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Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2007

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 Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2007.

The noble Lord said: Before I start, I want to answer one of the questions I did not answer in the previous debate, because it all goes into Hansard. It relates to the expenses of the Registrar-General for marriages. The change has been made on the basis of advice from the current Registrar-General. I do not know why the title has changed, but I will find out and write to Members of the Committee about it. I should have put that answer on the record earlier, and I apologise for missing it out.

This is quite a technical order, and there is a good reason for it. Its purpose is simply to remove any uncertainty over the definition of election expenses which will apply for the purpose of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections on 7 March.

Assembly elections in Northern Ireland are conducted in accordance with the provisions of the Representation of the People Acts 1983 and 1985 and the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985, which are applied to Assembly elections with both specific and general modifications by the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001.

Section 27 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which was commenced on 11 September 2006, repeals Sections 90A and 90B of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which define the meaning of election expenses. Both sections were applied to Assembly elections by the 2001 order. It replaces these with new Section 90ZA and Schedule 4A, which define a new meaning of election expenses. However, because these are both new provisions, it is unclear if they are automatically applied to Assembly elections by virtue of the 2001 order.

While the practical differences between the definition in old Sections 90A and 90B and the definition in new Section 90ZA and the schedule are minor—the differences are largely of form rather than substance—we do not wish there to be any room for doubt about which definition will apply for the purposes of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in March. In light of this, we wish to put the matter beyond doubt through an amending instrument which will make it clear that the new definition in Section 90ZA and Schedule 4A, as inserted by the Electoral Administration Act 2006, applies. That is what the order does.

The order is not controversial: our intention was to make this amendment as part of a wide-ranging order amending the 2001 order to take account of all relevant provisions in the 2006 Act later in the year. However, as the Committee will be aware, the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, which was passed last November, has made provision for an Assembly election to take place in March. This has compelled us to deal with the matter of election expenses now in a separate order, so that candidates for the March election are in no confusion about the basis on which their expenses will be handled. We have consulted the Electoral Commission on the draft order and it is content.

Many people thought that we did not need to do this because it is fairly obvious how the election expenses will be calculated, but we did not want there to be any doubt. This is something that we would have done later in the year to tidy up the legislation from 2006. However, we did not know at the time that the St. Andrews agreement would bring about the potential for elections on 7 March. This order will put any uncertainty completely beyond doubt. Therefore I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2007.—(Lord Rooker.)

The order may not be controversial, as the Minister said, but the Government have constantly moved elections around in Northern Ireland. A bad precedent was set in 2003 when the process of electoral interference by the Government began and it is to be sincerely hoped that this is the end of it.

I have two brief points. First, we understand why the order has been introduced. It has been brought forward to be in place before the proposed Assembly election in March this year. If the Assembly election does not take place in March, will these new election expenses apply at a later date at a subsequent Assembly election?

Secondly, I put this down as a marker. I still believe that there is confusion, certainly a grey area, about election expenses in a proportional representation election to the Northern Ireland Assembly. For example, a party could select three candidates to contest the election in the constituency and divide that constituency into four areas. The political party could say, “You will go into area A, the second candidate will go into area B, the third candidate will go into area C and all three of you will share the fourth area D”. There would still be confusion about how the election expenses would be divided. I am not asking for an answer to that, but I am placing it on the record.

I will not attempt to answer that because I have not taken part in a proportional representation election. However, political parties are voluntary organisations. The legal framework is set by Parliament. How they then conduct themselves within that legal framework is entirely up to the parties. They may decide to carve up constituencies or not. I accept that questions can be asked about the apportionment of expenses, particularly if not all the candidates win and there is some bad feeling, but that would be a problem of success—because the election would have taken place and the success was in getting the election to take place.

The definition of expense provisions in this order will be on the statute book for any future elections. We were going to bring this order forward with a group of other amendments later this year, tidying up loose ends subsequent to the 2006 legislation. We are introducing it now because the St. Andrews agreement proposed the date of 7 March.

I will answer a question that the noble Lord did not ask but I thought he was going to when he stood up. Obviously, we want the election to take place. People are preparing for it. Massive numbers have registered for it—more than 1.1 million. Some 40,000 extra people have registered in the last month, which is really good news. People really intend to cast their votes and make a difference. We want the elections to take place and the political parties will be gearing up for them to take place—as I have noticed even in this House.

Obviously the political parties have asked whether they will be compensated for the expenditure they have incurred if for any reason the elections do not take place. This matter has been raised with the Government and we are currently considering our response. Beyond that I cannot go.

I do not have the figures in front of me. I think it is 1.15 million. I am informed that 1,115,965 people have registered. We are very pleased with that figure. It represents the highest ever return of registration forms. I realise that there were some doubts about this and I saw for myself the posters in Belfast in early January encouraging people to register. Some 40,849 voters will be added to the register in time to allow them to vote in the Assembly elections as a result of the rolling register. It is excellent news for democracy that so many people have registered.

On Question, Motion agreed to.