefully dinned into me that STV does not stand for Scottish Television, because where I come from that is exactly what it stands for. I find the systems of PR interesting, to say the least. I am learning day by day in Northern Ireland.

I am sure that your Lordships who in recent months have followed our debates on other forms of electoral legislation will not be surprised to learn that the Government remain firmly committed to proportional representation as the most appropriate electoral system for local elections in Northern Ireland. We believe that in the particular circumstances of the Province, where political parties draw their support on a quite different basis from those in other parts of the United Kingdom, PR offers the best way of ensuring adequate political representation of significant minorities at local level. I accept that the draft order before us this evening could in theory have been used as a means of getting rid of PR voting, and that some of your Lordships and indeed some Members of another place might have wished it to do exactly that. But the Government have no intention of changing the present law in respect of the actual electoral systems as opposed to election rules purely of an administrative nature.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked also about Rule 22. I have to tell the noble Lord that Rule 22 is in precisely the same terms as the equivalent provisions in the parliamentary elections rules which are applicable throughout the United Kingdom. I assure your Lordships that we understand that its meaning is entirely clear. If I can amplify this point any further, perhaps the noble Lord will permit me to write to him. I shall examine what I have said and, if it is in any way inadequate or inaccurate, I shall rectify that. I understand the rule is in line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Hampton, also mentioned PR. I find it interesting. I was not aware that he had found on page 69 the declaration by a practitioner in Christian Science. It shows how very thoroughly the noble Lord studied the order. As your Lordships will appreciate, I do not want to become involved in the question of whether or not Christian Science is a religion. We have enough complications of this nature in Northern Ireland without going any further. This form of declaration has been requested and I hope that its inclusion will be of some help.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, raised a question about the close of the poll. He may appreciate that throughout my life, from the age of 21 on, I have not been allowed at any time to enter polls for parliamentary elections, so I cannot see what goes on. I understand that the arrangements that the noble Lord was protesting about already apply, presumably without major difficulty—I stress that—at parliamentary elections, European parliamentary elections and Northern Ireland Assembly elections. What the draft order is seeking to do is to bring the procedure at local elections into line with that at these other three similar elections.

The noble Lord made a particular point about what might happen at one minute to 10 o'clock. As far as I am aware, it is a question of whether the voter actually has a voting slip in his hand at 10 o'clock; it is not a question of whether he marks it. I think the noble Lord and other noble Lords will agree that we are being not ungenerous in allowing three extra hours for electors wishing to vote. We hope that this will meet with general approval. Without further ado, I beg to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.