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Northern Ireland Assembly Act

Volume 22: debated on Thursday 29 April 1982

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he intends to seek to amend the schedule to the Northern Ireland Assembly Act to take account of population movements in the Province.

Yes, Sir. Paragraph 11 of schedule 2 to the Northern Ireland Bill which was introduced on 20 April amends the schedule to the Northern Ireland Assembly Act 1973 so that the number of Members to be returned to the Assembly from each parliamentary constituency will reflect the distribution of the electorate in line with the 1982 local government register of electors.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that everyone in Northern Ireland will welcome his attempt to ensure parity of representation for the various constituencies in the Province? Does he realise that he has now constructed three constituencies, one with 10 members and two with eight members? Although we in Northern Ireland pride ourselves on our ability to overcome the various electoral obstacles put in our way by this House, does he appreciate that it is very difficult for the electorate to select 10 candidates out of a potential list of perhaps 30 or 40?

The position may improve when we move to the 17 constituencies, but it is too early to say whether we shall be able to do that before any Assembly election. I suspect, however, that if the House passes the Bill the Assembly elections will have to be fought on the 12-constituency basis. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but I do not see how we can get round it at this stage.

Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that if the timetable permits he will have the Assembly elections held on the 17-constituency basis?

There is a difficulty. It would depend on how much time elapsed between the Boundary Commission producing its final report and the likely date of the elections. People need a good deal of notice before constituencies are changed. Certainly the electoral officers would require a certain amount of notice. Therefore, I doubt whether the change could be made in time, but I think that this is a matter on which we should make a decision at a later stage.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he will have the assistance of a majority in the House in deferring the elections in such a way that they can be held, if at all, on the 17-constituency basis? When does he expect to receive the Boundary Commission report which will contain the relevant recommendations?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Boundary Commission published its provisional recommendations on 2 April. It is unlikely that it will publish its final recommendations before June.

On the earlier part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I am well aware of his views. I shall not seek his assistance on that particular matter.