Skip to main content

Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 1996

Volume 571: debated on Thursday 2 May 1996

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

7 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office
(Baroness Denton of Wakefield)

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 29th April be approved [18th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the draft order sets out the technical detail of the arrangements for the elections that are to be held under the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act.

The key features of the election are all prescribed in the Act itself. The order fills out the framework with what I fear is necessarily a substantial volume of technical detail. We considered carefully the form in which this should be presented in order to be most readily understood by those who will have to operate it. It has been suggested that we might have set out, in full, a comprehensive new code. While we saw the attractions of this approach, there are also substantial drawbacks. It would have created an order of very great length, which we believe would have been difficult to apply.

What we have sought to do so far as possible is to apply existing legislation that will be familiar to those involved in electoral matters. Hence the election will be conducted essentially on the basis of the existing law relating to parliamentary elections, with the minimum necessary modifications. Those modifications are set out in the body of the order and the schedules. The order sets out in what respects different provision will be made for this election. We believe that proceeding in this way makes the legislation simpler to understand and apply.

I turn now to a few of the detailed arrangements for the elections. We have been conscious that the electoral system to be used on 30th May will be new and unfamiliar to the electorate, and that a substantial education effort is required. We have already distributed almost 600,000 leaflets, one to every household, drawing attention to arrangements for absent voting, explaining the franchise and reminding voters of the need at Northern Ireland elections to have available one of the specified identity documents. A second leaflet, to be circulated shortly in the same volume, explains how to vote on this occasion and how the electoral system will work. In addition there will be television and radio advertisements during the campaign encouraging people to use their vote.

For these elections, which are different from those we are used to, we have decided that the restrictions on broadcasting in Section 93 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 should not apply. The unusual nature of these elections, involving votes for parties rather than individual candidates, means that the application of Section 93 might cause problems in distinguishing the campaign in a particular constituency from that across Northern Ireland as a whole. It will be important to avoid potential for disputes between the parties and the broadcasters. We understand that broadcasters share our view that these important elections should be given balanced and fair coverage that reflects the inclusive nature of the approach we have taken.

In view of the discussion yesterday in another place when this order was considered, I should like to emphasise a point about the names of parties, on which it is important that there is no misunderstanding. The names of parties for the purposes of the election are those set out in the Bill. That has long been made clear; it was stressed in the consultation paper published in Northern Ireland at the beginning of April. This is an important part of the scheme of the Bill, and if it were not the case, there would be a great deal of scope for confusion and for the use of "spoiling" names by those who might seek to subvert the electoral process. The names in the Bill will therefore appear on the ballot paper, and it is in those names also that the lists of the parties should be submitted. There is provision by which the lists might be rejected otherwise. That is clearly an eventuality that must be avoided, and that is why it is important that the names prescribed in the Bill are used.

These are the main features of the draft order. As I have said, it embodies much complex and technical provision. That is inevitable in provision for any election, because there has developed over the years a very large body of law for the regulation of elections. We believe, on reflection, that the order represents the most sensible and helpful approach to establishing the legal framework for the elections, and I therefore commend the order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 29th April be approved [ 18th Report from the Joint Committee].—( Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her exposition. The timetable is lamentable. As she said, the order was laid on 29th April, and today is 2nd May. The elections are only a matter of a few weeks away. This order was considered in another place yesterday evening. We are not doing our work properly because we are not being given the opportunity to do so. That is, of course, in no sense a criticism of the Minister, but I think it is an objective criticism of the timetable which ought to be sustained. In this order there are 30 pages of detailed, close, dense material which it is simply not possible to scrutinise properly in the time available, particularly bearing in mind that another place sat into the evening yesterday to raise questions and possible amendments.

The Member for North Down in another place, Mr. Robert McCartney, made the point well. He has 20 years' experience as a senior counsel and he found it difficult to deal with all the material.

The Minister mentioned the names of parties and that each party must stick to the formula by way of description within the schedule to the Act. Is that really fair? Mr. McCartney's party will have his name included, the Reverend Paisley will not. It is said that there will be opportunity for mischief and confusion, but that could easily have been attended to by a sieve, worked by the Secretary of State. It does not seem to me to be fair that one party will have the name of its leader on the ballot and another will not. I see no intellectual consistency there at all.

Perhaps I may ask one or two distinct questions of which I have given notice to the Minister. On page 13, paragraph (2C) states:
"Where the election court determines that the election of a delegate or delegates of a particular party was void but that the election as a whole in the constituency to which the petition relates was not void, the return of delegates under paragraph 14 of Part I of Schedule 1 to the 1996 Act shall be calculated again and the votes given for that party in that constituency shall be disregarded".
As I read that, if a single candidate in a constituency acted in such a way as to make his or her election void, then the other successful delegates who would have been elected on that party ticket would be ineligible to sit. That seems a strange consequence, if I have read the section correctly.

Perhaps the Minister can help the House as to the purpose of the reference to overseas electors on page 2 at paragraph 3(6)(c). How are expenses to he dealt with? I realise that there is a formula in respect of expenses for each constituency; but are there to be any limits on the expenses spent by parties generally throughout Northern Ireland? Will there be any opportunity for party political broadcasts? If so, how is equal time to be allocated? I was most heartened that the Minister was able to tell us that a good deal of publicity by way of publicly funded advertising and leaflet drops has been undertaken. That suggestion was put forward by both the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, and myself on an earlier occasion. I am sure that the noble Lord will be as pleased as I am to know that the Government acted upon it.

Have the Government been able to put their mind to the question of alternative mechanisms for parallel decommissioning? I regret to reiterate my fear that if the alternative menu is not available and not fully thought out before 10th June, these negotiations will be abortive.

Yet again we are in the position of saying that these are exceptional circumstances and therefore we are not able to carry out our work of scrutiny correctly or as our duty requires. These "exceptional circumstances" are becoming more the norm than the exception. I direct no criticism at the Minister, who always treats us with every courtesy and consideration, but the time is far too short to scrutinise this bulk of material with any degree of sense.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for her presentation of the order. However, in doing so I share the misgivings of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, in relation to the condensed schedule with which we have been presented throughout the Act, of which this order is now the necessary consequence. It is quite right that you cannot will the ends of an election without willing the means; namely, the order that we are discussing. However, given that the electoral system was effectively determined 10 days before Easter, the whole process has been unnecessarily condensed. The department should look to its procedures so that Parliament is not treated in this way.

As the noble Baroness knows, I remain critical of the choice of electoral system. She was right to say that minimum modification to parliamentary procedure should be sought in order to minimise the strangeness of this election. That would not have been necessary had the single transferable vote been used. However, having expressed criticism, may I say how glad I am—as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, surmised I would be; I share his pleasure in the fact that the Government are to use radio and television to promote this election. It is vitally important that people participate and that they see the connection between their vote and the peace process; otherwise, these elections will have been for nothing. I also think that it is wise of the Government to release the corsets of the broadcasters in order to make it possible for them, in their own way, to arrive at a balanced and fair coverage between the enormously long list of parties fighting the election.

In that regard, will the Minister tell the House (the noble Lord, Lord Williams, also asked this) how the limit will apply to parties across the whole of Northern Ireland? Is she satisfied in regard to the smaller parties? I instance merely the parties connected with the former loyalist paramilitaries. Can we really be sure that parties are getting enough help in kind, so that those relatively indigent parties can still fight a decent campaign?

What provision is being made for election addresses? For instance, will some sort of government-sponsored newsletter be distributed in which parties can put their case? Having said that, and in supporting the order, I hope that the Government will take a hands-on attitude to the election. Voters will make their own choice; but nobody should be left in any doubt that this is an important election and it matters a great deal in Northern Ireland.

7.15 p.m.

My Lords, I had not intended to intervene, and do so only because of a remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn. He suggested that it was unfair that Mr. Robert McCartney's name should appear on the ballot paper whereas Dr. Paisley's does not. I have to say, I disagree with him. The DUP has been in existence for a very long time. Most people throughout Northern Ireland are well aware of that party, what it represents and who leads it; namely, Dr. Paisley. In contrast, Mr. McCartney's party has been in existence only a very short time. He is now quite well known in the constituency of North Down, but not elsewhere. It seems not unreasonable that his name should be attached to his party label so as to avoid confusion, above all with the official Unionist Party.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contribution to the debate. I understand their concern at the speed with which this legislation has been brought before them.

I stress the special circumstances in Northern Ireland at the moment. Once we have been able to bring about a commitment to elections, I fear that the necessary speed of the process is not something that we would want any more than, as noble Lords made very plain, they would. The Government are more usually criticised for their slowness, and have often been criticised for such during this process of trying to build a peaceful future in Northern Ireland.

I am very fortunate in this House in that those who participate in these debates have knowledge of the situation in Northern Ireland. I am well aware and very conscious of the quality of the lawyer who sits opposite me. Therefore I have some confidence in the scrutiny that applies even in a short time. I thank noble Lords for their courtesy in indicating where their concerns lie.

The issue of names has been a major point in bringing forward this election legislation. I stress again that there was much discussion and consultation in another place as to what would be fair and appropriate. Having had that discussion and consultation and having voted on the matter, we are now saying in this order that it is important that that is abided by for the benefit of ensuring that all the votes cast in Northern Ireland are valid and represent the wishes of the people.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, raised the issue of what would happen under the Petition. That matter also concerned the honourable Member for South Down in another place. I should like to clear up the fact that it is not the intention of the legislation that all a party's candidates in a constituency would be declared void as a result of the activities of one of its candidates. It is only in the calculation of the regional delegates, which Section 144(2C) makes clear is carried out under paragraph 14 of Schedule 1 to the main Act, that the relevant party's vote in the constituency concerned is disregarded. Votes for constituency delegates are calculated under paragraphs 8 to 11 of the Act. The remaining candidates on that party's list for that constituency are therefore unaffected in so far as they keep their seats. But their votes, while they are being elected, will not contribute to the overall vote of the party. We believe that to be in keeping with the principles of the party list system, punishing, as it does, both the individual wrongdoer and the party on a regional basis.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, also expressed concern as to the position on overseas voters. The elections that are to take place on 30th May are regional elections, taking place in Northern Ireland only. They are being held to elect delegates to a forum convened to discuss Northern Ireland matters. It was therefore decided that it would be more appropriate to use a local government franchise and thereby retain the local nature of the elections. The local government franchise excludes overseas voters, to which Article 3(6)(c) of the order refers. However, it includes Peers and European Union citizens resident in Northern Ireland. I am sure that my colleagues in the House will be grateful that they can not only voice their concerns in words but also in practice. That is something about which we are very pleased. In terms of numbers, there is little difference. The parliamentary franchise produces around 70 more voters.

The question of election expenses and the position of the small parties in this situation was raised by both the noble Lords, Lord Williams and Lord Holme of Cheltenham. The amount of media coverage of the elections is already helping people to register who are newcomers to the election process. Election expenses will be calculated for each party in Northern Ireland as a whole. The limit depends on the number of constituencies a party contests.

There will be no special financial aid for parties in the system, no matter what their size. But we have taken that into account and endeavoured to assist small parties on this occasion by providing for unaddressed labels for election campaign material, which is much cheaper, and by doing away with the usual Post Office requirement for a constituency name to head election materials, thereby saving on printing costs. We have tried to recognise that there are people for whom the process will be entirely new; this may be their first entry into a system on which they can build in future years. The allocation of equal time on party political broadcasts will be a matter for agreement between the parties and the broadcasters.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked about the position of alternative action plans for decommissioning. I can assure him that those are under considerable scrutiny and discussion at the moment. His earlier concerns in that area came through loud and clear.

I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, is now participating in these debates. I thank him for his contribution on the question of names.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. I sensed that she was approaching the end of what she had to say and I wish to clarify something before she sits down. I am not sure that I heard correctly. I believe she said that allocation of time for party election broadcasts would be a matter for agreement between the parties and the broadcasters. Perhaps I can remind her that difficulty is already experienced among the relatively few parties at Westminster when they have to sort out that question. The prospect of that alphabet soup of parties sitting amicably round a table and agreeing with each other and the broadcasters on the allocation of time seems a little improbable.

My Lords, I suppose I could reply that we are a deregulatory government. But that would not be very satisfactory. I did not guarantee "amicable" but the discussions around the table must be between the parties and the broadcasters. It is recognised both in the broadcasting situation and the media coverage that these elections are unique. It is a first; we hope that they work successfully. The broadcasters have taken a responsible attitude. The commitment to the Province from everyone involved that the elections should be made to work will allow for better discussions on this occasion. I hope that I prove to be right and not the noble Lord, although I understand his concerns.

Again, with the understanding that we have asked that this legislation be considered speedily, I commend the order to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.