HL Deb 10 November 2003 vol 654 cc1165-73

7.41 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 22nd October be approved [29th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall speak also to the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2003, the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003 (Consequential Modifications) Order 2003 and the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003 (Consequential Modifications No. 2) Order 2003.

These orders are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and have or are being made in exercise of the powers conferred by Section 31(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, Section 34(4) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and Section 6 of the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003 respectively.

The Northern Ireland (Date of Next Assembly Poll)—Order 2003 setting the election date as 26th November was made on 22nd October by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. As noble Lords know, the Secretary of State made a Statement to the House that day setting out the progress that had been made over the previous days and weeks towards a restoration of devolved government on a stable and inclusive basis.

Although it was not possible to rebuild the atmosphere of trust we had hoped to see at the start of the election campaign, major steps forward have occurred. After the election the British and Irish Governments will work with the parties to resolve the issue as quickly as possible so as to enable devolved government to be restored to the people of Northern Ireland. We remain optimistic that that will be achievable, building on the progress we have made.

Noble Lords may be wondering why this election is being held on a Wednesday. The election has been called at short notice and we have sought to minimise the disruption to electoral office staff that would be caused by continuing counting into the weekend. There is also the advantage that the results should be known by the weekend as the two-day count will take place on the Thursday and Friday.

I also point out that for political and practical reasons this is the most realistic week in which we can hold an election. If the date was set any later there would be obvious implications because of the season with colder, darker nights and the onset of Christmas.

The Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003 (Consequential Modifications) Order 2003, which was also made on 22nd October, changes the date from 1st December 2003 to 1 st February 2004 that the revised version of the electoral register, following the annual canvass, should be published by. It also provides that no notices of alteration need to be published during the four months prior to February 2004.

It may be helpful if I explain some of the background to this necessary change. The new electoral register was due to be published on its usual date of 1st December. However, because the Assembly election has been called, the Chief Electoral Officer and his staff will be involved fully in election preparations. All noble Lords will recognise that this effectively means that the Chief Electoral Officer will be unable to publish a new register on 1st December. This order puts back the publication deadline to 1st February 2004.

Furthermore, the order modifies legislation to stop a resettlement allowance being payable to former MLAs who have given a termination notice under a determination made by the Secretary of State. MLAs who have given such a notice would have already received payment equivalent to a resettlement allowance by virtue of the termination notice. It effectively ensures that such persons do not receive a double payment.

The draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2003 amends rule 32 of the parliamentary elections rules set out in Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 as it is applied by Schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001 for the purposes of an election to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The effect simply adds electoral commissioners, members of staff of the Electoral Commission and persons appointed by the Electoral Commission for the purpose of attending at polling stations on behalf of the commission. The order is being introduced now to be in use for the Northern Ireland Assembly election on 26th November and will apply to all elections to the Assembly unless amended or revoked. A similar order is due to be introduced for the whole of the United Kingdom next year in time for the European parliamentary elections.

We believe that allowing the Electoral Commission access to polling stations would be beneficial. It will allow the commission to report fully on the conduct of the election and will help provide clear evidence as to how electoral office staff implement key aspects of the Electoral Fraud Act, such as checking photographic identification. Furthermore, a number of Northern Ireland politicians have indicated to us that they are unhappy at inconsistencies in polling stations and the commission will be able to judge whether these complaints have any substance.

The final order before the House is the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003 (Consequential Modifications No. 2) Order 2003. This purely technical order modifies Section 118A(2) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, as it is applied to Northern Ireland Assembly elections by the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001 in connection with provision made by Section 1 of the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003.

The effect of this simply ensures that the election expenses of individual candidates in relation to the forthcoming Assembly election are regulated in accordance with the statutory regime. It also ensures clarity as to when a person becomes a candidate for the purposes of that election.

I conclude by saying that we hope that the election campaign will be positive and constructive, and that after the elections we can build on the good working relationships between all the parties in Northern Ireland which have developed from their work together in the Executive and subsequently in the negotiations that have taken place since suspension.

I apologise for taking some time. These are important issues. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 22nd October be approved [29th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the Minister for moving the order and for clearly explaining to your Lordships its purpose. From the beginning, this side of the House has supported the election and wishes to support the Government in all they are doing to make these elections more straightforward, honest and peaceful than perhaps some have been in the past.

The date was clearly explained by the noble Baroness. We are completely happy with it. On the question of altering the date of the new register, that clearly does not interfere with the election. When I first read the order I though that it might. It does not because the register would not have been produced anyway until 1st December. That clearly is a good decision.

The access of the commissioners to the polling stations seems ultra sensible and indeed very necessary.

I have one or two questions. I do not wish to get involved in anything to do with the election. First, I should like the noble Baroness to assure the House that all those measures enacted in what is now known as the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 are up and running and that we can look forward to a more honest, straightforward and trustworthy result than perhaps we have been used to in Northern Ireland elections.

I sound one perhaps salutary note. This is an election to the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is as far as it goes. It is the Government's desire and our desire on this side of the House that, after the election, the Government will be able to reinstate the various institutions associated with Stormont and the agreement. But we should not kid ourselves. This is by no means a certainty. The IRA still have to do one or two things before all those institutions can be set up.

My party and I sincerely hope that that will happen in due course. We sincerely hope that we will have good, fair and well attended elections. By "well attended", I mean that there will be a good poll and a good turnout from the population of Northern Ireland. I sincerely hope that after these elections we can see devolved government in all its states, with all the institutions up and running and in full swing. I support the Government's orders.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for introducing these very important orders. Perhaps I may say with the greatest of respect that the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council should have introduced them, given their huge symbolic and substantive significance to Northern Ireland. I trust that this is not an augury of things to come. I do not believe that the late and very lamented Lord Williams of Mostyn would have missed this trick.

Today the "sage of Ulster" in his weekly column in the Irish Independent presented a pessimistic scenario regarding the Assembly elections. Dr Maurice Hayes predicted a low turn out, which would be quite unprecedented: Northern Ireland traditionally has high levels of voter turnout. This is not surprising perhaps, given the suspension of the Assembly for over a year. What was particularly debilitating was the decision—for no good reason as it turned out—not to hold the elections last May when they were due. The past six months have not merely been a waste of time, but have contributed to a loss of political momentum and will have fostered a great apathy and indeed some cynicism among the electorate.

The election campaign is under way and the people will make their choice. When the Assembly reconvenes, London and Dublin would be well advised to stand back and play a very modest role, leaving it to the parties to form an executive. It is up to the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives. If they fail to form a power-sharing executive—and I predict that this will take many months—in the end there will be a return to direct rule. But not as before. Does the Minister agree that the status quo ante is not an option? As I have said before, it will be direct rule, run by London in very close partnership with Dublin. In effect, a condominium. I say that to Ulster Unionist colleagues. No one with any democratic spirit will like that, and it is up to the newly elected Assembly to hammer out an agreement by which an executive can be resumed.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I too am very grateful to the Minister. If I appear to be slightly critical—not of her but of the legislation—the purpose is to allow her to provide reassurance and explanation, because there is a degree of confusion on the ground.

It may be that there is some compelling reason for Parliament giving retrospective approval to many of these instruments. I concede that the practice of retrospective approval is not entirely novel or unusual; for example, in matters such as road traffic, speed limits or pub closing hours.

However, running through these orders is the notion that the candidate is required to conform to the provisions, so that they can appear on ballot papers and on lists of candidates. I assume that that authorisation may be a mere technicality, but I am not certain that that is understood. I was canvassed this morning by a candidate. I teased him by asking, "What are your credentials? I mean, are you a candidate?" "Oh, yes"—he said—"I am a proper candidate". I asked, "Well, how is it that their Lordships' House tonight is going to approve the procedure and the lists to which you are referring?" He was stumped for an answer. I did not indicate which way I was going to vote. I just left him to mull that one over.

It does no service to democracy to imply or suggest that the validity of candidates is dependent upon your Lordships giving or withholding approval tonight. What is the electorate to make of candidates canvassing last week and today, who have every reason to believe that they are validly nominated, when Parliament is only now—and presumably the other place has yet to tackle this issue—getting around to making these candidates honest men and women?

In one of the orders there appears to be a let out for someone not yet validly nominated, but enabled to declare himself or herself nominated. It is a kind of a do-it-yourself device in one of the clauses. It is in paragraph 2(2) of the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003 (Consequential Modifications No. 2) Order 2003. I wonder whether this has anything to do with the departure from the established practice. It confers on the candidate that, if on or before that date he is declared by himself or others to be a candidate at the election". I am uncertain that that sits tidily with the Representation of the People Acts as I used to know them when I was a humble election agent aware of all the pitfalls.

Your Lordships will know that respect for democracy is already at a low ebb—mainly, but not only, in Northern Ireland. The perception is that conjuring tricks make too much impact on the body politic, especially in Northern Ireland. I assume that the Government share my view that democracy has just about survived a pretty fierce battering in recent months. Her Majesty's Government and Parliament must resolve to put an end to what the electorate already regard as a bit of sharp practice. A return to respect for democracy and democratic principles is urgently needed if we are to avoid further loss of faith in electoral verdicts and, as has already been said, look forward hopefully to the future after the election to establishing workable devolved government in Northern Ireland.

On those grounds, I beg all concerned to remember that after four weeks of confusion in Northern Ireland, democracy there is a tender plant.

8 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness would agree that the degree of trust in the future that electors feel when they go to elections is important. I therefore return to the issue of decommissioning. The Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and Mr Trimble were clearly expecting that hard facts and figures would be given by the commission on the latest quantity and nature of the arms supposed to have been put beyond use. But in the event, General de Chastelain said that under the agreement with the IRA he was committed to give no detail either publicly or, as it turned out, even to the two Prime Ministers.

However, the decommissioning scheme based on the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, states at paragraph 26: Disclosure of information received by the Commission may occur where disclosure is necessary … for reasons of public safety"— I should have thought that that would apply given the present situation in Northern Ireland—or, to fulfil the Commission's duty to report to the two Governments". In August 2001, it was the commission, announcing the putting of some arms beyond use, that said without giving any detail that it was, satisfied that it would not further the process of putting arms beyond use to provide further details of that event". That was a unilateral decision by the commission; it was not based on the legislation. That is one more example of the commission—unwittingly and for entirely honourable but, I think, innocent motives— following the IRA's agenda.

I raise that point because it concerns the issue of trust. The Government are still free to advance that matter and insist that something should be said. It makes nonsense of the whole issue of decommissioning if people cannot know what is the outcome. The Government believe in transparency, and I respect that. They owe it to the people about to vote using their legislation to say exactly what was decommissioned and how often the commission carries out the duty placed on it by the legislation to inspect all the arms caches that it has been shown.

That is one issue. The other is that on 3rd November, Mr Adams said in New York: anti-Agreement Unionists must accept an all-Ireland agenda if they want to see the return of devolved Government". That is a formidable threat, and a clear one. He continued: Efforts to restore the institutions of the Agreement must proceed urgently after the election". I can agree warmly with that; I hope that the Government do too.

My last question has been posed in a general way by my noble friend Lord Glentoran: has the machinery to ensure against vote-rigging that was planned almost two years ago—the computerised method—been put in place? Is it working? The last time we asked about that we were told that it required testing and was not quite ready. I should be reassured to know whether it is now ready and able to work.

Lord Laird

My Lords, I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to several issues regarding the orders before us today.

We must all bear in mind that when the Assembly election was postponed in May, the Secretary of State insisted that we needed to see acts of completion. The Prime Minister himself made that clear in October 2002. That leads one to wonder exactly what acts of completion have taken place recently that would encourage and provide a foundation for the calling of the Assembly election on the 26th November.

Does the noble Baroness accept that the 26th November is merely a date that has been set for an election? The reality is that suspension has not been lifted from the Assembly. As such, can we take it that the Government are still insistent on there being transparent acts of completion before the suspension of the Assembly can be lifted and the executive re-established?

Secondly, I draw the attention of the noble Baroness to the rather odd sequencing of events of Tuesday 21st October concerning transparent acts of completion. The date for the election was announced at 7 a.m.— rather earlier than we had been led to expect. Moreover, we had been led to expect that General de Chastelain would have been able to provide considerably more detail about the IRA's act of decommissioning than he did later that afternoon. There was no transparency, no clarity, and no itinerary of weapons. As a result, confidence in the process was severely diminished. It was that which led the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party to, in his words, put the process on hold.

The Government, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, chose to waive the only leverage still available to them that would have helped to ensure the transparency we all sought. They chose to make the order for the elections to proceed. The Government had the opportunity to pull this process back to ensure that confidence and clarity were injected.

I do not want noble Lords to misinterpret my words as a statement against the elections. I and my party very much want power to be returned to the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, your Lordships must remember that while we are holding elections to the Assembly in a few weeks, the immediate re-establishment of the power-sharing institutions is not in fact guaranteed. Noble Lords must appreciate the potential for the Government's gamble to fail and for electoral results not to be favourable for the resumption of devolved administration.

All we have at present is an election date. Suspension has not been lifted. Can the noble Baroness tell us now whether suspension will be lifted once the votes have been counted? If we fail to retrieve the situation soon, we could find ourselves back in this House and another place in, say, six months' time, once again looking at orders such as those before us.

The noble Baroness must be very aware of the questions that I am raising, yet I ask her once again: why did the Government leave the fulfilment of Sinn Fein's obligations to carry out transparent acts of completion to chance, when they could have taken the initiative by insisting on the transparency that they insisted was a prerequisite for holding Assembly elections?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I was saddened, unusually, by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. I assure him that I have deputised—I hope, satisfactorily—for previous holders of the office that the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, now holds. I assure the noble Lord that the noble Baroness is fulfilling another important duty.

I thank all noble Lords for expressing support for the orders. I shall deal, first, with the issues that all noble Lords raised to some degree. We consider that the statements by the leader of Sinn Fein and by the IRA were major steps and confirmed commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. The act of decommissioning overseen was very welcome; however, unfortunately, as noble Lords have recognised, it did not achieve the public confidence necessary. The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and others referred to that. We now have the Independent Monitoring Commission to give an independent and authoritative view on whether commitments are being upheld to ensure that the promise of a full and final closure of the conflict is a reality.

Noble Lords asked whether the lack of revelation of the detail of the decommissioning process was proper. It is for the IICD acting as an independent body to account for its actions, but we believe that General de Chastelain and his colleagues have acted throughout with integrity and professionalism. We have no reason to doubt that they have acted in line with their obligations.

In response to the noble Lords, Lord Smith of Clifton, Lord Laird, Lord Glentoran, and others, after the election, the British and Irish Governments will work with the parties to resolve the outstanding issues as quickly as possible to enable devolved government to be restored to the people of Northern Ireland. We intend to restore the institutions in Northern Ireland as soon as there is a realistic prospect of an inclusive executive being formed. We remain committed to the Belfast agreement as the only way forward for inclusive political progress. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said in another place, we will make proposals for the conduct of the review of the operation of the agreement before the end of the year. But the fundamental principles of the agreement are not a matter for negotiation.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, asked whether we agreed that there should be a condominium between London and Dublin if we have to return to direct rule. The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, also touched on that issue. Naturally, the Government share the noble Lord's hope that it will be possible to restore devolved government quickly. It would not be proper for me to speculate in detail during the election campaign on what will take place in hypothetical scenarios. The Government remain committed to the agreement as the only sustainable basis for progress in Northern Ireland. Perhaps it would be appropriate to note at this stage that I am being extremely careful in the light of the fact that we are in an election period.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked about the electoral registration computer system. The requirements of the new electoral register led to the installation of a new £1.5 million computer system in the summer of 2002. It has already proven to be successful in handling the requirements of the new legislation and producing the register on time. The system, which has introduced several security checks, has the capacity to reduce the likelihood of electoral fraud to an absolute minimum.

The new registration system necessitated a move to individual registration and away from household registration. In effect, it doubled the number of forms needed—from 650, 000 household forms to 1.2 million individual forms. I hope that that answers the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. I hope that the figures are correct; if there is a problem, I will speak to the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith of Clifton, afterwards.

To a certain extent, all noble Lords echoed the sadness that the Government share. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, that democracy is always to be treated as a tender plant, particularly in these circumstances. The noble Lord asked me about people declaring themselves candidates. Section 118A of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which the order modifies, refers to the possibility of a person declaring himself a candidate.

The noble Lord also commented on the date. I can assure him that the orders were agreed in the other place on 29th October through the urgency procedure. The noble Lord may have further detailed questions. Like him, I was an election agent many years ago, and I would never dare to answer a question off the cuff, lest the noble Lord be dissatisfied. It is complicated law, as all noble Lords taking part in the debate would agree.

I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, I must say that in no way was I casting aspersions on her. As always, she has done a thoroughly competent job introducing Northern Ireland business. I am sure that the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council has a heavy diary, but I just think that her advisers missed a trick tonight.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I do not think that that needs a comment from me at this stage. I join all noble Lords who have expressed strong support for the proper conduct of the democratic process in Northern Ireland. I join all noble Lords in hoping that the result of the election will lead to the possibility of an urgent return to the full implementation of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement.

On Question, Motion agreed to