I beg to move,
That the draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 25 October, be approved.
These orders update the law governing elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and to district councils in Northern Ireland in advance of elections in 2011.
I will deal first with the Assembly order, which is much the smaller of the two. That is because the law governing elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly was substantially amended as recently as 2009. Since then, some minor procedural updates have been applied to European and parliamentary elections that, for consistency, should also be applied to Assembly elections. For example, article 3 of the order makes provision to allow a candidate standing in the name of two or more parties to have one of those party’s emblems on the ballot paper.
It also enables a person who cannot sign his or her signature to use a mark in place of any signature required at the nomination stage. Article 4 requires individuals to give reasons if they request their absent vote to be sent to a different address from that at which they are registered. Those are clearly relatively small changes, but they nevertheless mirror updates made to the law since 2009 that apply at other elections in Northern Ireland, and they will provide for greater consistency.
The draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 2010 is the more substantial order, and provides a much-needed update of the law governing local elections in Northern Ireland. The Electoral Administration Act 2006 made a considerable number of changes to the law governing parliamentary elections across the United Kingdom. As I have indicated, those changes were applied to Northern Ireland Assembly elections and European elections in 2009, but have not yet been applied to district council elections in Northern Ireland. They are set out in schedule 1 to the order, and they include allowing returning officers to correct procedural errors and supply documents in other languages and formats.
Schedule 1 also makes provision for the control of donations to candidates in local elections in Northern Ireland, in line with the donation controls that apply at all other elections in Northern Ireland and across the UK. Schedule 2 makes changes to absent voting procedures, which again already apply at other elections in Northern Ireland. They include adding registered social workers to the list of those who may attest absent vote applications on the grounds of illness and disability, which will make it easier for people with disabilities who live in the community to apply for an absent vote. Schedule 3 aligns the law relating to access to and inspection of documents at local elections with procedures at all other elections in Northern Ireland.
The order also amends the local election rules contained in schedule 5 to the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962. That includes updating the list of acceptable forms of photographic ID that can be presented in order to vote in Northern Ireland, which is of course crucial to ensure consistency of approach for all polls in 2011.
The order is substantial, and I would not wish to detain the House by providing an in-depth description of each provision. I hope the House is satisfied that it contains small but important changes to the law that will provide much-needed modernisation of local election procedures in Northern Ireland and greater consistency with other elections across the UK.
Finally, article 3 of the local elections order sets the date of the next district council elections in Northern Ireland as 5 May 2011. Hon. Members will be aware that in 2008, the previous Government agreed to a request from the Northern Ireland Executive to postpone the local elections that were scheduled to take place in May the following year. The House subsequently approved legislation to postpone the election until 2011, on a date to be specified nearer the time. The postponement was to allow time for new local government boundaries to be redrawn as part of the overall review of public administration that was taking place in Northern Ireland. That review was to provide, among other things, for the number of district councils in Northern Ireland to be reduced from 26 to 11.
I regret to report that that reduction did not proceed as planned. Although the local government boundaries commissioner reported to the Executive with proposed new boundaries on time in 2009, an order has still not been brought before the Assembly to give effect to them. This June I made it absolutely clear to the Executive that there could be no prospect of further postponement of the elections beyond the two years previously agreed. I was also advised that further delay in passing the order to give effect to the boundaries would seriously jeopardise planning for elections in May 2011. The Executive therefore needed to take an urgent decision on whether the proposed new councils could be delivered in time to allow for elections to them in May 2011.
On 15 June I received confirmation from the Minister for the Environment in the Executive that the reorganisation would not now go ahead in 2011. I announced shortly afterwards that there was now no option but to hold elections to the existing 26 councils in May 2011. The local elections order will provide for that. I know that some hon. and right hon. Members may have concerns about those elections being combined with both Assembly elections and a potential referendum on the alternative vote. I have received the advice of both the Electoral Commission and the chief electoral officer on this matter, and both are confident that a combined poll in May 2011 can be successfully delivered if the risks are properly managed.
My officials are working closely with the commission and the chief electoral officer in the run-up to the polls to ensure that there is an early identification and resolution of any potential problems.
The Minister alludes to the difficulties that could be presented, with the distinct possibility—or probability—of our having three elections, using two different voting systems, on the same day. Will he ensure that as much co-ordination and co-operation takes place to ensure that after this legislation passes, which it undoubtedly will, the people of Northern Ireland get the maximum amount of information to ensure that they are fully prepared for what will be an unprecedented voting day next May?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we must do that. In fact there are two elections, which will be held in the normal way for the people in Northern Ireland, and the third is just a straight yes/no vote. I hope that the people of Northern Ireland will vote in the same way as I will.
The Minister mentioned that in his meeting with the Electoral Commission, it had indicated that it was happy to facilitate all the elections taking place on the same day, provided that the risks were properly managed. Will he also agree that the commission said that it needed to ensure that it is properly resourced, given that there will be complications involving, for example, the number of ballot boxes available, and a number of other logistical issues, which will require more expenditure than a regular election?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Of course this needs to be properly resourced, and the necks of both the Secretary of State and myself are on the line if anything goes wrong. What we all want to avoid, on both sides of the House, are scenes such as those that we saw in the recent general election, when people were turned away from the polling stations. The matter is further complicated because some polling stations in Northern Ireland are quite small. There is also the issue of screening, and, as the hon. Lady said, of ballot boxes. I understand that the ballot boxes are being sourced at the moment. She is right to say that we must get it right, and to do that requires proper planning and funding.
As I was saying, my officials are working closely with the commission and the chief electoral officer in the run-up to the polls to ensure that there is early identification and resolution of any problems such as the ones that we have just heard about.
I hope that the House is satisfied that the vast majority of provisions in these orders will make small but important changes to provide for greater consistency with elections elsewhere in the UK. I also hope that hon. and right hon. Members are reassured that the necessary steps will be taken to ensure successful combined polls in May 2011, and will therefore agree that the date of the next local elections should be set for 5 May next year. I commend these orders to the House.
Northern Ireland has made remarkable political progress, and that has been integral to the whole peace process. There are many people both inside and outside Northern Ireland who deserve great credit for that. Enormous efforts have been made, as is reflected in the celebrated success to date. For the first time in a generation, the overwhelming majority of people can live peaceful lives free from violence. Nevertheless, Northern Ireland still has a particular political ecology and the situation remains fragile. That is why any proposals to change the way in which the electoral situation works in Northern Ireland require great scrutiny, consultation and forethought. It is clear to us, however, that in the Government’s rush to gerrymander Scottish, Welsh and Irish parliamentary seats, they are failing to listen to the deep concerns of Northern Ireland politicians about how ill-considered changes could have negative consequences for Northern Ireland.
Clearly, the motivation and rationale behind the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which will apply to Northern Ireland, are questionable. We support the principle of an AV referendum, yet the Government have refused to split it from the much more contentious matter of constituency design. The Government claim that over-representation is a primary driver of the changes, yet the UK sits in the middle of the EU table, with one MP per 110,000 people.
The Government have also said that the reduced number of MPs will save money, but it is hard to see how that can be true. There is no evidence that reducing the number of MPs will cut case loads, so unless the Government intend to make MPs less accessible to their constituents, they will have to resource MPs for the relative uplift in constituency size. It is worth noting that this week, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) suggested that people who will no longer qualify for legal aid because of the changes that the Government are about to implement should go to their local Member of Parliament. It is therefore clear that the Government are intent on increasing MPs’ case loads in any case. That will need to be resourced, so savings seem unlikely.
Yes, of course. The votes will take place on the same day, so the arguments that apply to the rest of the UK also apply to Northern Ireland. A particular complication is that, as a consequence of the orders, Northern Ireland will also have local government elections on the same day.
Indeed, taken together with the Government’s plan for fixed-term Parliaments, the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill appears to be designed simply to assure the coalition a five-year term, with constituency redesign giving it the best chance of re-election. We therefore believe that it sits outside the margins of acceptable democratic practice.
The House of Lords has narrowly decided that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is not hybrid, yet it is strange that the Government should decide that two Scottish constituencies will be treated as special cases and exempted, while Northern Ireland, where the Assembly may be directly affected by the measure, is not to be a special case. The strength of Northern Ireland’s democratic institutions is crucial to the peace process, and the legislation governing the running of Northern Ireland Assembly elections was constructed specifically to ensure wide community representation. In his winding-up speech, will the Minister assure the House that the changes that he intends to make will not affect the delicate balance in the Northern Ireland electoral system, especially for smaller parties?
Another primary concern is that the strict 5% thresholds, which are explicit in the Bill, will reduce the scope for the boundary commissioners to take local variables into account. Arithmetic will trump all other considerations and local communities will be split between constituencies. Professor Ron Johnson of Bristol university, for example, said that splitting some wards between constituencies will be inevitable. The Boundary Commission has confirmed that. Wards will no longer be the building blocks of constituencies. In many cases, natural geographical boundaries such as rivers will have to be ignored, as will community links and historical factors, which are so important in Northern Ireland.
According to the Boundary Commission, the threshold is also likely to lead to frequent reviews, which means that some constituencies will change with each review. That will further destabilise the relationship between local communities—
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
In the context of the reduced sensitivity to local variables, we believe that the constraints on local inquiries are especially serious. At a time of such significant changes, that is particularly important.
The political ecology in Northern Ireland is particular; it is different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Government plan to change the electoral system and the constituencies in Scotland, England and Wales, and they are not taking sufficient account of the peculiar variables that apply in Northern Ireland. As a consequence of the orders, local elections will take place on the same day as other elections, and there could be additional complexity. It is important for the Government to take into account the different nature of Northern Ireland. We do not believe that they are doing that. Consequently, the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland, and of the United Kingdom as a whole, will not be served.
May I express my great frustration and annoyance at our being denied time to debate these important matters? However, I am sure that your statement will come as a great relief to other hon. Members, Mr Deputy Speaker.
In all seriousness, as the Minister said, the orders are technical, although they flow from significant primary legislation, which we have already debated at some length since we returned from the summer recess.
On the issue of having the three elections on one day, the orders are designed to make the elections run smoothly and prevent difficulties in the conduct of the elections for the chief electoral officer, his officers and, not least, the electorate. That is welcome, particularly on issues such as making sure that the timetable is consistent for both the council elections and the Assembly elections. There has been some criticism in previous years in Northern Ireland about the rather strange timetable adopted for council elections compared with Assembly and parliamentary elections. If my memory serves me right, when I served in local government and had to submit nomination papers, that had to be done four and a half weeks before election day, so there seemed to be an inordinately long campaign for local government elections compared with others.
Obviously it is important that the timetable is synchronised and that issues such as postal and proxy votes are properly managed so that people applying for them receive one package through the post containing the necessary forms and one containing the three ballot papers. I am glad to hear that there will be three separate, differently coloured ballot papers. I am sure that we have all learned the lesson from Scotland—this never happened in Northern Ireland—when there was an attempt to have two different kinds of ballot on one paper. That was a big mistake and I am sure that it will never happen again.
We are where we are as far as the coincidence of the council and Assembly elections and the referendum is concerned. Obviously, it is preferable that, where possible, there are not so many choices on so many matters before the electorate on any given date, but people in Northern Ireland are used to having joint elections. Indeed, the council elections in 2001 and 2005 coincided with a Westminster general election. If memory serves me right, it may have happened before that. I know that at one time elections were deliberately brought together by the then leader of the Ulster Unionist party, which is no longer represented in this House, because he thought that it would increase turnout and support for his party. As with so many of his calculations, it did not quite work out that way on the day.
This is a sensible set of provisions for 5 May next year. The Minister referred to the date of the council elections for next year, and said that it was the result of the Executive not acting on the recommendation to proceed with the reform of local government. He did not go into the reasons for that, of course, but I would not want the House to be under the impression that this was the result of a lack of desire among most of the parties in the Assembly to make progress on the issue. Even if the reform did not lead to a reduction in the number of councils, other reforms were proposed, such as greater collaboration among councils and the various departments for which they are responsible. Unfortunately, it was not possible to achieve the major cost saving that would have accrued to councils in Northern Ireland because of the intransigence of one party, Sinn Fein, which rejected that constructive proposal. Therefore we are left having to proceed with the election with no real reform to local government due.
When costings were carried out for the council reforms, it became clear that there would have been considerable up-front costs. Given that the Northern Ireland block grant has been severely hit as a result of the recent comprehensive spending review, and the already severe restrictions, difficulties and challenges facing the Northern Ireland Executive on public expenditure, it was felt that this was not an appropriate time to proceed with that particular reform. Obviously, when it comes to choosing between council reform and health expenditure, education and so on, people are right to choose the latter. That is the background to the reason for the proposals for the date of the election and why they will involve the same number of councils as previously.
The hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), who spoke for the Opposition, referred to the reduction in the number of constituencies in Northern Ireland that may result from legislation going through Parliament at the moment and wondered what would have happened had there been a reduction in the number of councils. Is there not a danger in Northern Ireland that the larger we create constituencies and councils, the more removed government becomes from the people?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to that. The previous Government proposed reducing the number of councils to seven. I am the first to support a reduction in governance and the number of elected officials and all the rest of it, but a reduction to seven councils would have meant that Northern Ireland councils would be bigger than any other region of Europe. I am sure that the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), will go into considerable detail on that in his speech.
The lack or inadequacy of consultation on the primary legislation with parties in the Assembly and the Executive has been mentioned. I do not want to go over that, but consultation on Assembly and local elections with the chief electoral officer of Northern Ireland is mentioned in the orders and the explanatory memorandum. I recently met the new chief electoral officer. He is a very impressive officer and I think he will do an excellent job, but it is clear that he sought, during consultations on both the primary legislation and the secondary legislation that we are debating, some changes to the way in which elections are carried out that were not proposed by the Northern Ireland Office.
I am thinking in particular about the removal of polling agents from Northern Ireland polling stations. The Minister is nodding his head, so perhaps he has held discussions on polling agents. This is an important matter. Commendably, we have a sophisticated and elaborate system to tackle identity fraud and the abuse of the electoral system. As has been said, people must now produce certain types of photographic identification or sign postal votes, and their signatures are carefully examined. Postal and proxy vote abuse has been considerably reduced from the large-scale abuse that took place in previous elections. Our system is a model for dealing with postal votes for the rest of the UK. If the rest of the UK wants to cut out the abuse of postal voting, people should look at the administration and regime in Northern Ireland. Clearly, our system is now without any kind of abuse at all.
However, why do we still need polling agents—representatives of political parties—sitting in polling stations in Northern Ireland? The NIO, which is still responsible for elections, should address that, because it is clear that one or two parties—I am thinking of one in particular—clearly abuse that for purposes not in keeping with the legislation. Information is taken out of polling stations, so that voters who have not voted can be identified and then, of course, visited. They will be asked, “Why have you not voted?” and told to get out to vote. In certain parts of the Province and in certain circumstances, people will feel intimidated by that, so polling agents are being used for nefarious purposes. I urge the NIO to take that seriously when it next gets a legislative opportunity.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one difficulty is that when people are approached in those circumstances and they realise that the information has been garnered at the polling station, they fear that the fact of how they have voted is also available? People are often quite intimated by the notion that the ballot is less than fully secret.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We might sit in the comfort of this Chamber and know that the ballot is secret and that the information cannot get out, but for a lot of people, exactly the scenario that she has painted is what they believe to be the case. They believe that because information has been gathered on whether they have voted thus far, people will be able to find out how they have voted, and the people who call at their doors make no effort to disabuse them of that notion either. This is an important matter. Nowadays there is no reason at all for that provision to remain, if we really are going to ensure that we have fair and clean elections in Northern Ireland. As has been mentioned on a number of occasions, the ecology of the electoral system is different—and it is different: people are more easily intimidated by the way certain parties operate—so removing that provision would be a step towards improving the democratic process and making people less concerned about exercising their franchise.
The management of elections by the chief electoral officer and the issue of resources, which is an important point, have already been mentioned. In my discussions with the chief electoral officer, the point that he laid most emphasis on was resources. The matter of ballot boxes has also been raised, which is another issue that I know has been discussed. All sorts of imaginative suggestions have been canvassed, and I hope that it will be possible to find a sensible solution that minimises costs.
There is also the issue of polling stations. The Minister referred to the fact that polling stations in Northern Ireland were sometimes smaller than they are elsewhere. Again, I would urge him in his discussions with the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland to do what I have done, which is to urge the authorities to be a bit more imaginative when it comes to the buildings and premises that they use as polling stations. People are too fixated on the traditional buildings—“We’ve always used this building and we can’t depart from tradition”—whereas new premises have sprung up, and many people are used to doing things differently. Sometimes the electoral officers are far too hidebound by the past in managing this issue, so I would again urge the Minister in his discussions respectfully to ask the chief electoral officer to be much more flexible. There is a consultation under way—certainly in my constituency, and I am sure in those of other hon. Members—that is closing in December on the very issue of polling stations, so this is an opportune moment for the matter to be pursued.
Finally, so as to leave plenty of time for others who wish to contribute to this debate, let me say something about enforcement. The local elections order is fairly substantial, as the Minister said, as is the Assembly order. When I read through the detail of all the rules, what struck me was this: what happens when those rules, particularly those applying to the conduct of the election by candidates and parties, are breached? In my experience, it seems that we can prescribe all sorts of rules, from rules on the colour of ballot papers to rules on whether the X or the “1” should be marked in black pen or in pencil—we debated that in the primary legislation—or what would constitute a clear preference, all of which are matters of great detail. Indeed, the forms are set out in incredible detail in the legislation, so the issue is extremely important. Yet I have found that when matters are drawn to the attention of the authorities—the chief electoral officer and then the people responsible for prosecuting such matters—very little is ever done about breaches of the rules.
I want to refer to a matter that I raised during the debate on the primary legislation on the parliamentary voting system. One party in Northern Ireland—Sinn Fein—seems to be adept at producing detailed replicas of polling cards and other official material. On one side they appear to be authentic, but the other side has party political propaganda, some of it of a vicious nature, designed to persuade people that not only is Sinn Fein recommending voting a certain way, but that the electoral authorities are also doing so.
There were examples of that practice during the last Westminster election. One was in the constituency of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), and there was at least one in my constituency. There were also other illegal practices. The matter was drawn to the attention of the then chief electoral officer, who took the matter seriously, and it has been referred on to the authorities to consider what action should be taken. We know that there are serious consequences, and we will watch carefully, as will the electorate and the people of Northern Ireland, as well as the media, to see what happens about a clear and flagrant breach of electoral law.
I do not expect the Minister to respond in any shape or form on the specifics of a case, but I raise the matter because it concerns me that from time to time in Northern Ireland elections, whether local, Assembly or Westminster elections, all sorts of illegal practices go on. Vast amounts of money are spent, the election returns show that only a small amount was spent. Although everyone knows that tens of thousands of pounds have been spent but never declared. Such matters should be taken seriously.
It is all very well to pass legislation, regulations and rules. We debate them at length, and scrutinise them properly, but we must ensure that there is effective and proper enforcement, otherwise people will take the signal that at the next election they can push the boundaries even further and get away with far worse. That is insidious, and it needs to be stamped on. I am happy to lend my support and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the orders.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), but I hope that I do not disappoint him with the length of my speech, which will be very short. As the Minister who, in January last year, took through the order to postpone the elections in 2009, I thought I owed the House at least one or two brief comments.
First, I thank the Minister for keeping the promise that I made in Committee last January that the Northern Ireland council elections would be held in 2011. Members of the Committee questioned what guarantees there would be that council elections would be held that year, and I asked them to back my judgment, which they did. I am not in a position to deliver on that judgment now, but the Minister is, and I thank him for following through my commitment.
The Minister explained that the reason for the delay was connected with the review of public administration, an initiative that began with the Executive in 2002. Direct rule Ministers took it over, but it then quite rightly returned to the Executive as their responsibility in 2007. Indeed, I remember that in 2007 Ministers in the Executive took up the issue with some relish because they could see the merits of greater efficiency by reorganising public bodies, whether health, police or local government.
In April 2008, the then Minister for the Environment, Arlene Foster, wrote to the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward), with a request that the council elections be delayed for two years to 2011. She made the compelling case on behalf of the Executive that the complexity of reorganising the local council structure and boundaries was quite a challenge: the single transferable vote system would require new council wards, new districts and new grouping of district electoral areas. Although we were reluctant to take the dramatic step of cancelling elections, we felt that, in view of the exceptional circumstances, it was justifiable and we introduced the necessary legislation.
I had further extensive discussions with Arlene Foster’s successor, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), and his successor in the role, Edwin Poots. It is of course a matter of regret that Edwin Poots wrote to the Minister in June this year to say that, for various reasons, it would be impossible to proceed with the changes to the local council boundaries. Great frustration was expressed about that, not least, I am sure, by the Minister himself because he will be able to see the advantages involved. None the less, these challenges must now be tackled by the Executive Members and by the Minister for the Environment in Northern Ireland, rather than by this House. Indeed, if I were to stray and to offer any more opinions to the right hon. Member for Belfast North and his colleagues, they would soon intervene on me.
Some concerns remain, however, and I should be interested to hear the Minister’s comments. Having now set the date for the council elections in 2011, the pressure for local government reform is off, in a sense, which is a pity because I am sure that the Minister in the Executive will want to see the reforms put in place, as will other Members of the Executive. There would be great dividends if that were possible. Will the Minister tell us tonight whether there are any signs of progress? If reform were to pick up apace, would he be prepared to come back to this House with a proposition to bring forward the date of the next local council elections in Northern Ireland, which would otherwise happen in 2015?
The right hon. Gentleman was much respected for the work he did as a Minister for Northern Ireland, but any notion of bringing forward the date of the next council elections from 2015 would not find favour with the parties in Northern Ireland, not least because it would be deeply unfair on those who had been elected on the basis of a four-year term suddenly to say to them, “Your term is going to be truncated.” So although I understand where he is coming from, and the sentiments that he has expressed, I urge him to rethink that proposition.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but I am sure that he will share my concern, given his deep knowledge of the electoral system in Northern Ireland, that the council boundaries are way out of date. There is therefore some urgency in trying to move to new council boundaries that reflect a more modern approach. I do not expect a positive answer from the Minister about bringing forward the date of the next local council elections after 2011, but I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to see this as an urgent matter and not one that can simply be left on the shelf. I am concerned that, with the introduction of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, attention will now be focused more on constituencies and away from local government structure in Northern Ireland, and anything that will maintain the sense of urgency about the need for the local government reform will be a good thing. I repeat, however, that these are no longer matters for this House; they have now quite rightly been devolved to the Executive in Northern Ireland.
There is also the question of the practical implications of holding the various elections on the same day. I know that the Minister said he had consulted on this, and that he was confident they could all be held on the same day. I pay tribute to all those who administer the elections in Northern Ireland professionally and effectively, and I do not call into question their ability to conduct those elections one bit, but there is a debate about the various issues that are at stake: elections to the Assembly, elections to local councils and, probably, the question of whether to have an alternative vote system or not. That has been debated endlessly elsewhere. We are talking about elections using the single transferable vote system for councils and for the Assembly, which is very complicated and takes time. I urge the Minister to keep up the pressure on those who will administer the system to make sure that all the right questions are asked and answered.
There is the further point—I am sure that Minister will have considered it—that if the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill is passed as drafted, in 2015 we will have council elections, a general election and Assembly elections on the same day, using different—possibly very different—electoral systems and under new boundaries. This will be the height of complication. Again, I urge the Minister to pay close attention. He said in the course of his remarks that his neck is on the line. I well know that feeling, but I am sure he will do a fine job.
Surely the height of complication would be the situation in American states such as Montana, where people voted for the American President, for the Congress, for the state governor, in state elections and sometimes even in local elections—sometimes with additional propositions as well. They seem to manage it in Montana, so surely they could manage it in Northern Ireland.
I am not saying that those who administer elections in Northern Ireland would be incapable of doing so. I am simply making the point that this will place a burden on the system in Northern Ireland that it has never faced before. There are also implications for the electoral cycle. In perpetuity—unless the Minister offers alternatives—council elections and Assembly elections will always be held on the same day in Northern Ireland on a four-year cycle. Again, I think that should be a cause for reflection. However, I have nothing but good wishes for the Minister in ensuring that all these issues are dealt with. I am sure he will do very well. In so far as he ensures that these elections are held properly in 2011 and subsequently, he will have my full support.
I support the orders. I would like briefly to raise a number of issues, some of which have already been touched on by other Members.
First, I express my disappointment that greater progress has not been made on the review of public administration in Northern Ireland, particularly as the local government elections were postponed to facilitate that process. It has become something of a political soap opera—not quite as long running as “Coronation Street” and certainly not as entertaining. It has not reached a satisfactory conclusion as yet, and there seems to be little prospect that it will—despite the fact that it has cost a lot of money. Most people would have liked to have seen this issue brought to a more satisfactory conclusion.
Given that the last local government elections were held almost six years ago there is a democratic deficit, so it is important to give people the opportunity to refresh their mandate in local government. It is disappointing that this is being done in the absence of reform.
I noted what the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) said about the possibility of bringing the elections forward, but I concur with the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) as I do not believe that further tampering with the electoral cycle is the best way of dealing with the issue. I agree that there is an urgency about taking the review of public administration forward in Northern Ireland. However, local government has demonstrated in the past its ability to co-operate even under its current structures—through arc21, for example, which deals with a number of councils’ waste. At the very least, we should expect enhanced co-operation so that some savings can be made without having to tamper with the cycle further.
I seek the Minister’s reassurance about photographic identification. In May, Westminster elections and council by-elections were held on the same day in my constituency. People turned up to vote, only to find that their photographic ID was admissible for one election but not for the other. This caused extreme distress, particularly for older people, who were relying on transport passes to get the correct photographic ID. They were not able to vote in both elections, as they had expected. I hope that the arrangements involving identification documents can be simplified so that when people turn up at polling stations, they are fully confident that they will be able to cast their votes.
I hope that the Minister will reflect on another issue, although I do not expect a full answer from him this evening. Given that the qualification to vote is established when the electoral register is compiled, which means that people who are on the register and duly marked down for an election have the right to vote in it, the purpose of ID is simply to establish exactly who they are. However, there remains a restriction for foreign nationals who have a right to vote in elections, but no right to use their passports from their home nations as a means of identification. They experience significant difficulties when they try to vote in elections in which they are entitled to vote, but cannot obtain valid identification documents. Given that the purpose of the documents is simply to prove that individuals are the individuals listed in the register, I think that the matter should be dealt with to ensure full participation in the community by those who wish to vote.
Along with other Members, I have already raised concerns about the holding of three elections on the same day next May. The Minister made quite a brave statement when he said that his neck would be on the line if the logistical issues were not handled well. It remains to be seen whether people will want to hold him to that commitment, but I have to say that this is not just about the logistical issues, although they are hugely important. Of course we want the Electoral Commission to be properly resourced to ensure that the elections can be discharged fairly, but we should also consider the democratic deficit that may result from the holding of elections at the same time.
There is always a risk that the Assembly elections and the issues connected with them—I think that it usually happens this way round—will obscure important debates about local governance in relation to local government elections. We need to consider how much media coverage is given to the local government debate, which has a direct impact on people’s lives but tends to be less glamorous—for want of a better word—than the issues dealt with in the Assembly. However, there is a chance that both issues could be overshadowed by the national campaign on the referendum. In Northern Ireland particularly, for obvious reasons, people might focus on the Assembly election, given its importance, rather than on the impact of electoral reform and local government.
A number of Members have said that we could surely cope with these complex elections, and it is true that ours is a very sophisticated electorate. There was a period during which we had an election, if not two, almost every year. People have become accustomed to voting and to how to cast their votes. The electorate are sophisticated in terms of being able to manage the electoral process, and, as others have pointed out, we have had two elections on the same day before. Nevertheless, the additional complication caused by a third election on a very different issue causes me some concern.
I believe that the combination of the local government and Assembly elections, while not ideal, may be manageable. I seek the Minister’s reassurance that he will do all in his power to ensure that people are fully informed about the issues on which they are voting and the consequences of their votes, particularly with respect to the referendum and the two elections that will take place on the same day, and to ensure that the Electoral Commission is properly funded in order to be able to notify people.
The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland, or perhaps the Electoral Commission, has a responsibility to urge people to vote much earlier in the day. We have already experienced problems with queuing, and given that there will be separate ballot boxes, the process will take much longer on this occasion. It is therefore vital for a press and media campaign to be organised officially at an early stage. People must be told, “Do not do what you normally do and wait until the last minute, or after teatime; get out and vote earlier.” That would be a very profitable campaign on the part of the commission.
I entirely agree. I think it hugely important for people to be encouraged to cast their votes at the earliest opportunity. When people have turned up with the wrong documentation, it has been useful for them to be able to revisit the polling station if necessary. However, it would be beneficial generally if we could prevent what tends to be a post-teatime rush, with queues forming late in the day. I hope that that can be impressed on the Electoral Commission, and that the commission can be properly resourced so that its campaign is foremost in people’s minds. People have become accustomed to voting at times of the day that are convenient for them. On this occasion, there will be three different elections with three different ballot papers, and it is important that people recognise how much time will be consumed in filling them in.
I seek the Minister’s reassurance particularly in respect of photo-ID and ensuring that people are properly informed about the nature of the elections taking place on the day.
I will be brief, as there are just a couple of issues that I want to raise with the Minister.
Wards are the building blocks for both local government districts and parliamentary constituencies, and one of the consequences of the delay in the local government elections is that the ward boundaries have not been reviewed for a considerable time. In my constituency, as a result of the most recent parliamentary boundary review, the ward of Derriaghy is now split between the Lagan Valley constituency and the Belfast West constituency. It is the only ward in Northern Ireland that is split. Other wards need to be reviewed, as there have been significant population movements since the last ward boundaries revision.
As a result of legislation currently passing through the House, we now face the prospect of new parliamentary boundaries being created and a reduction in the number of constituencies, possibly from 18 to 15 in Northern Ireland. That review will take place on the existing ward structures. I therefore seek an assurance from the Minister that we will have a review of the ward boundaries at a very early date. That has been held back because of the review of local government, but the boundaries are now significantly out of date and there are disparities in ward sizes—and, as I have mentioned, in at least one case a ward is split between two parliamentary constituencies. We would be interested to hear what proposals the Minister has in respect of the urgent need to review ward boundaries in Northern Ireland.
My second question relates to the counts that will follow the two elections and the referendum in Northern Ireland next year. What will be the order of precedence for those counts? Will the referendum be counted first, because it is a UK-wide referendum? Will the Assembly election count take place before the local government election count, as has been the case in the past? Will the Minister give us some idea as to what will be the order of the counting of votes following these three separate ballots, and will they all take place in the one counting centre in each of the local areas, or will the referendum ballot be counted separately? I seek clarity on these matters.
This has been an interesting debate and a number of interesting points have been raised. The shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), touched only lightly on the proposed legislation under discussion, and seemed to refer rather more to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. He talked about various topics including the House of Lords, Scotland, the boundary commissions and a number of MPs, none of which related to what we are discussing tonight, but his comments were nevertheless interesting for my ministerial colleagues who are present in the Chamber, as they have been discussing that Bill for many days.
The hon. Gentleman said that the changes to the Northern Ireland electoral system are confusing. The changes we propose ensure consistency across all elections in Northern Ireland, making the electoral system clearer for candidates, administrators and voters, and the changes are minor and principally administrative.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) asked a number of interesting questions. He talked about electoral law offences. It is worth putting on record that if a person is suspected of committing such an offence, the chief electoral officer should refer the matter to the police and the prosecuting authorities. Prosecutions are a matter for the Public Prosecution Service, of course. He also talked about the timetabling of local elections. Local election procedures regarding the timetable will now be aligned with the Northern Ireland Assembly timetable by virtue of this order.
The right hon. Gentleman also talked about a subject that I discussed: polling agents. As the former Northern Ireland Minister, the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), will no doubt remember, the previous Government undertook a full public consultation on that in 2008. There was no consensus then on whether they should be abolished. It is also worth noting that the law allowing for polling agents applies across the UK, but we will review this again after the May 2011 elections. I must confess that I have a considerable interest in this point and am more than happy to discuss it with the right hon. Member for Belfast North over the coming months.
I look forward to those discussions. The Minister mentioned a lack of consensus. Obviously we will not get consensus across all the political parties, for the very reasons that I outlined. Would he not put a lot of weight on the views of the chief electoral officer, who surely has an independent view on all this in terms of the conduct of elections?
I do not think that I am breaking any confidences by saying that I have discussed this matter with the chief electoral officer and his predecessor. I can only say that I am more than happy to discuss it with the right hon. Gentleman. I have considerable interest in this and considerable sympathy with where he is coming from. He also raised the issue of political donations. As he will know, the consultation on the provision for donations to political parties in Northern Ireland to be made confidentially concluded on 25 October, and we are considering how best to take that forward.
The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East spoke, as usual, intelligently and with tremendous knowledge. I know that he shares my frustration that things have not moved along as much as we would have liked on local government reorganisation. He asked whether there are signs of progress, and one hears from time to time various rumblings coming from the hill. The answer is that we must not relax on this matter and we must keep up the pressure, and he was right about that. I shall return to that in a moment, if I may. He also spoke about the combined elections in 2015 and he will not be surprised to hear that no decision has yet been taken—we are trying to get through next year first. I would prefer to await the outcome of the combined polls in 2011 before taking a decision on whether it is desirable to combine elections in 2015 or whether a provision should be made for their separation.
I was asked what the Government are planning to do about the coincidence of elections in 2015. I am writing to all Northern Ireland parties setting out our proposed approach and requesting their views. It should be remembered—we have been discussing this recently in terms of other legislation—that the Secretary of State already has a power to alter the Assembly election date by two months. We will see whether we need to do that at that time.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) talked about outdated boundaries. We would very much hope that the Executive have agreed new boundaries to ensure that they are updated well in advance of 2015, but in any case, I am proposing to write to the Minister for the Environment to take forward such a review immediately after the 2011 elections. I believe I am right in saying that the current boundaries are 19 years old, which is not at all acceptable, so clearly this is something that they need to get on with, regardless of local government reorganisation.
The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East asked whether we would bring forward elections. We have received no such request and we would need to consider such a proposal carefully, as we would want to ensure that the transition to new councils and the new set-up was in its final stages. We do not want to chop and change dates without good reason. He would probably support that approach, given that he said that it was with extreme reluctance that he postponed the date of the original election; I believe he said that he did not do that lightly. Nor should we tamper with this. We will have elections in May, but we need to keep up the pressure.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) raised some interesting points about ID, which I had raised with officials today. It is true to say that this order ensures that requirements at all elections are now consistent in Northern Ireland. I am told that people will be able to use the Translink smartpass, provisional driving licence and other smartcards. She also asked about foreigners and foreign ID. It is true that someone can now use an EU driving licence or an EU passport to vote in Assembly and local elections.
One example that we had a problem with was non-EU documentation, such as that from Commonwealth countries. For example, people who are resident ordinarily in Northern Ireland and have Canadian or Indian passports cannot use them as a document to vote, even though they are entitled to vote in that election.
The hon. Lady raises a good point. We should make it perfectly clear well in advance of the elections what photo ID will be acceptable. There could be nothing more frustrating than queuing to take part in three elections, arriving almost as the clock is striking 10 o’clock, only to be told that one has the wrong form of ID. That is something we should consider and, again, we need to be properly prepared. We would not want people in any great numbers—or, indeed, any individual—to feel that they had been disfranchised because they were not aware that their ID, which they thought was quite proper and which could be used on airlines and so on, was not appropriate for an election. We heard loud and clear what the hon. Lady had to say.
The hon. Lady also asked about the Assembly election dominating debate, leading to local issues being ignored. It is worth pointing out that, as the right hon. Member for Belfast North mentioned, local elections were held successfully alongside Westminster elections in Northern Ireland in both 2001 and 2005. The hon. Lady said that Northern Ireland has a sophisticated voting population, and it is up to the individual candidates to set fire in the minds and hearts of their potential electorate—[Interruption.] Not literally, but in terms of trying to get interest in the election. I think the hon. Lady is probably wrong on this point because having three elections, albeit two voting one way and another being a straight yes or no, will mean that people will talk about the elections much more. I would not be at all surprised if we had a very good turnout. I do not think that one issue should eclipse the other—I think that we are going to have a very political new year.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley mentioned ward boundaries. Again, that is a matter for his colleague the Environment Minister in the Executive, but, as we have said, we cannot go on working on boundaries that are nearly 19 years out of date. He also asked a specific question about the electoral night, and I am looking forward to the morning after, which I hope will be one without too much trouble. I am told by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), that the Electoral Commission’s recommendation is that the Assembly election should be first, the referendum second and the local government election third, on the Monday. I believe that that has already been published.
It has been an interesting debate, but not a controversial one. The legislation is necessary to tidy up some anomalies. The contributions made by right hon. and hon. Members of all parties will be listened to by the Electoral Commission and the chief electoral officer. Let us hope that we have a good day next year.
The Deputy Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 24 November (Standing Order No. 41A).
Motion made, and Question put,
That the draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 25 October, be approved.—(Mr Swire.)
The Deputy Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 24 November (Standing Order No. 41A).