HL Deb 18 May 1998 vol 589 cc1383-90

9.37 p.m.

Lord Dubs

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th May be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order is to be made under the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act, which passed through the other place and received Royal Assent last week. Of course the Act and this order under it are entirely dependent on the result of the referendum which will be held in Northern Ireland on 22nd May.

It is important that this order be passed before the referendum. The timetable agreed by the parties in Belfast on Good Friday is an extremely tight one. If the referendum is to be held on 22nd May, and the initial assembly elections on 25th June, we clearly need to have the legislative arrangements for these elections in place before the House rises for the Whitsun Recess.

The basis for this order is Section 2(5) of the elections Act. This provides that the Secretary of State may by order make provision about the election or any matter relating to it". Clause 6 makes it clear that the power to make this order shall be exercised by statutory instrument, using the affirmative resolution procedure.

There has inevitably been a very tight timetable for preparing this order. We have not been able to consult in as much detail as we might have liked. My honourable friend the Minister for Political Development has been able to discuss the elections with representatives of most of the Northern Ireland parties, and the order reflects quite a considerable number of the points they made to him. Many of the issues covered in the order were also discussed during the debates we had on the main Bill, and I have taken serious note of the points raised there too.

As noble Lords can see, the bulk of this order consists of applying existing electoral legislation for the assembly elections, with some modifications reflecting the particular circumstances of this election and of elections in Northern Ireland generally.

It might be helpful, however, if I run through some of the main features of the electoral legislation as it will apply to these elections. As provided for in the Belfast Agreement and the elections Act, the June elections will be by proportional representation (single transferable vote) with each of the 18 Westminster constituencies returning six Members. The order includes the usual provisions on how STV elections are to be conducted. The system is, of course, familiar to both politicians and electors in Northern Ireland.

The order provides that vacancies in the assembly be filled by substitution, however. This slightly differs from local authorities in Northern Ireland, where replacement is either by co-option or by-election. The way in which substitution will work is quite simple. At the same time as returning their consent to nomination, candidates at the election will be invited to submit to the chief electoral officer a list of up to six substitutes, in order of preference. In the event of a vacancy, the CEO will contact the names on this list in order of preference until one declares himself willing and able to take up the seat. In the event of none of the six being able, or if the original Member did not submit a list of substitutes, the vacancy will be filled through a by-election.

We have consulted widely on this issue, and have concluded that substitution is the fairest and most widely supported option. The Northern Ireland assembly will be returning members by STV, but if vacancies were filled through by-election, these seats would effectively be filled by a first-past-the-post contest. Smaller parties which won the fifth or sixth seat in a constituency would have little chance of winning it again in a by-election.

Given the stress in the agreement on the need for proportionality in elections to the assembly, and in decision-making within it, we feel this approach is the most appropriate, and have accordingly included provisions in Article 6 and 7 of the order, and made some necessary modifications to the election rules under Schedule 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983.

Noble Lords will be well aware that the 25th June elections in Northern Ireland may be the most fiercely contested for many generations. Perhaps the strongest impression Ministers took away from the debates on the Act both here and in another place was the strong desire for firm action against electoral fraud. It is unfortunate that electoral fraud has a long tradition in Northern Ireland, but being a long-standing problem does not make it any more tolerable. Electoral fraud strikes at the very roots of democracy and of confidence in the democratic system, and the Government are determined to do all we can to eradicate it.

We have been looking for some time with the chief electoral officer and others at changes which can be introduced both in the legal framework and in practical arrangements to make his task easier. I would like to take this opportunity to express the Government's gratitude for the excellent work Mr. Bradley has done over the years. His decisions are sometimes criticised, but on the whole I think only my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has a more difficult job in Northern Ireland.

As with the referendum campaign, we have decided in the assembly elections to extend the period the chief electoral officer has to scrutinise absent voting applications from the usual 11 days to 14. There is obviously a difficult balance to be struck here between not putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of legitimate applicants and the need for time to examine and detect the undoubted examples of fraudulent applications.

In addition, the order also tightens up the procedures for applications for absent votes on medical grounds. It will now be necessary for all medical practitioners attesting such an application to have seen the applicant in connection with the illness or injury in question. I think this is an obviously sensible change. After all, if anyone is really unable to get to the poll on medical grounds, it stands to reason that they are likely to have visited their medical practitioner in connection with their ailment.

Two other amendments to usual provisions on elections may be of interest. On the issue of deposits, we have set the level at £150 per candidate. Although £500 is normal for parliamentary elections, this was felt to be rather steep in a multi-member campaign where many parties would be intending to put up a slate of candidates in a large number of constituencies.

We have also chosen not to apply Section 93 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to these elections. As many noble Lords may know, this section lays an obligation on broadcasters to offer participation in any local item during a constituency election to all the candidates, and gives candidates the right to withdraw their consent from broadcasts.

After careful consideration, we do not think these provisions are appropriate in multi-member elections of the sort proposed here. We are likely to see 15 to 20 candidates in many seats. Only one of those (if he or she chose to be obstructive) could effectively veto broadcast coverage of the campaign in that particular constituency. Even if that did not happen, I suspect that items on constituency contests would simply become unwieldy and make for dull listening and watching. None of this will detract from the duty which will remain on broadcasters, both from the BBC and the commercial sector, to present the campaign in a fair and even-handed manner. Nor should our decision here be seen as a precedent since the type of election for the Northern Ireland assembly has no clear parallels with those being envisaged elsewhere in the UK.

The New Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order is another piece in the jigsaw. Much more work will need to be done if the people of Northern Ireland ratify through the referendum the agreement reached by their political representatives. I believe that this order is both necessary and useful and I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th May be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Dubs.)

9.46 p.m.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, I hesitate to raise any questions at this particular juncture, but it is clear that the result of the referendum is unlikely to ensure that those who are opposed to the settlement will set their concerns to one side and not indulge in a re-run of the referendum during the election campaign. In considering briefly the provisions of the order I should like to seek a response from the Minister on one or two items. On almost all of the issues that he has raised we are very satisfied and believe that the Government have done the right thing.

I am concerned largely with the question of substitution which is a new provision in elections in Northern Ireland. The proposition is that at nomination a candidate will put forward a list of up to six people. Given that there are considerable divisions in at least one major party, which are not entirely constant, it is entirely possible that a candidate may put forward a list of six but subsequently no longer approve of all of them, even though they are members of that candidate's own party. They may take a different line on something of considerable importance. Can the Minister clarify whether it will be possible subsequently for a candidate, presumably a successful one, to remove names from the list? I accept it is unlikely that names can be added to the list, but is it possible that names may be removed from the list because they no longer hold the same views as the elected member? The purpose of substitution is to maintain the balance found at the election. That balance may not be changed on party political grounds but other grounds.

The legislation is not entirely clear, but I assume that it is possible for an assembly member to resign, in which case a substitute will be appointed from the list. Can a candidate stand in more than one constituency and then resign if he is elected in more than one constituency, thus putting in the next one on the list?

Although it may seem a curious and somewhat mischievous act on this side of the water, I assure your Lordships that if it is possible it may well become the practice on the other side of the water for a candidate, perhaps a well known one, to stand in a number of constituencies at the same time and then if elected in one to resign from the others, thus enabling candidates who are less well known to substitute for that well known name.

Perhaps the Minister can also clarify whether or not such a well known candidate can be put at the top of the list of substitutions in all constituencies? Would that fact be published in nomination or election papers?

I do not raise these points mischievously from my point of view, but I entirely concur with the Minister who said that this would be a highly contested election. Since substitution is a new measure, I feel it only right to raise these questions because they are not matters that have been explored with the noble Lord's honourable friend the Minister for Political Development.

9.50 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has made a very valid point because at the other end of the building it is possible for a candidate to stand in more than one constituency and to be elected in more than one constituency. As I understand it, when Parliament assembles after a general election, the Speaker challenges all the Members present to declare which constituency they wish to represent because they cannot represent more than one. Therefore, that is a valid point.

I apologise for intervening, but there are two matters which came to light over the weekend that I wish to raise this evening. I know that Ministers are determined to stamp out vote stealing. The Minister referred to electoral fraud. In that regard I have been asked whether prisoners released before polling day can be prevented from voting and thereby adding to the numbers voting illegally. They will not be on the electoral register if they have served a term of imprisonment, but the presses are already producing forged documents of identity to enable released prisoners and various terrorists on the run to swell the Sinn Fein poll in West Belfast, for example, as they did very effectively at the general election against the SDLP candidate and former Member, Dr. Hendron.

My second point is rather more worrying, because it looks as though there is already a flaw in the system for the referendum on Friday. Over the past three days, seven separate electors on a register of under 2,000 electors have received—and they have reported this to me—two polling cards each. It is safe to assume that there are probably far more on that register who did not report the situation to me. Given that the authorities are very efficient in depriving electors of their votes on mere technicalities—and I am dealing with one particularly difficult case at present—will the Minister take speedy action to ensure that the same diligence is observed by the Chief Electoral Officer in countering what appear to be his own errors?

9.52 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this brief debate. I shall deal first with the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. He is concerned about the principle of substitution through the single transferable vote system. It will not be possible subsequently to remove any names from the list of up to six of those who were put forward initially as substitutes. One of the difficulties is that we do not yet have a system of party registration. The Government are considering whether that is appropriate. If we had a system of party registration, the noble Lord's questions would be more easily answered because it would then take account of his concerns.

Yes, it is possible to stand in more than one constituency, as it is possible in relation to Westminster. However, I must say from my own experience that it is difficult enough to get elected in one constituency, never mind trying to be elected in more than one. But as the electoral rules stand, it is possible for an individual to stand in more than one constituency. Moreover, it is possible for an individual to be top of the list of substitutes in more than one constituency. That is the position.

However, that is a matter which the Government would wish to look at again in the light of the experience of this election. If necessary, we shall have to make changes for the longer term future. However, for this election, the position is as I have described it.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, asked two questions concerning the possibility of fraud in the elections. Anyone wishing to vote would, of course, have to be on the voting list. If prisoners are not on the register, they are unable to vote at present. Therefore, it would be difficult to envisage any prisoners who might be released before polling day being able to vote because they ought not to be on the register.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I apologise to the Minister. Perhaps I did not make myself clear. They will not be attempting to vote in the normal way or to claim a vote. They will be provided with forged documents of identity. They will then go along and steal other people's votes as, for example, happened in West Belfast in times past.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, the only answer to that is for all those concerned with the conduct of elections to be diligent and to stop such electoral fraud. I do not know that there is any other answer that I can give to the noble Lord. However, I can assure him that the electoral registration authorities, and those presiding over elections, are aware of the type of fraud which it is alleged has been committed and of which the noble Lord has given us examples. Indeed, everyone will be on the alert during the coming elections. As regards the example of voters who received two polling cards each, I can assure the noble Lord that I shall certainly draw the matter to the attention of the appropriate authorities to see whether quick action can be taken to prevent that becoming the basis for electoral fraud.

I should like to thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate—

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, there is one aspect of the debate that I should like to pursue. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, seems to me to be extremely serious. I urge the Minister to look at the matter a little more swiftly than the timetable he envisaged; that is to say, waiting until after the elections. It seems to me that he should ensure that the matter is given urgent consideration to ascertain whether we need to modify these provisions in the order. I shall not attempt to detail them this evening, but we need to modify them so as to deal with the stated position.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that in the last century it was possible to stand for several constituencies for election to the other place. People did so and the voting took place on different days in different constituencies. Sometimes people were elected for two constituencies. Sometimes they were defeated in the first one but, nevertheless, were successful in taking up the seat for the second constituency. Memories are extremely long in Northern Ireland. It is quite possible that this device, which the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, suggested, has already occurred to some people and that it may be used. I believe that the Minister should reconsider this as a matter of urgency.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, the reason for my saying that we would look at the matter if there was further legislation is that I have no powers to change the measure now before the House. Indeed, once we have the measure in place, that will determine the conduct of the election, assuming that the referendum comes out with a positive answer. We are talking about an election which is only a few weeks away. I do not think that it will be possible to contemplate changing the statutory basis for that election after the House has passed this measure. That is why I said that the Government would watch what happens in the election and that, if it was found necessary to make further changes for subsequent elections, we would do so when the legislative opportunity presented itself—presumably in the settlement Bill which will be coming along later in this Session.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, I crave the Minister's indulgence. I believe the Government would be well advised to look at the matter rather more urgently. Now that it is possible for Peers to stand for election, I can assure the Minister that, if the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, were to stand, not only would he have no trouble in getting elected, but, on his record in another place and bearing in mind the most extraordinary majorities that he piled up, he would also be able to take in a clutch of people all across Northern Ireland.

If the application were under the name of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, that would be one thing. However, if it were under the name of a number of other Northern Ireland politicians in another place, it might be an entirely different matter. Given the experience that we had in respect of the elections to the Northern Ireland Forum, I have to say that there will be little point in trying to work out what would happen in subsequent elections to an assembly; indeed, such a mistake could ensure that that was something one did not have to trouble oneself about. I hope that the Government will take the matter seriously, although I understand there are parliamentary problems in this regard.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, obviously we take seriously the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice and Lord Molyneaux. We are talking about an election where candidates will have to try to attract public support. If people are thought to be playing games with the voters of Northern Ireland—I suggest that in 1998 a candidate who stood for more than one constituency would be viewed as not taking the electorate seriously and as being contemptuous of the electorate—I would hope that the voters of Northern Ireland would give such people the short shrift they deserve. That may not be the case, but I would expect that to happen. We expect that people who stand for election intend to take their seats, and they can do so only in one constituency. As I said, I hope that the electorate will give short shrift to people who try to be silly about this.

It is my understanding that the Government would have no power to change the legislation regarding the election that is to take place at the end of June in the few weeks that remain. I hope that the House will approve the legislative basis for that election. The Government can consider only the administration that follows the election. We cannot change the legislative basis of the election. It would be wrong of me to pretend that I shall reconsider the matter, when that could not result in the kind of changes that the noble Lord wishes. I believe we should leave it to the good sense of the people of Northern Ireland, who will not allow themselves to be manipulated in this way. If the people of Northern Ireland show that determination, candidates will not stand in more than one constituency and the problem will not arise.

On Question, Motion agreed to.