Motion to Approve
My Lords, in moving this Motion, I shall speak also to the next Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper: that is, on the draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 2013.
I will speak first to the local elections order and then come on to the European parliamentary election regulations. The local elections order makes important changes linked to local government reform in Northern Ireland, and I have a detailed set of remarks to cover its extent.
As noble Lords will be aware, local government in Northern Ireland is undergoing significant reorganisation, part of which involves reducing the number of local councils from 26 to 11. The Northern Ireland Executive is responsible for the reform programme, but elections to local councils are excepted, and so are the responsibility of the UK Government. The Northern Ireland Executive asked the Government to support the reform by bringing forward the date of the local election by one year and facilitating a transitional period until 2015, during which councillors elected to the new councils will serve in parallel with existing councils.
The order makes changes in four main areas. First, it delivers a transitional period; secondly, it makes temporary changes required only for the 2014 elections; thirdly, it makes consequential changes to polling districts and places for parliamentary elections; and, fourthly, it allows the local election poll to be combined with the European parliamentary poll.
I will now briefly explain the changes being made in each of those areas. The order brings forward the date of the next scheduled local election in Northern Ireland by one year to 22 May 2014. The transitional period will run from the fourth day after the election until 31 March 2015. The order provides that the new councils will come into their full powers on 1 April 2015 but will be able to exercise powers in relation to limited transitional issues in advance of that date. For example, that would include taking decisions on the formation of the new councils in relation to rates, debts and standards of service provision.
New councillors will remain in office until 2019, four years after assuming full powers. Existing councillors will remain in office until 1 April 2015 and continue to exercise powers in relation to the day-to-day management of council business, but not on transitional issues. Vacancies in the new councils will be filled by co-option if they arise during the transitional period, and any vacancies on existing councils will continue to be filled by co-option until 1 January 2015.
The order also introduces some temporary changes, required only for the first election of the new councils in 2014. The first is in relation to election expenses. The Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland can normally claim an advance on his local election expenses before the election from the relevant local council to allow preparations to be made. Since the new councils will not exist before the election in 2014, this order makes provision for the statutory transition committees established by the Northern Ireland Executive to provide the advance of election expenses before the election, and for the new councils then to pay the balance of election expenses after the election.
Secondly, under usual circumstances the chief executive of each council serves as the deputy returning officer. However, the open competition being run for the chief executive positions in the new councils will not be completed sufficiently far in advance of the election for them to be appointed as deputy returning officers. The order therefore provides for the statutory transition committees to appoint deputy returning officers for the purposes of the 2014 elections, in consultation with the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission’s role is to help ensure that each committee appoints a person with sufficient experience to fulfil the role of deputy returning officer. For example, it may provide committees with advice on the role and functions of a deputy returning officer and the selection criteria used. It will not offer views on the merits of particular candidates.
Thirdly, as noble Lords are aware, the Northern Ireland Assembly agreed new wards for each local government district. The polling station scheme for local elections needs to reflect this new ward structure. This order therefore requires the chief electoral officer to prepare a new polling station scheme before the elections in 2014. The new scheme will be published after the Secretary of State lays an order before Parliament grouping the wards into district electoral areas.
The order also makes changes to polling districts and places for elections to the House of Commons, which are necessary in consequence of the changes made to local government boundaries. Currently, the polling districts and places for parliamentary elections are those established for local elections. When the chief electoral officer designs a polling station scheme for local elections, it will apply automatically to parliamentary elections. However, some of the new local government wards will fall between two parliamentary constituencies. As it will no longer be appropriate to maintain the link between parliamentary polling districts and local government wards, this order makes amendments to allow parliamentary polling districts to instead be designated by the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Electoral Commission.
The chief electoral officer will still designate polling places for parliamentary elections and will be required to carry out reviews of the polling places in 2014 and every five years thereafter. Such reviews will follow the same process as that followed by registration officers in Great Britain.
The final set of changes being made by this order is to facilitate the combination of the local election poll with the European parliamentary election poll, which will be held on the same day in 2014. These are practical provisions to ensure that the two polls work together and include changes such as ensuring that differently coloured ballot papers are used for each election and combining the process for issuing postal ballot papers. One of the changes being introduced is in response to a recommendation from the Electoral Commission whereby the title of the election will be printed on the top of the ballot paper in combined elections to help prevent voter confusion.
I now turn briefly to the European Parliamentary Election Regulations (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (No.2) Regulations 2013, also before us today. This short set of regulations make additional amendments to the European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2004, principally to allow for the combination of the European parliamentary poll with the local poll. The changes being made to these regulations are equivalent to some of those being made by the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 2013 for local elections to ensure that the polls work together.
I hope that noble Lords will agree that these two pieces of legislation are important to support the Northern Ireland Executive’s plans for local government reform and to allow for the efficient combination of polls. I commend them to the Committee.
My Lords, the Minister has little choice but to bring these regulations before us, but I have to say that the whole process is a dog’s dinner. Noble Lords will have detected that in the regulations we are now creating three different classes of councillor. One class consists of councillors in the existing local authorities, which will run until 2015; another class consists of councillors who will be elected in 2014 and who will run in parallel with the existing ones until 2015; and a third class consists of members of both the old and the new. On top of that, we have a statutory transition committee, doing bits and pieces of work, which will also be populated by councillors from the old regime. You could not make this up.
This process has taken 14 years, and we are transferring only one meaningful power to local authorities in addition to the relatively small powers that they have at present—which is in planning—and they will have only part of the power at that. Pretty well everything else has been held back by the government departments that have ground away for the past 14 years and succeeded in ensuring that the local councils that will be elected are not much more powerful than the existing ones.
I will put to the Minister just one point about people queuing outside polling stations and their votes being counted. In the past, there have been cases where polling stations have been kept open and votes taken after the deadline had passed; I am sure that the Minister is familiar with that situation. I just wonder how it is to be policed. At what point is a line drawn between when people can queue up and when they cannot? Who will go outside and actually police this? Indeed, will it be the police? Will it be staff under the control of the chief electoral officer? Who will do this? I believe that there is potential, particularly on dark nights, for confusion. Who will decide where the line is drawn? A queue is outside, staff are inside, and more people come along to queue. How is that going to be handled? When does that process actually end?
When this process began in 2001, one of the watchwords was coterminosity, which meant trying to ensure that Westminster, the Assembly and local councils were as compatible as possible in a boundary sense. Now we have a system where they are utterly and completely incompatible, which is another startling outcome of this process. Therefore, not only are things more chopped up and divided than ever between different parliamentary Assembly constituencies and local authorities but the whole context of having local identity taken into account during the local government reform process was excluded from the Bill. In fact, the Boundary Commissioner was excluded from taking local identity into account. Considering that it was local government reform, I just leave with the Committee the thought that it seems the most bizarre process to have entered into. There was the most flagrant political gerrymander of the city of Belfast—but there will be more of that later in another context.
The scheme that the Minister has proposed is required, given that we have two elections on the same day which involve consequential changes. I notice it is proposed that the ballot boxes for both elections will be opened at an early stage when the verification is being undertaken. I assume that there are past examples of different ballot boxes being in the polling stations, with some votes being placed in the wrong ballot box, either accidentally or deliberately. However, does that mean that there will be a joint verification process on the same day or that the ballot boxes will simply have the wrong ballots taken out of them and the other ballots will not be processed, doing one verification at a time?
The first election votes to be counted will relate to local government. Although the European elections take place on the same day, as most voting in Europe takes place on a Sunday, those votes will not be counted until the following Monday. Therefore, when those boxes are opened, will be they verified at that stage or will there be a separation of ballots so that the votes end up in the correct boxes?
My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for a very clear and full exposition of these necessary changes. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, is a complete realist and knows that those changes must go ahead to fit in with the various consequential amendments that are required.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Empey, I noticed that there will be two ballot boxes, and I am aware of what happens in those circumstances and so on. Being an experienced politician, I can see the capacity for confusion and mistakes. Therefore, will special emphasis be placed on the counting officer being required to make sure that all the political election agents concerned have a right and a duty to supervise that procedure so that there will not be instances of it going ahead in the absence of one or more political agents?
I also noted the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, concerning coterminosity. I understand his point of view, because in Scotland we also hoped that we would have coterminosity in terms of organisation after the founding of the Scottish Parliament. However, we do not have the coterminosity that many of us would like to have seen, and I understand his point of view. It is a cliché, but we are where we are. We need these SIs to go ahead. I believe that there were commitments to coterminosity at the time. I remember that quite clearly because local boundaries in Northern Ireland, as everywhere else in the United Kingdom, are quite important. Nevertheless, the Opposition views these SIs as necessary. We are grateful for the clear exposition. If the Minister could comment on the two ballot box situation, I would be very grateful.
My Lords, I welcome these SIs, which are designed to help the elections proceed smoothly. With regard to the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order, which replaces the existing 26 councils with 11 larger local council areas, the elections are to be held on 26 May 2014. I welcome that. It is important that local elections go ahead as, to date, there have been many co-options on to local councils in order to address the so-called problem with double-jobbing. Many councils have a high proportion of councillors who have never received a mandate from the electorate. From 2015, when I understand co-option will stop, councils will be truly democratic.
In order for political parties to have sufficient time to prepare for these elections, it is vital that they know in good time what wards are grouped into which electoral areas. Will the Minister indicate how soon an order will be laid before Parliament so that the chief electoral officer will be able to draw up plans for locating polling stations? I regret that the normal 12-week consultation period in the draft scheme has been withdrawn, but I trust that that will not lead to problems with the siting of polling stations.
I am pleased to hear that the papers for the local election and the European election will be of different colours. That is what happened last time when we had the Assembly elections and the local council elections, but there was considerable confusion because even though the papers were colour-coded, the colours were insipid, which led to problems. This time, with the papers having a title showing which election they are for, that problem will be solved.
There is a continuing decline in turnout at elections in Northern Ireland. I think that only 55% of the electorate took part in the previous election—down from 62.9%—but I trust that these regulations will encourage voters to turn out.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said what I was thinking when I was listening to the Minister. This is a dog’s dinner. Working on the ground and trying to get young people interested in voting in Northern Ireland—it has mostly been older people who have voted—the different colours of ballot papers are hard to explain. I am most anxious that we are given time to explain and that this is not just put into the media or the paper and that is it. We will have to explain on the ground to young people, in particular, why this election is taking place and why we are working to the 2015 election and all that. Many people will get confused and think that they are voting for two lots of councillors. Knowing Northern Ireland as we do, that is a very distinct possibility.
I take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, about who will police when the stations close. That can be a very dangerous situation in Northern Ireland. Has any thought been given to that?
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I will resume with the meat of what I intended to say in response to noble Lords.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to there being three classes of councillor. I refer the noble Lord to the description of the roles of those councillors. There are, in strict terms, three different positions, but there is no duplication of councillor roles, because councillors elected in 2014 can exercise functions only in relation to limited transitional issues before 1 April 2015. So there will be no duplication of roles, and statutory transition committees will cease to exist 28 days after the election. I can tell the noble Lord, from my own experience as a councillor in Wales in 1995—in a transitional council prior to local government reorganisation in 1996—that the transitional year was of tremendous value. It was extremely important in establishing the new councils on their road, and in enabling the old councils to fully wind up their work.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, also raised the issue of queuing outside polling stations, and of who will decide who is in the queue, and where the queue ends. This will very much be an issue for the Electoral Commission, which has a key role to play. In particular, it will develop guidance for electoral administrators, which is what will happen in the rest of the UK, although in most cases it will be obvious who is in the queue and who is not. However, all these provisions should not make us forget that the important thing is good electoral planning. The provisions exist because in the past there have been problems with the closure of polling stations, such as people being left standing outside.
I welcome the support of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, on this. I believe that both he and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, raised the issue of two ballot boxes being open and the potential for confusion. I point out that the change of having the name on the top of the ballot papers will reduce potential confusion for electors, but there is always the situation where electors put their ballot papers in the wrong box. However, it may eventually be decided that ballot papers should all be put in the same box and sorted afterwards.
On the issue of the verification and counting process, observers and candidates for each election will be able to attend the verification and count of the other election to facilitate a joint verification process, if that is how it is decided to do it. Joint verification is facilitated, not prescribed. The timing of the verification process is very much an operational matter. It is a decision for the chief electoral officer. The purpose of this statutory instrument is to make provision to allow things to work as well as possible. The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, is correct: it will allow those able to view any proceedings for either the local or the European elections to access those of the other election, as I said just now.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne, referred to the new wards and the 12-week consultation period. The District Electoral Areas Commission is due to report before the end of the year to the Secretary of State, who will lay the order before Parliament as soon as possible after that. On the noble Lord’s comments about co-option and whether it will stop in 2015, that is not the case. This order makes no changes to the general process for filling vacancies. It only deals with vacancies arising during the transitional period.
The noble Baroness pointed to the possibility of confusion. That can always exist when you have two elections on the same day. Despite the names on top of the ballot papers, the different colours and so on, there is always the possibility of confusion. However, this is a matter for the Electoral Commission and the political parties. We encourage them to engage with electors to explain the situation and make it crystal clear. I take this opportunity to point out that we are very pleased with voter registration as a result of this canvass period. The target was to achieve 85% and they have already achieved 88.3%. In many ways, that is an all-time record. The completeness of the register suggests that more people will be in a position to exert their right to vote. That is very important for the democratic process.
I need to make a slight correction to my answer to the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy. All EU observers can attend the local verification and the count. All local observers can attend the EU verification but not the count. That is probably explained because the count for the EU election will be held some time later. Of course, we are dealing with a very large area in that case.
I hope I have answered noble Lords’ queries satisfactorily. I will of course review the record to ensure that I have answered the substantive points as well as possible. I thank all noble Lords for their support.
Perhaps I may refer the noble Baroness back to the issue of queues. A great deal of the problem has to do with the geography and where a polling station is located. Some are on the street and others are in more remote areas that have a large amount of land around them, whether that is in the form of steps, car parks, schools or whatever.
I have some anxieties about leaving this sensitive issue to the chief electoral officer. There was a case in 2001, I think, in Fermanagh in South Tyrone, where paramilitaries took over the polling station. They were voting well after the polling station was closed. With the polling station locked from the inside, they continued to vote. I am not making this up.
In remote areas where perhaps it is difficult for the police to function, depending on the geography, I still have an anxiety as to who will decide. Does a polling clerk, who is taken on for the day, come outside and say, “Right, mate, you are the last one. That’s it”? Who stays there to see that that person is the last one? Only the person who has decided that he should be the last one can verify when that last person comes into the polling station. I do not understand the mechanics of how this will work.
Perhaps the simplest thing is to know that if a polling station closes at 10 pm, that is it and there is no argument; you are either in or you are not. This business of queuing could be abused—that is my anxiety. I am not sure who will ensure that that does not happen.
The noble Lord raises a significant point. He is right to raise it because the experience of the last general election showed that there were queues in certain places and that the approach of the polling clerks differed from one place to another. That is why these regulations were brought forward. They are intended to address that issue—which has not been addressed in the past—and are backed up by the fact that the Electoral Commission will issue guidance relating to these regulations. It will be for the Electoral Commission, having issued the guidance, and for the deputy returning officers, having provided training to polling clerks, to ensure that the guidance is rolled out smoothly.
As with every election in the UK, the police will provide back-up support if there are difficult situations to handle, and the PSNI will do this in the usual way, as it has always done.