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European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2010

Volume 718: debated on Thursday 25 March 2010

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2010.

Relevant document: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, the three instruments I am moving this afternoon all deal with electoral matters in Northern Ireland.

I turn first to the draft Representation of the People (Timing of the Canvass) (Northern Ireland) Order. This order removes the requirement for a canvass to be held in 2010, and has been brought forward following a recommendation to the Secretary of State from the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland.

It may assist noble Lords if I provide some background to the order. Noble Lords will be aware that there is a system of individual registration in Northern Ireland. Electors must provide a signature, date of birth and national insurance number when registering. The chief electoral officer may also require proof of a resident’s entitlement to be registered, including, for example, proof of nationality or residency. These measures are vital to protect against electoral fraud and to restore confidence in Northern Ireland's electoral process. They have also helped to ensure that the electoral register remains as accurate as possible.

However, requiring electors to provide such information annually through the canvass was becoming a burden on both electoral administrators and electors. The Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 amended the Representation of the People Act 1983 to remove the requirement for an annual canvass to be conducted in Northern Ireland. Alternative methods would instead be used by the chief electoral officer to maintain the accuracy of the register; for example, using information received from specified public authorities to verify a person's entitlement to be registered.

That provision did not entirely remove the requirement for a canvass to be held in Northern Ireland. Section 10ZA of the 1983 Act, inserted by the miscellaneous provisions Act, provides for a canvass to be held in 2010 and every 10th year thereafter. The requirement for a canvass to be held in 2010 was included as a safeguard because it was not clear at that stage how effective the alternative registration methods would be. For that reason, the requirement to conduct this canvass may be removed by order, but such an order can be made only if the chief electoral officer recommends against a 2010 canvass on the basis that it is not needed for the purpose of meeting his registration objectives.

I can inform noble Lords that the chief electoral officer has written to the Secretary of State recommending against a 2010 canvass. The order before us this afternoon would give effect to this recommendation. I reassure noble Lords that the removal of the requirement for a 2010 canvass does not mean that there will not be a canvass until 2020. Indeed, the law states that a canvass must take place in 2016 if one has not been held in an intervening year.

Furthermore, a canvass may be held in any intervening year if the chief electoral officer recommends that a canvass is necessary in order to meet his registration objectives, and if the Secretary of State is satisfied that the public interest requires a canvass to be held for that purpose.

I now turn to the remaining instruments before us today, which would amend the way in which vacant European parliamentary and district council seats in Northern Ireland are filled. The draft Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment) Order amends the process by which casual vacancies on district councils in Northern Ireland are filled. Under the current procedure, if a seat becomes vacant, a replacement may be co-opted without the need for a by-election. However, any proposed co-option will fail if any of the remaining councillors object to it. If the co-option fails, a by-election must be held to fill the vacancy.

Noble Lords will be aware that elections to district councils in Northern Ireland are held under the single transferable vote form of proportional representation—or PR-STV. By-elections in PR-STV systems are undesirable because they may distort the careful party and community balance existing at the time of the election. Co-option has worked well in many councils over the years, but there has been increasing concern that the current requirement for unanimous agreement provides scope for individual members to object and force a by-election against the wishes of the vast majority of the council. Noble Lords may be aware of the proposed move from 26 to 11 district councils in Northern Ireland. These 11 councils will be much larger than the existing councils with around 40 to 60 members each, and unanimous agreement to a co-option will be even more difficult in these circumstances.

The Government undertook full public consultation on a proposal to allow the party to which the vacating member belonged at the time of the election to nominate a replacement. It was further proposed that independent members should be replaced by reference to a list of substitutes submitted by them to the chief electoral officer prior to vacating a seat. There was overwhelming support for this from respondents to the consultation, and the order before us therefore amends Section 11 of the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 to give effect to these proposals.

The draft European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations seek to make similar amendments to the method of filling vacant seats at the European Parliament. Current regulations provide that any vacancies arising during term must be filled by by-election. I have already expressed my view that by-elections are undesirable in a PR-STV system due to the potential to distort the party balance in existence at the time of the election. With only three Members in the European Parliament from Northern Ireland, it is even more important to ensure that party balance is maintained. Consultation in 2008 demonstrated widespread support for vacant European parliamentary seats to be filled by replacement by party nomination or substitution. However, amendment was required to the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 to allow for regulations to be made that would permit this, and noble Lords may recall that such amendment was made by virtue of Section 26 of the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009. These European regulations therefore contain similar provisions to the district councils order to allow for replacement by party nomination or substitution, with some minor technical differences to take account of the different procedures for being returned to the European Parliament.

Noble Lords will also be aware that it is possible for candidates to stand in the name of two or more parties at an election. These instruments make provision to cater for such circumstances, so that if such a vacancy arises, the nominating officers of both or all of the parties concerned will be required to provide a joint nomination.

These statutory instruments have the support of various interested groups in Northern Ireland, including the political parties, district councils and MEPs. I believe that there are strong reasons to remove the requirement to hold a canvass in 2010, and I hope that noble Lords will be reassured that a canvass must take place in 2016 or in an intervening year if the chief electoral officer recommends this. There is also very strong support for reform of the method of filling vacancies in district council and European parliamentary seats in Northern Ireland for the reasons I have outlined. This will ensure consistency with the method of filling vacancies in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has worked well since its introduction last year. Noble Lords will also be interested to know that many respondents to the consultation on district council vacancies emphasised that these amendments would encourage those councillors holding other elected offices to give up their council seat, safe in the knowledge that it will be retained by their party.

I know that noble Lords have been concerned about the issue of “multiple mandates” for some time. I remain of the view that this issue would be best resolved by agreement between the parties themselves in Northern Ireland. However, the Government stand ready to help facilitate and encourage any such agreement, and I believe that the legislation before us will do just that. Once again, I am grateful to noble Lords for permitting me to speak to all three instruments together this afternoon. I beg to move.

I thank the Leader of the House for once again laying out and explaining these statutory instruments so clearly. I have absolutely no objection to the canvass because it is a very sensible thing to do; and 2016 seems a sensible backstop, so I support that too. However, I consider the other two instruments to be undemocratic and a sort of gerrymandering with the electoral process. I hear what the noble Baroness has said about what the Government are trying to do, and there is indeed some logic behind it, but that logic is in many ways forced on us by a totally inefficient means of running the whole Northern Ireland process. We have the d’Hondt system and a whole lot of other means and different forms which might be considered strange—I shall not go as far as saying gerrymandering—and where nobody can ever reach agreement on anything.

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness about large councils—particularly once we have 11 local authorities, if we ever do, as opposed to 26—never reaching a unanimous agreement on who the replacement should be. If we accept that it will not happen, then it seems absolutely logical that it should be the electorate who decide. If the council cannot decide, then put it out to the voters—that is the right way to go. The second best way is where there is a list system and the electors and community know at least who will replace a person should they, for example, die or become ill. If we leave it as the Government wish—where, if I understand it correctly, the party concerned can go out into the street and say, “Hey, Johnny, I want you to come and join us on the council”—that will not ring the bells of democracy. My party in the other place voted against these orders, and if we were voting today, I would also be bound to do so.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for introducing these orders so clearly. I can tell the Committee at the outset that we support the orders. On the first order, which amends the way in which vacant European parliamentary seats in Northern Ireland are filled, my party, simply put, supports the single transferable vote system as being the best and fairest system of election to any Parliament, and we fully support its use in Northern Ireland European elections.

However, the Government’s proposed system of nomination also has the problem of, at best, not providing for sufficient public scrutiny. We wonder whether they have given consideration to the importance of democratic transparency. For instance, do they feel it is important for those who are nominated to fill vacancies to be known to the electorate at the time of the original election and to be subject to scrutiny? That may well answer the concern which the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has mooted. As for independents who might stand, we are pleased to see that the order of preference will be indicated in the substitutes list, as otherwise it would be impossible to know how to choose between substitutes.

The draft Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment) Order amends the way in which vacancies in district council seats in Northern Ireland arising during a term-time are filled. We welcome this order as well. It makes sensible consequential amendments to the 1962 Act in relation to council elections in Northern Ireland. We agree with the analysis that it is unrealistic to retain co-option following the reduction in the number of district councils to 11 with the subsequent increase in the number of members of each council. Given that vacancies in the Assembly and the European Parliament are to be filled by substitution, and that STV is used as the electoral system for all those elections, it makes sense that council elections in Northern Ireland are filled in the same way. We are also pleased to see that the order will replicate the system for filling council vacancies where a person has stood in the name of two or more parties, which has been provided for European vacancies of this sort. The order ensures that there is cohesion across the three types of election in Northern Ireland where STV is used as the electoral system.

Finally, on the Representation of the People (Timing of the Canvass) (Northern Ireland) Order, the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 abolished the annual canvass in Northern Ireland and replaced it with a canvass every 10 years. One could be held in 2010, as the noble Baroness the Leader of the House has reminded us, but if the chief electoral officer requested that no canvass take place for a particular reason—in this case, I assume that he was satisfied that the register was very effective—then a canvass could be held in subsequent years, and in 2016 at the latest, which would be 10 years after the previous canvass in Northern Ireland, which was in 2006.

With the continuous registration process having started in 2007, there is now a much more robust and accurate electoral register. In fact, I understand that there are currently 1,170,336 people on the register, which is approximately 90 per cent of the voting age population. From these Benches I congratulate all those who have been involved in this very successful process.

The chief electoral officer's annual report for 2008-09 sets out a number of innovative and impressive initiatives to increase electoral registration in Northern Ireland, including the schools initiative, which is aimed at registering young people who are still at school. Will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House also inform the Committee what steps or new initiatives are being taken in advance of the general election this year to ensure that a comprehensive register is available on 1 April?

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for introducing these three instruments. Like the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, I have no difficulty at all with the proposals for the canvass, which seem to me eminently sensible. With respect to the proposals on co-option in the European Parliament, I am also very willing to accept the argument advanced by the noble Baroness because—technically, at least—there is a possibility that a by-election might be called following the tragic or unfortunate death of the nationalist or republican Member for Northern Ireland in the European Parliament. There could be a consequence thereby that if a by-election were to be held under normal Westminster rules, if you like, the nationalist community would be deprived of representation in the European Parliament for at least until the next election. That concern is sufficiently serious for us to have to accept the proposals that the noble Baroness has put forward today, even though the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, is right that from a certain point of view in democratic principle and practice it is an ambiguous move. However, I think that the balance of argument here favours the course which the noble Baroness has proposed.

I am less sure about the proposals for co-option in local councils. I would at least like to air the difficulty as it exists. Noble Lords may not be aware of quite how dramatic this process can be in Northern Ireland. When we previously talked about this on 4 February 2009, I drew attention to the fact that between 2006 and 2009 in one ward, Dunmurry, in the Lisburn City Council area, there had been five co-options in three years, which meant that the majority of those on that council from that area were as unelected as Members of your Lordships' House. There is a pretty heavy irony in the fact that we read in the newspapers that the Government are about to advance proposals for your Lordships’ House to be a completely elected House while at the same time they are bringing forward proposals this afternoon which tacitly accept that a significant number of local councils will be filled in the real world by a process of co-option. That makes the mysterious arrival of Members of your Lordships’ House look remarkably clear cut and well defined. I draw attention to the fact that there is an irony in government policy. There is certainly a contrast between the proposals for the future of this House and what the Government are prepared to accept for councils in Northern Ireland.

There is an uneasy feeling that co-option arises partly because of the difficulties caused for the larger parties by certain events. For example, the result of the previous significant council by-election in Dromore produced a shock for the leading unionist party. It was a well-noted shock which continues to reverberate in some ways through the political process.

I am also not quite sure why it was not desirable recently in the case of Castlereagh council following the resignation of the MP, Mrs Iris Robinson, from her position at Westminster and all her other elected offices. In view of all the issues raised—issues which touch on the working of Castlereagh council as well—I am not quite sure that it would be healthy in a democracy for the electorate immediately to register their views on these matters. So there is a greater problem with the proposals which the noble Baroness is advancing for local councils. She is basically right in her defence of corruption as regards European elections. When I raised this point before, she was kind enough to say in reply that she accepted that this was not an ideal situation.

I know that there is little to be done about it today. I also know that in the circumstances which exist in Northern Ireland at present, and for many reasons of practicality, we have to proceed with the orders as they stand. However, I ask the Government to think and reflect on the contrast between their commitment to democracy at all levels, including the election of this House, and on their apparently less fervent commitment to democracy at all levels and in local council elections in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I am grateful for what I think I would call the broad support for these statutory instruments. I also note the varying views about democracy. All noble Lords have supported the way in which the statutory instruments propose filling vacancies for European parliamentary elections, but more concern has been expressed about filling local council seats. I understand that concern. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, drew a parallel between my Government’s view on the need for an elected second Chamber and our proposals for Northern Ireland. I note the disparity. However, I think we would all recognise that in Northern Ireland we are seeking to maintain the political and cross-community balance. That is very difficult, and it would be extremely difficult to maintain the balance while having by-elections under an STV system. That is why we are where we are.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, drew our attention to a list system, and I can see its attractions. In this case, however, it would be better to go down the line that we are proposing. If candidates were to publish their proposed replacement at the time of their election, which is essentially a list system, the electorate would justly expect that individual to replace the member. We also believe that it might not always be possible to do so because the proposed replacement might be unwilling or unable to fill the seat when the vacancy arose. The electorate could then feel that they had been misled.

I would suggest that when electors vote for the representatives of political parties, they usually do so because they support the party’s position on certain matters in line with the party’s manifesto. They are therefore essentially voting for the party and not for the person. The proposals before us respect the fact that the electorate vote for the party rather than the person. I would also point out that the PR-STV system has been well established in Northern Ireland since the 1970s. If we were to have a closed party list system, the public would not know who would replace the candidate then, either, so that would perhaps not be the best solution.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, raised issues in relation to the canvass. I celebrate with her the fact that there appears to be a robust electoral register in Northern Ireland. I add my congratulations to all those involved. I was interested to hear of the schools initiative. That is something that we as a Government, and perhaps other political parties, should consider adopting in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The chief electoral officer sets out in his business plan his strategy for improving registration levels. These include mini-canvasses and events to target registration of under-represented groups. Recent legislative amendments to allow the transfer of information will assist the process. He is being very proactive in trying to ensure that more people register before the forthcoming elections. That is a very useful thing, because we want to maximise democratic participation in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I hope that I have answered all questions to the satisfaction of noble Lords, and that they will approve the regulations in due course. The important thing is that there has been wide consultation in Northern Ireland; the statutory instruments have the support of the various interested groups there, including the political parties, district councils and MEPs; and therefore they appear to have the support of the people of Northern Ireland.

Another strong point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, was consistency in the method of filling vacancies in the Northern Ireland Assembly. If one has the same method for the Northern Ireland Assembly as for the European parliamentary elections, it is very consistent to have the same method used for council elections. I hope that noble Lords will support these statutory instruments.

I will make just one comment. The noble Baroness and I have debated Northern Ireland matters across the Floor for quite some time. As Leader of the House, she has a huge workload, and I thank her—because this might be the last time we face each other across the table—for all the interest, time and effort that she has put into promoting good things in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps I can echo, from these Benches, what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said. We have been delighted with the work that the Leader of the House has done on Northern Ireland, to bring us to what we hope is a final conclusion. It has been a pleasure to work with her.

I will say briefly that my Cross-Bench colleagues will entirely agree with what has been said. Those of us who are interested in Northern Ireland affairs are much in the noble Baroness's debt and very grateful for the role that she has played.

My Lords, I will end by saying that it has been, is, and, I trust, will be a pleasure to work with noble Lords on Northern Ireland issues. In this House we have worked on a cross-party basis throughout, which has enabled us to reach the point where we are now, when we can celebrate the fact that in the past week we devolved policing and justice to Northern Ireland, and that now we are about to adopt these regulations. I beg to move.

Motion agreed.