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Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1962 (Amendment) Order 2005

Volume 670: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2005

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6.36 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 20 January be approved [7th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this short order amends Article 11(1A) of the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1962 to change the date of the local elections in Northern Ireland from the third Wednesday in May to the first Thursday in May, on a permanent basis. If this measure is accepted, it will mean that the Northern Ireland local elections due on Wednesday, 18 May 2005 will now take place on Thursday, 5 May.

This measure is a purely administrative one and simply brings local election dates in Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. It has been discussed in advance with the chief electoral officer and the Electoral Commission and has the broad support of parties in Northern Ireland. The order is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. It is being made by the Secretary of State in exercise of the powers conferred on him by Section 84(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

I commend the Order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 20 January be approved [7th Report from the Joint Committee].(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion, at end to insert "but this House regrets that Her Majesty's Government did not take full account of the concerns expressed by the Electoral Commission about polling for more than one election using different voting systems taking place on the same day."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I thank the Minister for briefly pointing out the rationale behind this order. We find it very difficult to accept the Government's reasoning for moving the date of the local elections in Northern Ireland. Why is it suddenly so necessary to move the date of the local elections, when Northern Ireland has coped perfectly well with voting on the third Wednesday in May since at least 1973? Why are the Government suddenly so keen to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK?

Elections in Northern Ireland are carried out by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, and the electoral office there. Administratively, it makes no difference whether local elections in Northern Ireland take place on the same day as the rest of the UK. The change will bring Northern Ireland into line only with the English shire practice. The Scottish Parliament legislates for local government there—and in no other aspect of local government are the Government proposing to bring Northern Ireland into line with Great Britain.

There is not the consistency in government policy that the Minister implied. We should recall that in 2003 the Government were not so keen to keep Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK. It was intended to have elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament on the same day. However, the Government postponed elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly twice before finally holding them in November 2003.

Further, Northern Ireland is not averse to holding elections on days other than Thursday. As I have said before, local elections are traditionally held on a Wednesday; the postponed Assembly election in 2003 was held on 26 November, a Wednesday.

A major problem is that the Government have not had any formal consultation on this proposal. It has only been made public at a very late stage, which raises suspicions about the Government's real motivation. We suspect that it is to ensure that the local elections in Northern Ireland coincide with the general election—hence our amendment to the Motion—and this will do nothing but create problems.

In 2001, two elections in one day using two different voting systems—first past the post and single transferable vote—led to significant confusion. Under STV, the candidates are numbered 1,2,3; this is very different from the additional member system, for example, under which a candidate and a list both get a single cross. This created extra work for polling station staff who had to remind voters which papers were to be used for which system. From evidence at counts, there would have been a massive number of spoilt papers if the usual UK rules on the interpretation of marks other than a cross had been applied. In a number of polling stations, electors were deterred by lengthy queues. In at least one, at Garrison in County Fermanagh, the poll remained open illegally late, with consequent allegations of intimidation of staff by party workers to achieve this.

The report of the Electoral Commission into the 2001 general election—Election 2001: The Official Results—said:
"This year, for the first time, the election in Northern Ireland consisted of a synchronised poll, combining the Westminster general election with elections to the 26 district councils. Local elections held under the single transferable vote (STV) system, have traditionally taken place on a different day than a Westminster poll and concern was expressed that the combination would place undue pressure on the resources of the Electoral Office. Almost inevitably, the process of completing two ballot papers with separate voting systems took more time than anticipated and in some areas substantial queues built up outside polling stations. A number of spoilt ballot papers may also indicate that the combination of the two electoral systems led to confusion among voters.
"Despite extensive publicity, including television advertising aimed at encouraging people to vote early in the day, some Presiding Officers reported having to turn voters away at the close of poll. Frustration with these delays led to reported irregularities, where voters were allowed to cast their votes after the official closing time of 10pm. In one such case, in the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, an election petition has now been brought by the defeated Ulster Unionist candidate. Concerns were also raised over the safety of staff and security of polling stations after two police officers and an elector were injured … in a polling station shortly before it closed".

Northern Ireland is different; it has different election systems, and it will, we believe, lead to further confusion if the local elections are held at the same time as the general election. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, at end to insert "but this House regrets that Her Majesty's Government did not take full account of the concerns expressed by the Electoral Commission about polling for more than one election using different voting systems taking place on the same day".—(Lord Smith of Clifton.)

My Lords, I have listened to what the noble Lord, Lord Smith, has said about his amendment. Your Lordships will not be surprised to know that I had discussions and thoughts about this before coming in today.

The noble Lord makes many good points. However, we have other major problems with elections in Northern Ireland which he did not mention. Perhaps one of the most serious is that of turnout, which is also relevant in this country. Turnout at elections in Northern Ireland has been falling: the figures used to be in the seventies and are now in the low fifties. Figures for the turnout of young people are also falling.

Coming into line with the remainder of the UK has pluses and minuses. I can see from the Government's point of view and an administrative point of view why this seems sensible. As a rule, the more that Northern Ireland's processes come into line with those of the UK, the happier I am and the better it is for all. That is what I believe. However, I accept that there is a balance between the risk of confusion, with two different voting systems, and the extra time it will take to operate the polls should the electorate turn out late in the day in majority numbers.

The noble Lord mentioned what happened in 2001. The officials responsible for the election should have learnt from that experience and put adequate staffing and polling booths into the polling stations. On balance, I believe that for the political parties to be able to kill two birds with one stone—or one shot—by having one day for polling, albeit with two different systems, is probably easier and has a greater possibility of getting more people to the polls than to have poll A on day one and a second poll a week or two later. I do not believe that there is sufficient interest in politics in Northern Ireland for the electorate to turn out on what might be chilly, rainy, early spring days and vote twice when, with some sensible organisation, such as the order provides, it could be done on one day.

I do not support the noble Lord's amendment. I support the order unamended.

My Lords, I think that the order is absolutely wrong. Here we are, on 2 March, discussing bringing forward an election two months to 5 May. If it really were a matter of synchronising local government elections in England and local government elections in Northern Ireland, it would be thoroughly and properly discussed as a synchronising measure and would not be rushed in at this stage. We all know what this is about—it is about the unannounced general election.

I have three questions for the noble Baroness. I believe that whatever is done, there will be an element of confusion because two electoral systems will be used on the same day. People will be given two ballot papers—on one you are requested to put a cross next to one candidate's name and on the other you have to put 1,2,3 until you have exhausted your choice.

If the local government ballot paper is marked with one X at the count, is that counted as a first preference? Secondly, if, at the national election, people mark the ballot paper 1,2,3, is that No. 1 regarded as an X? Those are two fundamental questions. I am concerned that the vote should have real value.

My third question might be seen as a little more esoteric. Paragraph 8.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum says:
"A Regulatory Impact Assessment has not been prepared for this instrument as it has no impact on the public sector, business, charities or voluntary bodies".
Surely the result of an election could have all sorts of impact on those bodies. I should have thought that there was one particular impact from the local government point of view, if I get an affirmative answer to my questions about the X and the 1,2,3. Supposing the person who is given an X on the local government ballot paper gets well beyond the quota. The fact that there is no 2,3,4,5 on the ballot paper so marked will affect the election.

I would have thought that there should have been a regulatory impact assessment for us to know what was going to happen. As my noble friend Lord Smith explained, we have been in the situation before with two elections on one day, so we know that there will be confusion; we just do not know how much. I would have thought that that would have an impact on a result, which could have an important impact on the way in which local government is conducted in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I would like to thank noble Lords who have spoken. I begin with the last point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt. My understanding of the terms of reference on regulatory impact assessment does not tally with his. I do not think that a regulatory impact assessment would achieve what he seeks, but I would like to clarify that in writing.

On the other point, based on my understanding of electoral law—I will confirm in writing whether I am correct—it would be unwise for me to offer an opinion from the Dispatch Box on whether particular ballot papers are accepted as valid because the procedure followed to determine that is enshrined in law.

The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has such long experience of elections that he will understand my hesitation in trespassing into that area. I am sure that the point that he raised will be borne in mind when those judgments are made properly by the right person in the right place.

I shall clarify one point. This has nothing to do with a general election; it is an administrative move to bring Northern Ireland permanently into line with the rest of the UK. If a general election were to be called for 5 May, there would be practical difficulties and financial implications in running two elections within 13 days of each other—a point which noble Lords will recognise could lead to a different form of confusion than the one they appear to fear.

It would also place a heavy financial burden on the resources of the Northern Ireland parties if there were two separate elections, and a great strain on the machinery. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, that there was not formal consultation. However, we consulted with Northern Ireland parties, a number of which have been actively lobbying Ministers to move the date of the local elections.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, made it clear that he was aware of that point. It was discussed in advance with the chief electoral officer and the Electoral Commission, who supported the measure.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, referred to previous experience and the need to ensure that previous problems did not recur. Since the combined poll in 2001 the number of available polling stations has increased by nearly 25 per cent; and proper training is to be provided for the staff who work in them. That is being carefully planned and thought through and I hope that this will allay some of the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Smith.

In addition, the Electoral Commission will be running a high profile publicity campaign telling electors about different voting systems were there to be a combined poll.

I hope that I have allayed some of the fears of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, and that with those assurances and the promise of a letter confirming whether my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, was correct in every detail, he will not press his amendment.

My Lords, as always the Minister is charm itself and I congratulate her. However, I am not wholly convinced by her assurances; nor do I think that she has answered satisfactorily my noble friend Lord Shutt's analysis. He was talking not about the law but behaviour, which is something we cannot legislate for easily. We think that problems will arise.

I was glad to know that there will be more polling stations, because otherwise we have the ridiculous situation of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, complaining about reduced turnout; and the poor devils being locked out because they cannot vote due to the complications of the system. While I do not necessarily accept the logic behind the brief that the Minister has been given, I will nevertheless withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Motion agreed to.