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District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) Order 2012

Volume 740: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2012

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) Order 2012.

Relevant document: 8th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) Order 2012, which was laid before the House on 15 October 2012, be approved. This is a relatively simple but important order that makes provision for the appointment of a district electoral areas commissioner in Northern Ireland. By way of background, local government itself, including local government boundaries, is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, but elections to local government are an excepted matter for the UK Government. In 2008 a local government boundaries commissioner was appointed by the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment to make recommendations regarding the boundaries, names and wards of the new 11 local government districts, reducing the number from the current 26. Once established, the wards in those districts need grouping into electoral areas so that elections can take place using the STV form of proportional representation. The Secretary of State appoints a district electoral areas commissioner, who is independent of government, to carry out this important task.

In 2009, the then Secretary of State appointed Dick Mackenzie as the DEAC for a period of one year. This was done in the expectation that the Northern Ireland Executive would move forward with local government reorganisation in time to hold the 2011 local elections on the new 11-council model. Mr Mackenzie did a considerable amount of work on the district electoral areas during his period of appointment but unfortunately was not able to complete his task. This was because the Executive at that time were not able to move forward with the local government reorganisation before his term of office expired. It was of course not possible to set electoral areas before ward boundaries had been agreed. Local elections in 2011 were therefore held on the basis of the 26-council model.

I am delighted that the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly have now agreed to move forward with local government reorganisation and that an order setting out the boundaries and wards for the 11 new councils has been agreed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The order is expected to be made by the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment before the end of November.

As for the order itself, we now need to move forward with the next part of the process. Since the district electoral areas commissioner appointment has come to an end, there is no legal basis on which to reappoint someone to the same task, so a new order is needed. The order before us, in summary, makes provision for the appointment of a district electoral areas commissioner following the 2008 local government boundary review and amends the District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) Order 1984.

Article 2 provides for the appointment of a replacement commissioner when the district electoral areas commissioner’s appointment has come to an end before he has completed his task. This provision will be used for the current process. Article 2 also makes amendments to the timing of future appointments, providing greater flexibility for the Secretary of State on when to make the appointments. It allows the Secretary of State to appoint a district electoral areas commissioner at any time after a local government boundaries commissioner’s appointment. However, he or she will not be required to do so until an order has been made by the Northern Ireland Executive establishing the new local government boundaries.

Article 3 makes specific provision for the timing of the appointment following the current review. It provides that the Secretary of State must appoint a replacement district electoral areas commissioner “as soon as practicable” after this order comes into force. It also provides that the commissioner must submit his report as soon as practicable after his appointment if the local government boundaries order is made before this order comes into force, which may well be the case.

In conclusion, I hope that noble Lords will endorse this statutory instrument, which ensures that the process of local government reorganisation in Northern Ireland, as agreed by the Assembly, can continue. I commend the District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) Order 2012 to the Committee.

My Lords, first, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, to the post dealing with Northern Ireland. As I am sure she will pick up very quickly, boundaries are of great interest to all political parties in Northern Ireland, perhaps even more so than in the rest of the United Kingdom. I am not quite sure whether she is a veteran of the debates on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill but that was certainly a very interesting time and I thoroughly enjoyed my part in it.

Can the Minister tell us whether there have been any objections to the delay in making this appointment and putting this order through, and whether there were any objections to any part of the process? We take the view—and my honourable friend Vernon Coaker has always made it quite plain—that these matters that are devolved to Northern Ireland must be dealt with in Northern Ireland. Especially when it comes to boundaries, we will work closely with all the parties in Northern Ireland to make sure that they are accepted.

However, there are one or two questions. This post is likely to be controversial and I wonder what the Government’s response is to any controversy that has arisen over this post, which is quite a significant one. Perhaps the Minister can answer those questions when she responds. I reserve the right to perhaps come in again if any comments require a response from me.

My Lords, I welcome the order and will certainly not be speaking at any considerable length on the subject. However, I am greatly encouraged that the Minister thinks that local government reform in Northern Ireland is “relatively simple”, which I think was her opening phrase. As a Minister in 1972 introducing the reform of local government in Northern Ireland, I did not find it relatively simple—it was very controversial indeed. It is nice to know that after 40 years what I did at that time has existed with some success. It is even nicer to find that it is considered to be a relatively simple affair in Northern Ireland today, although I think that the noble Lord who has just spoken was hinting that it can also be controversial in Northern Ireland.

It is a difficult subject for the Committee. As the Minister said, some of the items are really for the devolved institutions and some are for our national Parliament here in Westminster. I am wondering what speed we are going to work at. We were to have a local government election in 2011, but that has been extended because the boundaries were not agreed. Have we got a target date now for the next local elections or has it simply been extended without a target date? There needs to be clarification, not just for the Committee but for the public generally in Northern Ireland, as to where we are going and at what speed. I notice in the order, for example, that the district electoral area commissioner will be appointed “as soon as practicable”. What does that really mean? How soon will it be? It is time that we moved ahead with local government reform in Northern Ireland.

I personally welcome the idea of the 26 councils in Northern Ireland, which I introduced in 1972, being reduced to 11. That itself is a controversial subject in Northern Ireland, even within some of the political parties, never mind among them. You can never please everyone. For example, in my former constituency of Strangford, the borough of Castlereagh is now being linked in many respects with the borough of Lisburn. I find that very difficult to understand but accept the recommendation that there should be 11 councils in Northern Ireland.

Within each council area—here we are talking about boundaries and the number of councillors—I assume that there will be a councillor for each ward. We are discussing the joining together of various wards in an electoral area. If three wards are joined together, I assume that there will be three councillors. If four wards are joined together, I assume that there will be four councillors. I hope that that will be clarified. Will there be a minimum number of wards that can be joined together, and a maximum number? For example, if a new council boundary encloses 11 wards, is it possible that all 11 wards will be in one district electoral area? I would not have thought so; there must be a minimum and maximum, and I would like to know what they are.

Otherwise, I have no objections to the order. It is the way forward for Northern Ireland. Some of the councils in Northern Ireland are ridiculously small in population, yet have the same powers as some of the very large district councils. It is good to see this reorganisation, I wish it godspeed and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, said, the statutory instrument before us is fairly straightforward. However, it would not be possible for me not to comment on its timing because of the delay that has taken place. This phase of local government reform began in 2001, when the first Executive decided to reform local government. I welcome the Minister to her new duties. She is a former devolved Minister in Wales. I am a lifelong supporter of devolution, but I have to say that the performance of devolution in the area of local government has not been its finest hour.

We started this in 2001. Of course, the Executive ceased in 2002 when direct rule came back in. I think that it was Secretary of State Hain who, in a blaze of glory, announced his proposals for the reform of local government, with a proposal for seven councils. Then devolution came back in and the then Executive did not agree with that. We proceeded to a new process and Mr Mackenzie was appointed in 2008. He made his final report on 22 June 2009, which is getting on for three and a half years ago. The last we heard, local government elections were to be held for shadow councils in 2014, but these would not take power until 2015.

By any stretch of the imagination, that is not a good timetable. The effect has been to leave local councils in some cases without chief executives, and not knowing whether they are coming or going. The powers that they were to get, which started off substantial but are very small in the current process, have gradually eroded. There has been a lot of confusion, and councils have had acting chief executives and various other things, so it has not been a happy time.

On the timing of the order, I, too, would be interested to know when the commissioner will be appointed. A significant process will have to take place. When the wards are grouped together to form district electoral areas, I understand that current legislation will permit either five or seven to be allowed for. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, who occupied a place in local government, will know that most local government districts had five, six or seven councillors.

I do not know whether that will be amended, but when the draft boundaries come out, they will have to be subject to public consultation. The commissioner has to take evidence and seek public comment, so even if the person were to be appointed this side of Christmas, it is inconceivable that the report would be ready by the summer of next year. If the local elections were to be held in 2014 to coincide with the European elections, that leaves the political parties very little time to select their candidates and get things sorted out. I would be very interested to hear the answer to that question.

While it is not strictly relevant to this order, the Minister referred to local government, of which I have had some experience. The fact is that a lot of good work has been done there. It kept democracy alive in the dark days when there was no alternative to local government. Councillors have actually made the supreme sacrifice for their participation in local government. They have been attacked and assassinated, and sadly that still continues. Councillors take a risk, so we would all wish to commend them on their efforts in trying to maintain the democratic process.

I am very disappointed so far as the 11-area model is concerned and some of the proposals are barking mad. Indeed, it is the only proposal for local government that I can recall where the participants, the people and indeed the commissioner were legally prohibited from taking into account local identity, which is the whole purpose of local government. To say that the commissioner was prohibited from drawing up the boundaries and taking into consideration local identity seems most bizarre.

So far as the proposal for the city of Belfast is concerned, in my opinion it is nothing short of a gerrymander, and I deeply regret that. Nevertheless, the proposal is here and I think it has to be proceeded with. But perhaps I may make a comment to the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, in response to what he said about boundaries being problematical in Northern Ireland. Of course they can be problematical, but when I came into your Lordships’ House not very long ago, we were debating the constituencies Bill. If he thinks that boundaries do not matter in here, I can assure him that when boundaries were being discussed then, what I saw looked like hungry dogs fighting over a bone. The matter was being discussed with passion at that stage. I think the noble Lord will find that when boundaries and people’s constituencies were being discussed in your Lordships’ House, it was evident to me that it mattered.

I agree with my noble friend for the purposes of this debate. “Mad dog” is perhaps the best description of me when it comes to the towns of Rutherglen and Cambuslang being incorporated into a Glasgow constituency. He has mentioned the boundaries—

I think that the noble Lord should not make another speech at this stage. Perhaps we could hear from other speakers and then from the Minister. He can interrupt on points of clarification then. It is not correct to speak twice in these debates.

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, says, but the lesson is that wherever you are in the United Kingdom, boundaries matter. As the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, said, it is encouraging that we can have a debate and discuss these issues in Northern Ireland without, thank God, the consequences that once might have been the case. It is a more mature discussion. While I have big problems with what is being proposed, decisions have been taken and they must be respected. This order is the natural outcome of those proposals.

Perhaps the Minister will give us some idea of the timing. Of course, the Northern Ireland Office can only respond to the devolved Administration—it cannot initiate the process; it has to wait—but if elections are to take place in 2014 as apparently proposed, the timetable for this operation is vital. If the appointment is made shortly, it will be the middle of next year before any proposal can be implemented. That is leaving things very short. This process has gone on since 2001. When those new local councils take power in 2015 it will have taken 14 years to reform local government for 1.8 million people.

You could not make it up if it was anywhere else in the world—and we are supposed to be lecturing people on the democratic process and how they conduct themselves. In fact, we have been so slow with this that the whole scene in local government will be out of date before we get it going. If this commissioner is not able to do his or her work in the first half of next year, the opportunity to hold those local elections will have been lost, and they will be postponed once again. I, too, would be interested to hear the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I welcome the order. It is important that the commissioner is in place as soon as possible, to move forward quickly and to have the mechanism to allow the establishment of the 11 new councils and, particularly, to group the new wards in the appropriate councils. The 11 new councils will be more efficient and cost-effective, and prove better value for the rate-payers of Northern Ireland. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Empey, I am concerned about the timeframe. Is the Minister satisfied that the timeframe that will be afforded to the commissioner will be sufficient to allow local elections to proceed in 2014? Finally, is any appeal process available to those who object to the commissioner’s findings?

My Lords, I will make a few remarks on the reform of local government. As one who has been in local government from 1973 to the present day, what strikes me is that when local government was first reformed under the recommendations of the Macrory report—I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, said: that this happened under his watch—it was a straight-across change. There were no shadow councils put in place then. It was one way today and a different way tomorrow; that was just the way it happened. There was no learning process, there was no settling in and there was no getting to know the ropes. You just landed on your feet; at least, that is the way that I had to do it. I suspect that no one else did any differently.

We had an election in 2011. I think it has been implied that there was no election then. Well, I stood in an election in 2011 so there was one, and there is another now proposed for 2014. Generally, I support the principles of what has been outlined here today. We have 26 district councils. I am not going to comment on whether they have been good, bad or indifferent. There have been deficiencies, all right. However, I agree with noble Lords when they say that it was the only form of government, of elected representation, there for some 40 years. It is right that we should pay tribute to those who unfortunately had to pay the ultimate sacrifice, for whatever reason. Indeed, some are being asked to do that to this very day.

If we are going to reform local government, and it has taken some time to bring it to this stage, we would do better to get it right than to do it quickly. I do not think that we in Northern Ireland could ever be accused of doing anything too quickly. We take an inordinate amount of time going through this process, but it is an important process for a number of reasons. I support the concept of 11 councils. Quite frankly, Northern Ireland is much too small to have 26 district councils, 108 MLAs, 18 MPs and three MEPs. We are oversubscribed in relation to public representatives, and it is right that change should come quickly.

Having made those observations, I generally and basically agree with what is outlined here today.

My Lords, this has been a very interesting debate and I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to it. Some very important points have been made. I will do my best to reply to all the substantive issues that have been raised but will of course review the record afterwards and write to noble Lords if I feel I have not had the opportunity to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, asked whether there had been any objections to the delay in laying the order or to any part of the process. Of course, the timing of this is entirely a result of the processes followed by the devolved Administration—the Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive—and it is for them to choose the speed at which we travel. We have responded to their work in the most timely manner possible but the timescale is a result of their discussions and deliberations. To our knowledge, there have been no objections to the role of the Northern Ireland Office in this matter, although there has been considerable debate, some of which has been reflected here today, on the nature of the boundaries and precisely what they should be.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, set out for us the road that has been travelled in Northern Ireland and it is important that we bear in mind when we discuss issues such as timing and delay that we have travelled a very long and significant road. He is right to point out that there are still considerable sensitivities surrounding these issues.

On the future speed of travel, the target date is that the Northern Ireland Executive hope to hold the next elections, for a shadow set of 11 authorities, in 2014. Noble Lords will be aware that the 2011 elections were held on the old boundaries, for the 26 authorities. If we are to have the new boundaries in place and shadow elections in 2014 for councils that will come into their full powers in 2015, the DEAC needs to do his or her work in time for those elections, and for the setting up and selection of candidates and the role that political parties have to play in all this. The Northern Ireland Executive are ambitious to achieve this timetable and we are anxious to support and enable them to do so.

The noble Lord also asked about the size of the districts. The 1984 order set out a five-to-seven-ward model, with each ward represented by one councillor. If you have a district of five wards, you have five councillors and if you have a district of seven wards, you have seven councillors. It would seem that this is the likely model that will be followed in future.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, also expressed concern about the delay in the local government elections, particularly the impact that this delay and uncertainty has had on local councils. He rightly points out the important role of councils in maintaining democracy in Northern Ireland, even at the most difficult times. Councils in Northern Ireland should be commended for that role. He is also absolutely correct in pointing out that time is short if there are to be elections to the shadow councils in 2014. It might help if I point out that the DEAC’s work and the process to be gone through will include a public consultation and potentially 11 separate inquiries—one for each of the new council areas. Once the DEAC has been appointed, it may take up to a year to complete this work. Therefore, I agree that the appointment needs to be done promptly, although there is scope to reduce that time if the uncompleted work of the previous DEAC could be utilised, at least in part. We are clear that the work needs to be completed as soon as possible; certainly in good time for the scheduled elections.

To be clear, if the former commissioner happened to be reappointed, I can see how one could compress that. However, if there is an appointment process, someone else is appointed and that takes a year, are we saying that parties would have only three or four months to react and for candidates to come into the picture? All that would have to be done. That is a ridiculously short amount of time. I could argue that it is nearly worse than police and crime commissioners.

I must agree with the noble Lord that time is short. The timescale can only be met with the goodwill and support of the political parties. Of course, once the DEAC is appointed and the inquiries start, it will come as no surprise to local political parties that the elections are on the horizon, so it may be possible for them to prepare in advance. The noble Lord is right to say that the targets here are ambitious, but I emphasise that they are not set down by the Northern Ireland Office. We are following the timescales set by the Executive in Northern Ireland and we are anxious to support them in their ambition to introduce reforms in local government in time for 2015, when councils have their powers fully conferred on them.

We accept that our success in this depends on joint work with the Northern Ireland Executive. We are working closely with them. Our role is to make arrangements on the election administration and the Executive will need to bring in legislation on the operation of the shadow councils.

I referred to the process that the DEAC will have to fulfil in order to achieve his or her work. I emphasise that the work of deciding electoral areas is of fundamental importance to the election process. Although timescales may be tight, it is important, for reasons that have been amply illustrated today, that the work should be done carefully, fully and correctly, because it is potentially controversial.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, addressed the proposals on boundaries and the apparent prohibition on taking into account local identity. This is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. The issues are devolved and it would be entirely wrong for me to intrude on them in my response.

The noble Lords, Lord Browne and Lord Morrow, both stressed their support for the new model of 11 local councils. It is important that we emphasise that across the piece there has been support for local democracy in Northern Ireland, and for the new model. I assure noble Lords that the Northern Ireland Office will do everything it can to help the Northern Ireland Executive move forward.

Any local government reorganisation in any part of the United Kingdom is a sensitive issue. I speak as someone who went through it once as a local councillor. The issue cannot be rushed. It is important for strengthening democracy, and this is an important part of strengthening Northern Ireland and its democratic future.

Motion agreed.