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District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2006

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2007

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2006.

The noble Lord said: The draft order was laid before the House on 27 November. I would first like to provide some background to what I hope will be accepted is a relatively simple order. In Northern Ireland, the boundaries of local government districts and the number and boundaries of the wards into which each district is divided are drawn up by a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner. The role of the District Electoral Areas Commissioner is to group the wards into multi-member constituencies or district electoral areas for the purposes of local elections in Northern Ireland.

On that point, why do we still have wards? What is the point of them? The relevant unit for electoral purposes now is the district electoral area. Why preserve the ward, which ceased to have significance more than 40 years ago but still lives on for no good purpose? It results in DEAs being drawn up in an awkward way.

I cannot comment on the detail of that because the electoral system in Northern Ireland is somewhat different to the one with which I am familiar, because of PR. If I had my way we would be doing the same in England, but I am not getting my way at the moment. The wards are the electoral unit with which the vast majority of people are most familiar.

Well, the intention is there. They are identifiable if one focuses on the natural settlement of an area. The current ward structure has been the electoral unit which the vast majority of voters are most familiar with. It is a useful mechanism for ensuring proper representation of the rural and urban electorate within a council area. Some statistical measures such as deprivation are commonly presented and broken down at ward level. One of the ways in which they are most useful is in collecting and publishing statistics. We have gone beyond ward areas now to look at very small areas.

Of the factors mentioned by the Minister, the only one that has any substance is the last one about the collection of statistics. That can be done. You can draw up your unit for collecting statistics, but why should it be allowed to distort—

The issue is simple. On the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, when the Assembly is back, it will be in charge of local government, in effect. It will be able to make the rules, do what is necessary and make any changes. At present, it is not there and we have to make a modest change, which I can explain in a page and a half—I have only managed to get the first line out so far—about why we have this situation.

I was saying that the number of local government districts and the number and boundaries of the wards into which each district is divided are drawn up by the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, which this order is not about. The role of the District Electoral Areas Commissioner, which this order is about, is to group the wards into multi-member constituencies or district electoral areas for the purposes of the local elections in Northern Ireland, which are run differently from the rest of Great Britain. At present, the District Electoral Areas Commissioner can be appointed only after an order giving effect to the recommendations of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner has been made.

The purpose of the order before us today is to enable us to appoint the District Electoral Areas Commissioner at an earlier stage in the process— specifically, as soon as practicable after the appointment of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner. It also adds the Chief Survey Officer of Ordnance Survey for Northern Ireland to the list of assessors to the commissioner, and makes a minor correction to the full title of the Registrar General, as it appears in the list of assessors.

This is an incredibly modest piece of legislation that is necessary simply because of what is intended for local government change in Northern Ireland. The changes have been set in motion. The date on which the new local government structure will come into being is broadly known and we want to ensure that there is no unnecessary gap between when the Local Government Boundary Commission reports and when the wards are grouped together into the multi-member constituency areas for the purposes of the election. That is the only purpose of the order. I will sit down on this point: this process was followed on the two previous occasions that a district electoral areas commissioner was appointed—in 1992 and 1984. This is not a new process. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2006.—(Lord Rooker.)

Having said that I had no problems with this order, I would just like an explanation about why, if it is public, the same person will be appointed to be Boundaries Commissioner as well as the—someone prompt me.

Yes. I understand that the two commissioners will be the same person. What is the thinking behind that decision? I declare an interest in that I have known the person concerned extremely well for many years.

In paragraph 5, the Registrar-General of Births, Deaths and Marriages in Northern Ireland will be substituted by the Registrar-General for Births and Deaths in Northern Ireland. Do we have no marriages left in Northern Ireland? What is the explanation for marriages being omitted?

On the general principle of the same person having two different commission responsibilities—the district electoral area and the local government boundary area—I understand that the Local Government Boundary Commissioner is in the process of deciding the boundaries of the wards. Has he completed his work and when is he likely to report to the Government? I understand that the Government are expediting the work of the District Electoral Area Commissioner. I noticed in the press recently that, at a public hearing in the north-west of Northern Ireland, the people of Strabane, who have always been connected with Omagh, objected because they had been recommended to join with Londonderry. They want to stay with Omagh as they have been for decades. The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner ruled at the hearing that he could not consider any changes in the district council boundaries: he could consider changes only in the ward boundaries—to return to that word “ward”—within the district council.

I also wanted to ask about the District Electoral Area Commissioner and his designation of electoral areas. Under this order, he can group between five and seven of the wards together in one electoral area. Since we will now have only seven councils in Northern Ireland, it means that we will have much larger areas than we have been used to. We have 26 councils, as the Minister well knows. Now we will have only seven and they will cover a much greater part of Northern Ireland than previously. I think there are 50 wards in each area. If you group them together in fives, it means a maximum of just 70 councillors in Northern Ireland. If you group them together in sevens, which is possible under the order, it means a maximum of only 50 councillors in the whole of Northern Ireland, if my arithmetic is correct. I am talking about electoral wards, but I said councillors. Let me start again.

If you have five wards grouped together in an electoral area and there are seven district councils, there will be a total of 70 groups only in Northern Ireland. If you have 50 district areas and seven of them are grouped together at a time, that is 49, roughly speaking. If these areas are going to be so big—we already know that the district council areas will be big because there are only seven instead of 26—and if you now put seven wards together in one district area, there will be a councillor, elected by proportional representation, representing a massive part of the council area. I am worried that councillors will not be local to the people in Northern Ireland if they are in a council representing a massive part of Northern Ireland and are also representing a very large part of that council area.

The commissioner needs to be careful that, where possible, he curtails the number of wards being amalgamated to the minimum of five and not the maximum of seven to ensure that there is some locality in representation by elected councillors. I know that the order is being rushed through and I suspect the reasons for it, but the seven councils are apparently confirmed for Northern Ireland. This was disputed by most of the political parties in Northern Ireland—the argument was that it was balkanisation. I did not necessarily accept that argument, even though my own party said it, because Northern Ireland is balkanised in any case, no matter what you do. Whether there are 26 councils or seven, it will be balkanised, and that cannot be avoided.

Chickens sometimes come home to roost quicker than you think. I take personal ministerial responsibility for the decision to reduce the 26 councils to seven, along with my ministerial colleagues. We had a very good and long debate on that issue on two occasions in Grand Committee, when the order went through setting up the boundary commissioner. I cannot go down that road today, although I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. I originally thought he was saying that there would be only 50 councillors in Northern Ireland. There are 582 at present. There is a degree of latitude for the boundary commissioner. In other words, we did not fix the maximum for each council at a precise number but provided a degree of latitude. I fully accept that there will be fewer councillors than there are now and their electoral area will be slightly—not massively—larger. There is a degree of flexibility as to the number of councillors per local authority; they will not all necessarily be exactly the same.

The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner’s final report is due to be presented on 31 May this year. Parliament has appointed the commissioner to do this job professionally. We do not seek to interfere and I do not want to second-guess the report. A series of public meetings will be held in each of the seven new districts in January and February to allow interested parties to make oral representations on the provisional recommendations which were published in November last year.

The final hearing is expected to close on 9 February. The commission’s procedures require it to take into consideration any representations, and it may subsequently revise its provisional recommendations and publish a final recommendation. The grouping of wards is an operational matter for the district electoral commissioner.

At the moment it is necessary for local government elections to take place in the timescale that will allow new authorities to operate in a shadow form for a period before taking over responsibility on 1 April 2009. It is the intention to have the elections some time before April 2009 so that the shadow authority can take some pretty important decisions about its headquarters, the chief executive and such before the functions are fully transferred.

Since, as the Minister has confirmed, the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner has not completed his work, and has therefore not been able to confirm the final boundaries of the wards, how is it possible for the District Electoral Areas Commissioner to proceed now to amalgamate wards of which we do not even know the final boundaries?

He will not. This order does not do that. The boundary commissioner has to produce his report before the district area commissioner can start work. This order seeks to minimise the gap between those events, with parliamentary process and everything else.

On the point about it being exactly the same individual, Richard Mackenzie will not begin his second role until his first role is finished. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, is quite right about that. On 11 January the Secretary of State announced his intention to appoint Richard Mackenzie CB as the next District Electoral Areas Commissioner. That appointment will be for 12 months on a full-time basis. He is the current Local Government Boundaries Commissioner and a member of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland. He will not formally take up his appointment until 1 June 2007. He shall not report to the Secretary of State until the recommendations of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner have been given effect, with or without modifications, in legislation, so there is a gap.

For the avoidance of any doubt, the District Electoral Areas Commissioner is classified as an ad hoc advisory body. As such, the appointment process does not fall within the remit of the Office of the Commissioner of Public Appointments. On the previous two occasions when a District Electoral Areas Commissioner has been appointed, the practice has been, once the local government boundary commission process was completed, to appoint the existing Local Government Boundaries Commissioner as the District Electoral Areas Commissioner—in other words, the same person at a point afterwards. That occurred in 1992 and 1984, and we are repeating that practice here.

The current boundary commissioner is widely respected, and possesses experience and familiarity with the subject and the necessary considerations to be addressed by the District Electoral Areas Commissioner. That is important now, as it is the wish of Ministers that the District Electoral Areas Commissioner’s recommendations should be brought forward speedily, and that the district electoral areas should be in place for subsequent local elections.

There is no conflict of interest with the two roles being filled by the same person. The appointments are entirely separate. Mr Mackenzie will not be appointed as the District Electoral Areas Commissioner until after he has completed his duties as the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner.

A fair point has been made with regard to wards. The Secretary of State wrote to the leaders of the Northern Ireland parties and the Electoral Commission in October to invite their views on whether or not the existing range of five to seven wards per district electoral area in Northern Ireland should be retained, or changed using this Order in Council. Only one response, in support of retaining the current structure, was received. In the light of that, and of nil responses to a Northern Ireland Office press release on the issue, we decided that the current five-to-seven ward structure should be retained. Parties were given the opportunity to comment on whether they wanted a four to eight structure, but no party chose to oppose the retention of the current five to seven structure.

In a way, we are in the hands of the professional whom Parliament has appointed to do the job. I understand that this is a big change for local government in Northern Ireland—I am not knocking that. It will change the role of councillors in many ways. I pay tribute to the 582 local councillors who, in the past few decades of the Troubles, have been the only elected representatives in Northern Ireland, save for the Assembly. They have carried a massive burden, far greater than their actual powers as councillors justified. In effect, they have the powers that parish councillors have in England but they carried a burden of representative democracy in all those dark years. They all deserve a big “thank you” from everyone for that. Their role is changing. Local government will change; it will be much stronger, more powerful and have many more functions than before. You could not justify retaining the existing structure if you were going to do that, but I am going down the wrong road.

On Question, Motion agreed to.