§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (the Earl of Arran) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 10th March be approved [24th Report from the Joint Committee].
§ The noble Earl said: The purpose of the draft order is to increase the limit on candidates' expenses at local elections in Northern Ireland from £184 plus 3.6p per elector to £192 plus 3.8p per elector, the limit which currently applies at local elections in Great Britain.
§ The local election limits in Great Britain and Northern Ireland are normally kept in line. However, an increase in Great Britain last year was not matched by a corresponding increase in Northern Ireland, mainly because 1992 was not a local election year in 803 the Province. This short and simple measure restores parity in time for the local government elections on 19th May.
§ It is essential that this draft order should come into force at the earliest opportunity so that prospective candidates for the forthcoming district council elections in Northern Ireland know the maximum that they will be able to spend.
§ I commend the order to your Lordships, and I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 10th March be approved—[24th Report from the Joint Committee].—(The Earl of Arran.)
§ Lord Prys-Davies
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for introducing the order and for explaining its provisions. For the reasons given by the Minister we are happy to support the order from this side of the House. Bearing in mind that the noble Earl is struggling with a heavy throat or chest infection, I do not propose to trouble him with a series of questions. I merely say that we approve the draft order.
§ Lord Fitt
My Lords, it may be that in the future we will have a full-scale debate on local government in Northern Ireland. It may be incumbent upon us to do that as soon as possible.
Although the present order brings us into line with other parts of the United Kingdom, it brings an increase of 0.2p on each of the electors in the local government area. However, the Minister must be aware from his experience in Northern Ireland that the order will have little effect. I first fought an election in Northern Ireland in 1955—almost 40 years ago. Although legislation such as this existed, which was supposed to determine how much one could spend, nobody paid it the slightest attention. That is the way it has been at every subsequent election.
The Minister said that it brings the expenses of Northern Ireland into line with Great Britain. But local government in Northern Ireland is totally different from local government in other parts of the United Kingdom. Elections are coming up in May in Northern Ireland. The candidates will not be talking about the powers or responsibilities of local government. Local government in Northern Ireland does not have anything to do with power or responsibility. Those elections will be a minireferendum on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. The various candidates on either side of the political and religious divide will be urging their supporters to either reject or support the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
The Minister must be aware that in recent weeks some responsible members of the local authorities of Belfast and Portadown have decided to quit local government because they realise that it is going nowhere in Northern Ireland; it has no responsibility. The calibre of the men in some of the councils leaves much to be desired.
Anyone who has any experience of Northern Ireland local government elections will know that at the beginning of the election the candidates tot up how much they are allowed to spend legally. They then set about trying to doctor the figures to suit the legalities. 804 The Minister will be aware that at a recent parliamentary election in Northern Ireland the expenses of one of the candidates were seriously called into question by a High Court action. Not everyone in Northern Ireland would agree with the verdict of that court.
In response to bringing the order forward one would hope that in the local government elections which are about to take place, a sufficient number of candidates will be found —given that there is nothing at stake in the local government field—who will stand in the election to express their abhorrence at the terrible series of atrocities which have taken place over the past weeks. If that were to be the outcome of the local government elections, then it may be worthwhile.
§ The Earl of Arran
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, for his understanding and agreement with the draft order. Indeed, I thank him for his commiseration in regard to my regrettable cold. It is nothing that a good glass of Bushmills will not quickly put right when I return to Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, made a general point regarding the limited powers of district councils in Northern Ireland. I can say to him that for a long time it has been the Government's aim to transfer responsibility of a wide range of subjects to local political institutions in Northern Ireland on a basis which must command widespread acceptance throughout the community.
The Government are open to any proposals regarding future arrangements for regional or local government in Northern Ireland which seem likely to prove widely acceptable. But the noble Lord may agree that those issues are best considered on a comprehensive and inclusive basis and not divorced from the context of further political talks.
The recent violence in Northern Ireland and elsewhere is a very real cause for concern. In the Government's view it makes it all the more important that political talks should resume as soon as practicable. Such talks offer the prospect of securing long-term political stability in Northern Ireland and demonstrate the futility of violence. They show that democratically-elected representatives from different parts of the community can work together in the interests of all. Having said that, I commend the order to your Lordships.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ [The Sitting was suspended from 8.17 to 8.30 p.m.]