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Postponement of Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 2009

Volume 707: debated on Wednesday 4 February 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Postponement of Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 2009

I understand that the Order Paper states that both orders will be debated together. However, I intend to take them separately but consecutively.

The purpose of this draft order is to postpone the local government elections that are due to be held in Northern Ireland in May this year. Postponing an election is not something that a Government would wish to propose without very good reason. With that in mind, I hope that the Committee will find it helpful if I set out the background to why the draft order is needed.

In 2002, in light of the new tier of political representation brought about by the formation of the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive launched a review of public administration in Northern Ireland. The review was a comprehensive examination of the arrangements for the administration and delivery of public services in Northern Ireland, covering almost 150 bodies, including the 26 district councils there.

The review group reported in respect of district councils in 2006 and recommended a move from 26 to seven district councils. That was accepted by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who at that time had responsibility for those matters because the Assembly and Executive were suspended. Following restoration in 2007, the Executive, having resumed responsibility for policy in relation to the review, opted for an 11-council model, and legislation was introduced in the Assembly in 2008 to implement that.

During the passage of that legislation, the then Minister for the Environment in the Executive received a number of questions from Assembly Members on whether the local elections scheduled to take place in 2009 would still take place in light of the proposed restructuring. As elections are an excepted matter under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, responsibility for policy in relation to elections rests with the Secretary of State, and in April 2008 the Minister for the Environment wrote to the Secretary of State requesting the postponement of the elections until the 11-council model had been implemented fully.

The Secretary of State agreed that it would make sense for the next elections to be held in respect of the new council model, rather than have elections to the 26 councils, which would shortly no longer exist. However, he recognised that a number of steps needed to be taken before the new 11-council model could be fully implemented. In particular, new council wards and districts would need to be drawn up, and district electoral areas would need to be grouped for the purposes of proportional representation, which is used for all local government elections in Northern Ireland. Legislation would also be required to give effect to recommendations resulting from any boundary review process.

Following discussions between the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State was advised that it would be appropriate for the elections to be postponed for two years. For that reason, on 25 April 2008, the Secretary of State announced publicly that he would seek to postpone the elections until 2011. The announcement was generally well received as an exceptional but justifiable step in the circumstances. There were no objections from the political parties in Northern Ireland, and the Electoral Commission has also expressed its support for the postponement.

Article 2(2) of the draft order, therefore, amends Section 11(1) of the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962, so that the next local government elections in Northern Ireland will be held in 2011 and subsequent elections will take place every four years thereafter.

The effect of Article 2(3) of the draft order is to disapply Section 11(1A) of the 1962 Act, which would have provided for the next election to take place on the first Thursday in May of 2011. Instead, we intend to bring forward a further order in due course that would set the actual date of the election.

There are two key reasons for this taking this approach. First, although we expect the implementation of the new 11-council model to have been completed in advance of May 2011, we cannot be absolutely sure of the actual completion date at this time. Members of the Committee will no doubt be aware that it is difficult to be precise about how long a boundary setting or electoral area grouping process might take, particularly when inquiries are held and recommendations are challenged. We therefore cannot rule out the possibility that the implementation process will be completed either earlier or later than when we currently envisage.

Secondly, the Committee will be aware that Assembly elections are also scheduled to take place in May 2011 and that both Assembly elections and local government elections in Northern Ireland are held under the single transferable vote form of proportional representation, or PR-STV. Members of the Committee will be aware that counting in PR-STV elections is complex and we would wish to have detailed discussions with the Chief Electoral Officer and Electoral Commission in relation to a possible combined poll before providing for this in legislation.

For these reasons, we will bring forward a further order to set the date of the next election when we have a clearer idea of how the implementation of the move to 11 councils is progressing; and when we have had detailed discussions with the Chief Electoral Officer and Electoral Commission on the possibility of a combined poll, if required. However, although there are good reasons for not setting the date of the next election at this time, we believe it is important to signal that local elections will not be postponed indefinitely and that the next elections will indeed take place during 2011.

For this reason, Article 2 sets out explicitly that the next local election year in Northern Ireland will be 2011. Article 3 of the draft order makes the necessary consequential amendments to ensure that the terms of office of existing members are extended and that any vacancies arising between now and 2011 are filled in the usual way.

Before the draft order was laid, the Northern Ireland Office consulted with the Northern Ireland departments to ensure that postponing the date would not result in any adverse, unintended consequences for them. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development informed us of the need to make consequential provision relating to appointments to the Drainage Council, which are linked to local election dates. Article 4 of the draft order therefore provides for appointments to the council to also be extended to 2011.

I again stress that any decision to postpone any elections for any length of time should not be made lightly. I am, however, confident that the current proposed postponement is an exceptional, but justifiable, step under the circumstances, and I hope that the Committee will agree. I beg to move.

I thank the noble Baroness for such a clear description of the order. In principle, I have no objections to it. I am fully conversant with the reasons behind it, but I am sorry that we are changing to 11 local authorities and not to seven. We fought over the numbers for some time, and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and I were very much on the same side. However, somehow we both managed to lose, which is a remarkable piece of parliamentary work.

The noble Baroness made a great deal of the postponement and the potential new date. I strongly support her comments and would go a stage further in asking for a marker to be put in the order, forcing the Government of the day to inform Parliament of progress. To reduce the number of local authorities in Northern Ireland from 26 to 11 is very complex. As the noble Baroness has said, there will be significant arguments, debates and disagreements. With the other things that go on in Northern Ireland, I can easily see this date slipping. Any slippage beyond the middle of 2011 would be a serious dent to democracy in the Province. Will the Government consider putting in a time mark to force the Government of the day to report to Parliament on what is happening and how close they are to meeting May 2011, which is the deadline that I have in my mind? Other than that, I am very content with this order.

I, too, thank the noble Baroness for introducing the Postponement of Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 2009. She will no doubt be aware that the Liberal Democrats were very critical of the decision to reduce the number of local councils in Northern Ireland from 26 to seven. We raised concern that seven councils, rather than the alternative options of 15 or 11, could lead to the Balkanisation—the word that we used at that time—of Northern Ireland with the inevitable imbalances in political composition. Councils could emerge as strongholds for the political representatives of different sections of the community, which could act as a disincentive for moves to create genuine cross-community power-sharing across the entire region.

We still have those concerns. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has noted, we voted against that order in both Houses of Parliament, and both Houses chose to pass it. That is not an argument that I wish to reopen today, but I simply wanted to restate the position that the Liberal Democrats have on this issue.

We have also spoken out in the past about the postponement of elections in Northern Ireland. In 2003, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly were delayed twice before finally going ahead on 26 November. We objected in principle to the delaying of elections, as we believe that that undermined the democratic process and the credibility of local politicians in the eyes of the electorate as their mandate was effectively redundant. We still are distinctly uncomfortable about such moves and, therefore, we are uneasy about the measure before us.

However, we recognise that in practical terms a decision has been taken by the Government to postpone the local elections until 2011. Therefore, operations on the ground in Northern Ireland are moving accordingly. We appreciate the difficulties in trying to reverse this decision. As the noble Baroness has explained, the boundary review and the review of district electoral areas are under way but have yet to be completed. Will she update the Committee on the progress of these reviews to date?

As we have said before, we are uneasy that no date is specified in the order for the next set of local elections, other than that they will be in 2011, but I hear what she says about that. Finally, I should like to ask again whether the noble Baroness can give an indication of when she intends to return to this House with a proposed date.

I thank the noble Baroness for her introduction of this order. I should like to make a few comments.

First, it is a blow to local democracy in Northern Ireland to suspend the local elections. It was introduced by the Clerk as a suspension, yet the order refers to the “Postponement”. There is a difference between the words “postponement” and “suspension”. Postponement implies a fixed date when there will be local elections; suspension could mean that there will not be any elections for a long time. It needs to be clarified whether this is a postponement or a suspension, as both words have been used so far in this discussion.

Secondly, local government in Northern Ireland no longer reflects political opinion in Northern Ireland. How many years is it since the previous elections? What will be the period between the previous local elections and 2011, if they even take place in 2011? It will be a considerable period. By then, the existing members of local government will be quite elderly. This is a denial of the younger people in Northern Ireland to have a voice in local government for quite a period of time, and that is damaging.

It is also true that political opinion in Northern Ireland has shifted considerably since the previous local elections. If we had a local election this year, as we were supposed to be having, we would have different complexions in the local government councils than we have at the moment. For those reasons, I am concerned about some of the aspects of the order.

Finally, if the local elections are definitely going to take place in 2011—I think that that is what the noble Baroness requires—assuming that there is no agreement on the boundaries of the 11 new local government areas; does that mean that we will have local elections on the existing boundaries? If so, why do we not have them now?

I thank the noble Baroness for introducing the order. I declare two registered interests that arise in relation to the debate, namely that I am an elected Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for East Belfast and I am a councillor for the Victoria district electoral area within Belfast City Council.

I welcome the order as a necessary intervention to extend the term that local councillors will serve from their election in 2005. I hope that it will fit comfortably within the overall provision for the review of public administration in Northern Ireland, which is currently under way. The new boundaries and reconfiguration of councils in the Province will reinvigorate their image, streamline services and offer ratepayers an efficient model of local authorities that should serve them well into the future.

One key request from the Minister for the Environment to the Northern Ireland Office when seeking this legislation was a provision to ensure that vacancies that arise from May 2009, when existing mandates are currently due to end, until 2011, which is the date of extension, would be filled through phased co-option. Northern Ireland political parties and the electorate as a whole seek the end of dual mandates across the existing political institutions, thus increasing representation and allowing individual public figures to dedicate themselves to one primary forum and the issues that are raised at that level.

Rather than encourage an unseemly array of local by-elections, and to ensure the maintenance of the political balance as expressed at the previous local government elections, will the noble Baroness confirm that such a provision for co-options is in this legislation? Is it intended? Is it part of the Government’s overall legislative plan?

Will she further outline what steps, if any, the Government intend to take for the financial resettlement of long-serving local councillors, many of whom served through very difficult periods and do not wish to be considered for election to the new authorities in 2011?

First, I warmly welcome the noble Baroness to the Northern Ireland part of her extensive and weighty portfolio; Northern Ireland will benefit from her interest.

I would like to speak in the same tone as those noble Lords who have raised questions about how democratic we are actually being here. There is nothing now to be done about this; there are strong reasons why this is occurring, and it is not only supported by the local parties but by the electoral office. The reorganisation of local government has, in a sense, brought us to this point.

That having been said, there are real democratic problems with what is happening. I will give just one example to bring this home. Since 2006, there have been five co-options to the Dunmurry ward of Lisburn City Council, two in the case of one party following the tragic death through cancer of Michael Ferguson of Sinn Fein, a former student of mine, who has been replaced twice. The Dunmurry ward now has four co-opted members who have not been in any contact with the electorate. By 2011, there is a fair chance that that ward in that city council will be as unelected—I dare say—as this House. That cannot be good for democracy in Northern Ireland.

I am impressed by the way in which so many noble Lords, including the Minister, have said that this is quite exceptional, but we need reassurance that this is not going to drift further. This is an uncomfortable situation for democracy in Northern Ireland; we must hope that we will have a final date to bring this unhappy situation to an end.

I should like to ask the noble Baroness a few questions; she may be kind enough to write to me if need be. It is 20 years since I left Northern Ireland, but I took some slight interest in what the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, said, particularly on two aspects that he raised. Would the noble Baroness be kind enough to confirm that the impact of the two orders seems to be as clear as a bell on elections and councillors, but that one or two aspects, particularly in the postponement order, might have some impact on aspects of agriculture in Northern Ireland?

I spent six summers with what is now the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. I noticed that Sections 10 and 11 of the Act state that there will be no impact on business, charities and so on. Also Section 11(1) does not apply to small businesses. I do not want to get on to a pinhead dance on the size of the businesses. I am curious as to whether the orders and the powers and activities of the local councils will have any impact on agriculture, rural affairs, forestry, fisheries and other aspects of the countryside, which I took pride in serving in Northern Ireland for five and a half years. I am curious about that; I am sure that she will be able to advise me.

I am also interested in the relation of the Drainage (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 to the first order. The noble Baroness was pretty clear in her remarks, but will she write to me on various other aspects—not necessarily drainage—where agriculture or allied activities might be involved in the democratic changeover that she referred to? I think of the happy Foyle Fisheries Commission in the north-west, which had some representation from the Republic of Ireland. I doubt if there is any particular aspect of the activities of the Foyle Fisheries Commission involved in either order before us today. She might be kind enough to let me know in writing in due course.

Finally, either she or her department had the wonderful idea—I direct her attention to page 35 of the second order—of having the wonderful examples of bird life in Northern Ireland as the examples of the names in the list. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, will remember that a gentleman in a village in his constituency used to take a lion for a walk—

I apologise; I had the wrong animal. I wondered why the wonderful Northern Ireland Office is always pointing out all the avian creatures in County Down and not ranging wider in the Province. Also, why has it not indicated some of the more interesting animals that the noble Lord, Lord Kilcooney, has found and which I have found in my career there?

However, I am grateful for the clear way in which the noble Baroness has presented the orders today. Can she confirm, first, details about the Drainage Council and, secondly, whether there is any other impact on what she has presented, particularly with Foyle fisheries or anything else?

I am grateful for the general welcome given to the order, and to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, for his support. He and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, mentioned that we will have 11 councils, not seven. Clearly, seven was the preferred number when these matters were debated in the House of Lords. However, the Northern Ireland Executive is responsible for review policy, and the Executive determined the number of councils. That is devolution in practice, something that we warmly welcome.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked if the Government would come back to Parliament to report progress on these matters. As I stated in my introductory remarks, we intend to have elections in May 2011. Should that not be possible for whatever reason, although we hope that it will, we will of course come back to Parliament in good time to ensure that it is informed of any problems with this. However, the order categorically states that the next local elections in Northern Ireland will be held in 2011.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilcooney, asked about the use of the words “postponement” and “suspension”. It is absolutely clear that this is not a suspension, it is a postponement. I am pleased to put that on the record.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, expressed concern—as all Members of the Committee rightly have—about the fact that we are postponing these elections, but we are not taking this matter lightly. It is best for the people for Northern Ireland. She also asked about boundaries. The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner is currently drawing up the boundaries for the 11 new local government districts, and aims to complete that work by June 2009. The District Electoral Areas Commissioner will then be tasked with grouping electoral wards for the purpose of PR-STV elections. This will be followed by legislation to create the new boundaries for which local government boundaries will be passed by the Assembly and for which district electoral areas will be passed by Westminster. There is potential for these timescales to change. We are therefore putting 2011, but not stipulating May. We will come back to this issue as and when it is necessary.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, mentioned that he hoped that this process will fit comfortably into the current review. Naturally, the Government also hope so. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, asked about co-options. There are currently no plans to amend the method for filling vacancies—that is, co-options. The current co-options system has operated effectively for many years, and provides for by-elections to be avoided in a way that reflects and maintains the local emphasis that is important for district councils. Having said that, however, I accept that this is not an ideal situation and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bew, for so graphically illustrating why that is so. It is a consequence of the postponement more generally, and it is widely accepted in Northern Ireland as being an acceptable but justifiable move in the circumstances.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, all Northern Ireland departments have been consulted on any consequential amendments. They will continue to be consulted, but it is now a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. If there is anything more that I could or should have said, I shall write to him. In respect of tigers, although I have never heard of them in Northern Ireland, it is a delight to know that they have indigenous tigers and other exotic animals. I look forward to hearing more about such things during my visits to the Province.

Before the Minister sits down, I want to raise two or three points. First, we had a Celtic tiger in Ireland but it is now dead. Secondly, on local government, co-options take place if it is the unanimous decision of the councillors. If one councillor objects, there cannot be a co-option and there must be a by-election. Will that continue to be the procedure between now and 2011? Will a co-option take place only if it is unanimously agreed in the existing council; and if one person objects, will there still be by-elections from now to 2011?

Thirdly, I do not think that the Minister answered my question about elections in 2011. She said that there will be elections in 2011—that is accepted—but if there is no agreement on the new boundaries, will we definitely have local elections under the existing boundaries?

It is absolutely clear that the current system of co-option will continue. There will therefore be by-elections, as there are now, and there will be no changes. If by 2011 we do not reach a conclusion that enables us to have elections under the new boundaries, I understand that the Government will come back to Parliament and postpone the elections until it is possible to have them. I am wrong—perhaps I may seek advice.

We will have to decide in due course whether the elections will be held under new or old boundaries when we have a clearer idea of progress. We will keep Parliament informed of that progress. I beg you Lordships’ pardon for being misleading. In 2011, if there has been no conclusion to the discussions, we will take a view on whether the elections should take place under the old boundaries. We will review the situation then.

In order to clarify my mind, perhaps I may ask a further question. Does that mean that even if there is no agreement on the new boundaries, we will still definitely have local elections in Northern Ireland in 2011? If so, they must be on the basis of the existing boundaries. Is that the position?

That would seem logical. However, for the moment, I must say that before too much of 2011 elapses, we will look at the reviews, consider the progress and come back to Parliament. At this time, it would be wrong for me to say whether that would mean that elections would take place under the old boundaries. It is too soon to say.

Motion agreed.