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District Electoral Areas (Northern Ireland) Order 2014

Volume 751: debated on Tuesday 28 January 2014

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the District Electoral Areas (Northern Ireland) Order 2014.

Relevant document: 17th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, as noble Lords will be aware, as part of the reform of local government in Northern Ireland, the number of local government districts is being reduced from 26 to 11. The new local government district boundaries were set by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Northern Ireland Executive then brought forward legislation in 2012, the Local Government (Boundaries) Order (Northern Ireland) 2012, to divide the 11 new local government districts into wards.

As local government elections in Northern Ireland use the single transferable vote system, these wards need to be grouped together into multi-member district electoral areas for the purpose of elections to district councils. Each district electoral area contains between five and seven wards, with the number of councillors it elects equal to the number of wards it contains. With the new local government boundaries, there will be an overall reduction in the number of district electoral areas from 101 to 80.

The drawing of suggested district electoral areas is carried out by an independent District Electoral Areas Commissioner. A commissioner was initially appointed in 2009 following the appointment by the Northern Ireland Executive of a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner. However, as the ward boundaries were not finalised by the Executive prior to the end of the Commissioner’s one-year term, he was unable to make recommendations on district electoral areas. The boundaries of the local government districts and wards were finalised by the Executive in November 2012. Since the District Electoral Areas Commissioner’s original appointment had come to an end, there was no legal basis on which to reappoint someone to the same task and so the Government were required to make an order to provide this. We brought forward legislation in 2012—the District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) Order 2012—and the Secretary of State then reappointed the commissioner, who resumed work in January 2013.

The District Electoral Areas Commissioner is independent of government, to ensure that the process for setting electoral areas is politically impartial. The District Electoral Areas Commissioner published provisional recommendations, as he is required to do by statute, in May 2013. Following public consultation on these provisional recommendations, assistant commissioners conducted nine public inquiries during September 2013. The District Electoral Areas Commissioner submitted his final report and recommendations to the Secretary of State, who laid the report before Parliament on 11 December 2013. I place on the record my thanks to the District Electoral Areas Commissioner, Mr Richard Mackenzie, and his team, for all their hard work.

This order brings into force the new district electoral areas as recommended to the Secretary of State by the District Electoral Areas Commissioner. Schedule 1 to the order lists the district electoral areas, and no modifications have been made to the recommendations. I hope that noble Lords will agree that this is an important order for delivering local elections in May, and I commend it to the Committee.

My Lords, as I have said in this Committee before, this represents the end of a 13 to 14-year process, so nobody has broken into a sweat with the effort of getting here. It has taken a monumental length of time to get to this point.

Technically, the Minister is correct that this is needed in order to provide for the elections to take place in May. She is also right to say that commissioners were appointed and held inquiries. I do not necessarily agree with every one of the proposals, particularly, for example, the one in respect of Enniskillen in Fermanagh. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State has accepted the recommendations and they are here before us. However, they show, for those familiar with the geography, that a fundamental injustice has been committed with the designation of the boundaries for some of the councils. A glance at the map and a glance at the proposals for Belfast show that it has been gerrymandered in the most obvious and blatant way. Areas such as Dundonald and Ballybeen have been excluded from the City of Belfast, along with Rathcoole, and included, in the case of Dundonald and Ballybeen, with Lisburn and Castlereagh, with which they have little or no connection.

However, that is not the matter before us. It is merely a point that I have made before and will make again. I suspect that more can be said when we come to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill in Committee next week, although we do not know which day each bit will be debated. Nevertheless, I wanted to put on record my dissatisfaction with the fundamentals behind these proposals before us.

My Lords, I welcome the order and I, too, thank the District Electoral Areas Commissioner, Mr Richard Mackenzie, and his team for all their hard work in preparing it. Redrawing boundaries is always a difficult task, and it is not always possible for political parties to obtain all they desire, but considerable work has gone into this and the areas are now well balanced. Going into the statistics, there are about 2,500 people per area, with a mean variation of plus or minus 5%. Considerable progress has been made. I hope that the discussions next week on the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will allow the Northern Ireland Executive to review the role of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner and, I hope, improve it in the future. In general, I welcome this order.

My Lords, the Official Opposition, too, welcome the report and the order, and I endorse the Minister’s commendation of Mr Mackenzie and his team. It can be very tricky drawing boundaries anywhere, but in Northern Ireland they have been hotly disputed. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, has expressed dissatisfaction. I would be more worried if nobody had expressed dissatisfaction, so that is actually quite a commendation. My honourable friend Stephen Pound in the other place, who is far more eloquent and far more loquacious than me, has asked a couple of questions, which I would like to ask the Minister to get them on record here.

First, given that the Sandyknowles roundabout has traditionally been a key landmark in identifying the border of the DEA, Mr Pound asked for the Minister’s assessment of the commissioner’s decision to change the name of Sandyknowles to Glengormley Urban. Secondly, the commissioner and his team should be commended for their work in liaising closely with community groups in Derry/Londonderry, particularly given the historic sensitivity that surrounds polling districts in the city. However, does the Minister agree that, on this occasion, the commissioner should perhaps have listened more to the advice of local community groups and accepted the recommendation to change Rosemount DEA to Edenballymore? Those are a couple of technical questions. If the Minister has the answers, fine, but if not she can write to me so we can get them on the record.

As I say, this is a welcome step. It has been a long time coming, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, but it is another step on the road to making sure that Northern Ireland is like every other place in the United Kingdom. Political disputes may go back and forward but there is general acceptance of this measure, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, was good enough to say. With that, I repeat that we support the order.

I thank noble Lords for their participation in this short debate and very much welcome the general support that has been expressed. I will deal with the specific points made by each noble Lord. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, made the point that this has been a very long process. Progress has been on quite a knife-edge on occasion, but I agree with the noble Lord that this will bring a very big change. As the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, has just pointed out, this is an important step.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

I believe I was at the point of commenting on the size of the change that is going to take place for local government in Northern Ireland, and agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, that this is another step along the road to creating a structure, form and way of doing government in Northern Ireland that we all take for granted but which has, at times, been very difficult to achieve there. We all welcome that process.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to a particular boundary with which he disagrees, and the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, also asked me questions about specific issues which came up at the public inquiries. I am sure noble Lords will understand that it is inappropriate for me to comment on precise decisions that have been through an arms-length, politically neutral process and through a period of public consultation followed by a series of public inquiries. Reports were written, decisions were made and the Secretary of State has not felt it to be appropriate in any way to intervene or to change any of those decisions. I met the District Electoral Areas Commissioner, Mr Richard Mackenzie, a couple of weeks ago, and he took me through the process he had used—his methodology and the guidelines he had worked to—and I am totally sure of the thoroughness and political impartiality of the process.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, very correctly referred to the difficulties of fixing boundaries in local government. It is difficult wherever you are; it is much more difficult, of course, in Northern Ireland in many ways. It is always a hugely controversial issue, because it brings into focus issues relating to individual communities, and people feel very strongly about that. However, as the noble Lord said, consideration of the Bill next week will allow us to discuss the move to make the District Electoral Areas Commissioner a reserved matter, which would enable in due course, if is felt to be appropriate after full consultation, a possible amalgamation with the boundary commissioners.

The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, welcomed the decisions in this legislation. I strongly endorse these recommendations and I urge your Lordships to accept them.

Motion agreed.