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Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2010

Volume 722: debated on Wednesday 24 November 2010

Motion to Approve

Moved By

That the draft Order laid before the House on 25 October be approved.

Relevant Documents: 5th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, the two orders before us today are largely technical in nature and update the law governing elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and to district councils in Northern Ireland in advance of elections in 2011. I will speak to the Assembly order first.

Noble Lords may be aware that the law governing elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly was substantially amended as recently as 2009. Since then, there have been some minor procedural updates that have been applied to European and parliamentary elections that should also be applied to Assembly elections for consistency. For example, Article 3 of the Assembly order makes provision to allow a candidate standing in the name of two or more parties to have one of those parties’ emblems on the ballot paper. It also enables a person who cannot sign his or her signature to place a mark in place of any signature required at the nomination stage. Article 4 requires individuals to give reasons if they request their absent vote to be sent to a different address from that at which they are registered. Although these changes are relatively minor, they nevertheless mirror updates to the law applying at other elections in Northern Ireland made since 2009 and will provide for greater consistency.

I now turn to the draft local elections order, which is more substantial and provides a much needed update of the law governing local elections in Northern Ireland.

The Electoral Administration Act 2006 made considerable amendments to the law governing parliamentary elections across the United Kingdom. As I mentioned earlier, these were applied to Northern Ireland Assembly elections and European elections in 2009, but have not yet been applied to district council elections in Northern Ireland. These amendments are set out in Schedule 1 to the order and include allowing returning officers to correct procedural errors and to supply documents in other languages and formats. Schedule 1 also makes provision for the control of donations to candidates at local elections in Northern Ireland, which brings them into line with the donation controls that apply at all other elections in Northern Ireland and across the UK.

Schedule 2 to the order makes changes to absent voting procedures, which again already apply at other elections in Northern Ireland. These include adding registered social workers to the list of those who may attest absent vote applications on the grounds of illness and disability, which will make it easier for people with disabilities living in the community to apply for an absent vote. Schedule 3 to the order aligns the law at local elections relating to access and inspection of documents with procedures at all other elections in Northern Ireland. The order also amends the local election rules contained in Schedule 5 to the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962. This includes updating the list of acceptable forms of photographic identity that can be presented in order to vote in Northern Ireland, which is, of course, crucial to ensure consistency of approach for all polls in 2011.

The order is lengthy and time does not really permit a detailed examination of each provision, but I hope noble Lords are satisfied that these small changes are nevertheless important to provide much needed modernisation of local election procedures in Northern Ireland and greater consistency with other elections across the UK.

Finally, I turn to Article 3 of the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order, which sets the date of the next district council elections in Northern Ireland for 5 May 2011. Noble Lords will be aware that, in 2008, the previous Government agreed to a request from the Northern Ireland Executive to postpone the local elections that were scheduled to take place in May the following year, 2009. Legislation was subsequently approved to postpone the election until 2011 on a date to be specified by further legislation closer to the time. The postponement was to allow time for new local government boundaries to be redrawn as part of the overall review of public administration that was taking place in Northern Ireland, which was to provide, among other things, for the number of district councils in Northern Ireland to be reduced from 26 to 11.

I have to report that this planned reduction did not proceed. Although the local government boundaries commissioner reported to the Executive with proposed new boundaries on time in 2009, an order has still not been brought before the Assembly to give effect to them. In June this year, my honourable friend the Minister of State made absolutely clear to the Executive that there could be no prospect of further postponement of the elections beyond the two years previously agreed. He also advised that further delay in passing the order to give effect to the boundaries would seriously jeopardise planning for elections in May 2011.

An urgent decision therefore needed to be taken by the Executive on whether the proposed new councils could be delivered in time to allow for elections to them in May 2011. On 15 June, the Environment Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive confirmed that the reorganisation would not now go ahead in 2011. The Government announced shortly after this that there was now no option but to hold elections in May 2011 to the existing 26 councils. The legislation before us this evening will now provide for this.

Noble Lords will be aware that elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly are also scheduled to be held on 5 May 2011 and that there is a Bill currently before this House to provide for a referendum on the alternative vote also on this date. I appreciate that there may be some concerns about holding all three elections on the same day and I agree that this will present unique logistical challenges.

However, I can reassure noble Lords that the Government have received the advice of the Electoral Commission and the Chief Electoral Officer on this matter and both are confident that a combined poll in May 2011 can be successfully delivered if the risks are properly managed. Officials are therefore working closely with the commission and the Chief Electoral Officer in the run-up to the polls to ensure the early identification and resolution of any potential problems.

In summary, I hope that noble Lords are satisfied that the vast majority of the provisions in these orders would result in small changes that are nevertheless important to ensure greater consistency with elections elsewhere in the UK. I also hope that noble Lords will agree that the date of the next local elections should be set for 5 May 2011 and are satisfied that all necessary steps will be taken to ensure that all three polls will be conducted successfully. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing forward these orders and for allowing your Lordships the time to debate them today. Northern Ireland has made extraordinary progress in the past few years. With the support of all parties and all communities, Northern Ireland has seen political developments which have helped to bring it out of the dark days of the violence of the Troubles. Enormous efforts have been made and for the first time in a generation the majority of people in Northern Ireland can live peaceful lives, which is a tribute to many people in the Chamber today and to all our parties on working together. However, we cannot forget that the situation is fragile. Political stability is still relatively new and we must ensure that proposals to change the way in which the electoral situation works in Northern Ireland do not damage this stability.

These orders contain relatively technical issues. We understand that they are designed to facilitate the smooth running of the elections due to be held in Northern Ireland in May 2011, but of course they deserve proper scrutiny. We are particularly keen to ensure that the Government are taking all measures that they can to prevent difficulties in the conduct of these elections. We are concerned that any changes to the rules could cause confusion. The potential for confusion in Northern Ireland on 5 May 2011 is substantial. Two elections are already scheduled for this day; that is, the local council elections and a poll for seats to the Northern Ireland Assembly. As the Minister acknowledged, the Government plan to add to these a referendum vote on adopting the alternative vote for elections to the House of Commons.

These orders, together with the schedules to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill before your Lordships’ House and due to receive the forensic scrutiny that it deserves, facilitate the combination of the three polls on 5 May. Will the Minister assuage the worries of many Members on these Benches and, I suspect, across the House that holding so many polls on one day will lead to confusion? Is the Minister confident that all the rules will be in place in sufficient time in advance of the May polls? It is vital that the people of Northern Ireland get the maximum amount of information to ensure that they are fully prepared for what will be an unprecedented voting day next May. Will the Minister assure the House that this will happen?

We on these Benches are concerned that any undue confusion has the potential to be particularly damaging to the embryonic political settlement in Northern Ireland, and this cannot be put at risk. I acknowledge the Minister’s assurance that he is working with the Electoral Commission and that everything will be in place. But the task is enormous and I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will keep in contact with people in Northern Ireland to ensure that everything is properly in place, and that the Government will do everything that they can to assist if and when necessary.

The Government’s programme of constitutional reform would see boundaries redrawn and three fewer MPs available to serve the people of Northern Ireland. This will have consequential effects on the nature of representation in the Assembly. It is possible that this will result in there being 18 fewer MLAs. What might the effects of this be on the current balance in the Assembly? Can the Minister assure the House that the Government will give proper consideration to not disrupting the Assembly balance, and will he bring forward proposals to ensure that? If this does not happen, we fear another jolt to the stability achieved in Northern Ireland.

If the Bill for fixed-term Parliaments is passed as drafted, in 2015 we will have council elections, general elections and Assembly elections on the same day. The three elections will all be held using different, possibly very different, electoral systems. Furthermore, if the coalition Government get their way with their plans to dramatically redesign the constituency map of the United Kingdom, these elections will take place under new boundaries as well. This will mean the height of complication.

The Minister has told us that these orders are intended to smooth the running of elections in Northern Ireland. Taken together with the Government’s wider reform plans, we are deeply concerned that the result will be quite the opposite.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, for introducing these two orders. They take me back 40 years, to almost the middle of the last century, to when I was the Minister at Home Affairs responsible for elections in Northern Ireland. At the time, we had irregularities in elections in Northern Ireland. Some people would say, “Vote early and vote often. It works well”. But that does not exist today, far from it. I can well recall standing in an election in South Tyrone as a Member of Parliament at the time. We noticed a lot of applications for postal votes all going to an address in the Republic of Ireland. We were very worried about this because a nationalist candidate had done it. I said that there was only one answer, and that was to take the entire election team to the Republic of Ireland to be photographed in front of the house that was getting all those postal votes, and to get the photograph into all the media. We did that. We invaded the Republic, had a photograph taken of us with our rosettes, and the publicity meant that the postal votes were never exercised. I must say that I am glad to see in one of the orders before us today that postal votes will be delivered only to the address on the electoral register. That abuse is finally going to be ended.

I can say with no embarrassment whatever that today Northern Ireland has the best postal voting controls in the United Kingdom. It is now areas in England, such as Birmingham, where cheating is taking place. So far as the electoral laws in Northern Ireland are concerned, there are many that could now be extended and put into practice in the United Kingdom. This should be looked at by the electoral authorities in Great Britain.

The Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland and his staff are to be congratulated on the control and efficiency of elections today. We are now debating the Assembly elections to be held on 5 May 2011, and as the noble Baroness has just said, there may be a third vote in the form of a referendum arising from the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. That would mean three elections in one day. Incidentally, that Bill will mean fewer Members of Parliament in another place, and since the Northern Ireland Assembly has six MLAs for each constituency, it would suggest that there are going to be fewer MLAs in Northern Ireland as well. I do not know whether the Minister will wish to comment on that because it strays slightly from the two orders before the House.

We are probably going to have three elections on the same day, and that will be slightly confusing. It will take a lot more time for a voter to exercise three separate ballots in the polling station. Will there be three separate ballot boxes in the polling station, and will the three ballot papers be of different colours, although I hope not green, white and orange?

I note that the notices about the elections can be reproduced in languages other than English. Of course, Chinese is now the second most spoken language in Northern Ireland after English, but I presume that this measure is also intended for the large number of European citizens who have come to live in Northern Ireland, especially Polish, Lithuanian and Portuguese people. Will the decision to use these languages—Chinese, Portuguese and so on—be left to the local returning officer or will it cover the whole of Northern Ireland?

The purpose of the orders is to establish consistency of electoral procedures at all elections in Northern Ireland. This is common sense and is to be welcomed. I recall a period when voting in parliamentary elections commenced in Northern Ireland at 7 am but devolved and local government elections commenced at 8 am. It was all very confusing.

I have a slight query about the fact that disclosure of information regarding ballot papers is to be under the direction of the returning officer. Very often on polling day the media—such as the BBC, local newspapers and daily papers—especially in Belfast, want to know how the polling is going: is there apathy or is there going to be a good turnout; is there an interest in this election? A restriction by the returning officer on telling the press and the media how the election is going could be a deterrent to people voting because they may not get prompted during the day that there is a big turnout and that they should go out and vote.

Do we still need polling agents inside our polling stations? They can be a problem because they leave some stations to give information to outside people as to who has or has not voted. These persons then visit the voter who has not voted and request them to vote. Such a visit can be quite intimidating. There is still a danger in the practice of people inside polling stations passing information to outside bodies—and I need not go as far as to tell your Lordships who those outside bodies can often be.

The location of polling stations has to be regularly reviewed as new urban housing is developed from time to time. I understand that there was a recent consultation about the selection of polling stations and their locations. Here I declare an interest as chairman of a media group in Northern Ireland. How was this consultation made known to the public across Northern Ireland? Was it advertised in the weekly papers? How many individuals—not political parties—responded to the consultation?

The main issue arising today is the postponement of the proposed reform of local government and the reduction in the number of existing district councils from 26 to 11. There is a stalemate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on this issue so, sadly, there will now have to be elections in the existing 26 district councils even though they are out of date. Regrettably the Northern Ireland Assembly has a record of stalemate and inaction: not only has local government reform been halted but the proposed sports stadium fell through; the extension of the Belfast City Airport runway fell through; Ryanair withdrew last month with the loss of 1,000 jobs; the planning application for a large John Lewis store was not proceeded with after three years; and the replacement of the 11-plus examination is at stalemate after four years. This is a very poor record for the Northern Ireland Assembly and does not encourage people to vote. It is therefore a good idea to have the three elections on the same day. It might help to achieve a better turnout for the Northern Ireland Assembly election than would otherwise have been the case.

How will the chief electoral officer alert the public to the various elections? There was a very reduced turnout in the last European election in Northern Ireland and I had warned in a Grand Committee that this would probably happen. The advertising of elections in Northern Ireland needs to be reviewed. The selection of newspapers such as the News of the World or radio stations such as Classic FM—which I personally like—is not the best way to inform a cross-section of Ulster society. Closer attention must be given to the advertising of elections.

The best way to make contact is through the network of weekly newspapers and commercial radio stations across Northern Ireland—I have already declared my interest. Those who live in Belfast are inclined to think that there are three daily newspapers and that that is sufficient. The Belfast Telegraph has a circulation of 55,000; the Irish News, 50,000; and the News Letter, 26,000. This is in sharp contrast with the circulation of the Morton weekly newspaper group, of 65,000, or that of the largest weekly group, Alpha, with a sold circulation of 85,000.

With 26 district councils in Northern Ireland, the Telegraph would not sell more than 2,000 newspapers in the area of Down District Council, for example, whereas the locally owned family newspaper group there, the Down Recorder, sells 12,000. There is no doubt that it is wiser to advertise in the local paper in Downpatrick. The same applies to most other towns in Northern Ireland. In Dungannon, for example, the Tyrone Courier sells 15,000 newspapers, and in Ballymena the Ballymena Guardian sells 10,000. Those figures should be compared with the fewer than 2,000 sales of the Telegraph in each of those district councils. The advertising policy for elections requires a review by the Chief Electoral Officer.

The same argument applies to radio stations. RAJAR gives the listenership figures for all radio stations. It confirms that, instead of Classic FM, Cool FM, Downtown and the six radio stations of the Northern Media Group are the most listened-to radio stations in Northern Ireland.

I once again welcome the two orders. I wish the Chief Electoral Officer every success, because it is quite a challenge to have three elections in one day.

My Lords, I welcome the two orders before the House today, but I should first declare an interest as a member of both the Northern Ireland legislative Assembly and Belfast City Council. I welcome in particular the provisions which allow voters to use the same form of ID for all elections, as it removes much of the confusion that voters currently face. I welcome also the provision which expands the variety of people who can attest to vote applications. In the past, this has been a real worry, particularly for elderly voters, who will now find it much easier to have their social worker sign rather than to have to arrange to have someone visit them for that purpose.

The order relating to the Northern Ireland Assembly elections brings much needed change to the system of postal ballots. Thankfully, Northern Ireland escaped much of the controversy that surrounded the system of postal ballots in England in May. However, as I am sure noble Lords are aware, Northern Ireland has had more than its fair share of voting irregularities in the past. It is to be hoped that the amendment made by the Assembly order will mean that any such instances for postal ballots are avoided in the future, while maintaining a very good, workable system.

While most of the changes contained in the local elections order are slight, they contribute to making the election process much more transparent. There is no doubt that the public have taken an increased interest in the past few years in how politicians and political parties operate, particularly how they receive money to fund their campaigns. It was quite regrettable that, for a number of years, so few safeguards were in place to ensure transparency in the electoral process. It is important that elections are fair and that all parties operate under the same constraints. For many years in Northern Ireland, some candidates and one party in particular received large donations and gifts for their campaigns from what can be described as very nefarious sources.

I am hopeful that the current process that we are involved in, of which this order is a part, will bring us to a situation in which there is greater clarity and light brought to the conduct of election campaigns. I know that people in Northern Ireland look forward to the campaign for the Assembly and their local government elections next May, and I know that it will bring greater transparency. I trust that the Minister will continue to consult closely with the Electoral Commission.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, for introducing these two draft statutory instruments today and say that I broadly support their thrust—with one caveat, which I shall come to.

It might help the House briefly to explain why the Government are right to go ahead with the local government elections next year, even though there has not been the reform and rationalisation of local government that we were hoping for in Northern Ireland. It is right because we now have a situation, because of the long years since the last local government elections, whereby nominations have become more and more the practice in filling our city councils. I remember saying to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, about 18 months ago, when she was dealing with this question with her usual skill, that it is a problem, and that if the large political parties believe in direct elections to your Lordships' House it would be a good idea to start with the principle of direct elections to councils in Northern Ireland. At that point, the Dunmurry ward of Lisburn City Council already had a majority of councillors who were not elected but were nominated by the main parties as a result of people retiring from their positions for various reasons—some five out of nine. Just today, the Irish News has published figures for Belfast City Council, the largest council. By January, it is clear that there will be only 32 out of 51 elected members in Belfast City Council, and 40 per cent will be nominated.

We have reached a point whereby it is absolutely essential, despite the difficulties and the fact that it would be much better if we had a reform of local government first, that the Government should say that we will have two elections and possibly a referendum on one day. But that is where my caveat comes in: it will be very hard work indeed to ensure that nothing goes wrong, especially because a number of the polling stations in Northern Ireland are actually rather small places, physically. Will the Minister reassure us that the Government, at least in part, get that point? If you have two elections and one referendum on the same day, in the circumstances that exist, the Government will have to do an awful lot of preparation to ensure that nothing goes wrong and that we have a satisfactory polling day.

My Lords, I support these two orders. I think that they are tidying-up orders and are necessary. I support very much what the noble Lords, Lord Kilclooney and Lord Bew, said. However, pace the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, in my experience the most sophisticated electorate on these islands is to be found in Northern Ireland. I do not know this in any pejorative sense, but they actually know how to vote under different systems and have been doing so for a long time—far longer than anywhere else in the devolved regions. I genuinely believe that it would be in the capacity of the electoral authorities and the electors to have two elections and a referendum on the same day.

My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for the clarity with which he explained the order in front of us. It is, I suppose, not the thing to do, but I am going to spoil the party to some extent because, in reality, I cannot say that I welcome the patch over the wound that is being proposed today.

Northern Ireland has had an opportunity to reform local government. I believe that people have gone the wrong way about it because they inherited an idea that was intended to be implemented if we did not reach an agreement on an Assembly. We were going to have five—or was it seven?—supercouncils. We now have this wonderful compromise where we are to have 11 sub-supercouncils, as I call them. Looking at the present councils, one will find that as well as our three MEPs, our 18 MPs and our 108 MLAs, with the 12—or is it 13?—devolved departments, we also have 582 councillors. The councils have virtually no devolved powers. They have, among them, the ability to spend something like £680 million per year, yet what is their responsibility?

Waste collection and disposal are, I suppose, very much justified at every level. The figures that I quoted—three, 18, 108 and 582 elected members—are for a population of 1.77 million people and I suggest that, for that size of population, we certainly need a waste collection agency. I am not a great fan of agencies, but when it is practical and there is a job to be done, Northern Ireland should have a waste collection agency. This is taking away first-line responsibility for that, so what will Northern Ireland be left with? It will be left with those things that it possesses: meeting rooms, swimming pools, recreation centres, theatres and playing fields. Those do not require, as I think is the current figure, 420 civil servants or employees being paid at director level for those 1.77 million people.

A huge difficulty arose when we had the Belfast agreement. It was contrived in a way that was meant to embrace our entire community but it did not suit some extremes, so the previous Government did us the disfavour of slipping off or taking the people who carried the bulk of the work, marginalising them and—I will not say bribing; well, I might—bribing the remainder to move towards the centre. When that did not work, we had the Hillsborough meeting, where much the same thing happened.

It struck me that the noble Baroness, although I am sure that she did not mean it in this sense, was worried about how the changes that we are discussing may alter the balance in Northern Ireland. We need the balance changed. We need reality, but we are not going to get it as a result of somehow devising a means to elect another 582 local government councillors who have no statutory authority at all, or very little of it. Does anyone believe that 13 departments—I think that it is 13 now—with 14 Ministers are suddenly going to devolve responsibility to local government? The answer is, “Nay, it’s not going to happen”.

I will not be walking through the No Lobby on this today, but we have not had time to look at the knock-on effects. We are putting a plaster across a minor scratch, the way you do with little children to please them: “I’ve hurt my knee”—stick a plaster on and there is a smile on someone’s face. Well, this plaster does not bring a smile to my face. It removes real responsibility from those who should have that responsibility thrust on them and those who should yield a product through their elected position. I leave the Minister to consider the headache, as I see it—or should I say, “scratch on the knee”?—that is not helped in any manner by what is being proposed today.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have contributed to this debate and will endeavour to respond to the points that have been raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, paid tribute to what has been going on in Northern Ireland in recent times. We are all much happier about matters there than we were some years ago. I understand the fragility that she speaks about, but these elections, certainly as all three will be on the one day, are an opportunity for a democratic moment in Northern Ireland.

My noble friend Lord Smith talked about the sophisticated electorate. There are clear advantages to having the three polls on one day. It is more convenient for voters and, indeed, in these difficult times, it will lead to financial savings because of the shared resources. There will be unique logistical challenges, but I am satisfied that the practical risk can be managed properly. I have asked officials to continue to liaise closely with the Chief Electoral Officer and the Electoral Commission to ensure the early resolution of potential problems. The commission believes, certainly at the moment, that the preparations are on track.

The Government have considered the impact of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill on the composition of the Assembly. We will not dictate the size of the Assembly; that is for the Assembly to consider. When it has considered this issue, we have committed to legislating to give effect to its wishes regarding its size.

The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, referred to different electoral systems. If the AV Bill and the referendum are carried, it is certain that in all elections in Northern Ireland at any rate the elector will not face confusion because every ballot paper will be marked “1, 2, 3, 4” for them to mark their preferences.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, referred to his time in government in Northern Ireland and the “vote early, vote often” regimes. I think that he sees the point of having three elections on one day.

The position of the boxes will be a matter for the electoral returning officers. The ballot papers will be different colours so that there is no confusion, but it is up to the returning officers in Northern Ireland whether there is one box or three. I know from my experience that, if there are three boxes, all three will have to be emptied at once because there may well be ballot papers in the wrong box. It is important to give that proper consideration, but it is a matter for the Chief Electoral Officer. It may be simpler to have the one box rather than three, but that is for him or her to decide.

The noble Lord referred to advertising. Public awareness of the forthcoming elections is a matter for the Electoral Commission. I will draw to its attention the noble Lord’s comments about the validity of advertising in local newspapers. The Chief Electoral Officer is required to publish the draft polling station scheme and place a notice in local newspapers to let electors know that it is subject to consultation. This information is also published on websites.

The decision on what languages to use in the publications will be made by the Chief Electoral Officer rather than at a district level.

Northern Ireland has seen the arrival of thousands upon thousands of Europeans. People from one country go to one town and people from another country go to another—it is not spread evenly across Northern Ireland. For example, you get lots of Portuguese in Dungannon, while in Armagh there are lots of Poles. We need to be careful which language we select in which area. We just cannot have it generally across the whole of Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I am grateful for that comment. Clearly, it will be up to the Chief Electoral Officer, and he or she will be able to decide whether to use the languages across Northern Ireland or whether to be selective in where to use them. I will make certain that the Chief Electoral Officer is aware of that concern.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, referred to polling agents. I understand that polling agents are used in Northern Ireland; they can, of course, be used at every election in the UK, but it has been the tendency not to use them. Certainly in my part of the world polling agents have not been used, but tellers have been. Tellers are always outside the polling station, not inside. I understand that there is concern about polling agents but some effort is being made to ensure consistency with Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Polling agents are available to be used in the rest of the UK.

The noble Lord also referred to consultation. I will have to respond to him later about that; I did not quite catch his concern and I do not have a note on it. However, I heard the comment about stalemate as far as local government is concerned, which other speakers also mentioned.

I was grateful for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, who, in effect, welcomed the orders. He will understand that, as we all know, it is harder to obtain a postal vote in Northern Ireland. Indeed, although there is some easing because of social workers being able to sign and so on, it is still very difficult to get a postal vote, compared to what happens in England, where it is offered freely.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, referred to the nominated members. Clearly, this is a good reason why we cannot go on for ever saying, “They might revise local government so let’s just hang on and give them another year”. If 32 out of 51 members are nominated by political parties and have in no way been chosen by the electorate at large, it is a valid point. It makes the case that there should be an election for local government according to the present wards and boundaries, in the absence of reform.

I am glad to have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, who understands that these orders are a positive way forward. The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, referred to the patch on the wound, which became a plaster when he finished. I understand and accept the point about the local government review, but this is devolution. If we devolve and Northern Ireland is given the powers, it must make its own way with local government. Once we have allowed devolution and taken the view that this is the position, it is up to those people and, indeed, people like the noble Lord and others who have influence in Northern Ireland to make the case for change. However, it is their decision; you cannot have devolution and then take it back.

Local government is a matter for the Executive. We still hope that agreement can be reached but it clearly will not be reached this side of the local government elections, which we hope will be on 5 May 2011. I trust that this is a fair response to the points that have been made and I hope that these orders can now be agreed.

Motion agreed.