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Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Election Expenses) Order 2019

Volume 796: debated on Tuesday 5 March 2019

Motion to Approve

Moved by

My Lords, this statutory instrument will make two minor but positive improvements to the local election rules in relation to the election expenses that can be incurred by a candidate at a local election in Northern Ireland. The provisions will bring the rules for local elections into line with those of other elections in the United Kingdom. I will now explain the details of each of these changes in turn.

The first change will exclude expenses that are reasonably incurred and reasonably attributable to a candidate’s disability from their electoral expenses spending limits, mirroring the recent changes made for UK parliamentary and Northern Ireland Assembly elections in the Representation of the People (Election Expenses Exclusion) (Amendment) Order 2019. Currently, disability-related expenses count towards a disabled candidate’s spending limit.

The matters excluded from the definition of election expenses are listed in Part 2 of Schedule 3B to the 1962 Act. Article 4 amends Schedule 3B so that any expenditure that is both reasonably incurred and reasonably attributable to the candidate’s disability is excluded from the definition of election expenses. This proposal will help to level the playing field between disabled and non-disabled candidates and enhance equality of opportunity for disabled candidates.

Examples of disability-related expenses may include the cost of providing transport support for mobility-impaired candidates, sign language interpretation for hearing-impaired candidates and the transcription of campaign material into Braille for visually impaired candidates. This list is not exclusive. Importantly, I can assure noble Lords that candidates will not be required to disclose any disabilities and there will be no legal obligation for them to report their disability-related expenses.

The second change deals with the personal election expenses of candidates. The aim here is to bring the policy for local elections in Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Unlike in other elections in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, the personal election expenses of candidates at local elections are currently included in the limit on the amount of election expenses that they can incur or that can be incurred on their behalf.

Following the restructuring of local government in Northern Ireland in 2014, which reduced the number of councils from 26 to 11, a number of electoral areas are now considerably larger in size. This proposal will remove potential barriers to campaigning for candidates standing in geographically larger electoral areas, as the costs of travel and accommodation will not count towards their spending limit. Although personal expenses will not be included in the limit on election expenses, candidates will still report them to the chief electoral officer as part of their personal expenses in their expenses return.

These provisions bring local elections into line with other elections in Northern Ireland in respect of the personal expenses changes. The chief electoral officer and the Electoral Commission confirm that they fully support the changes within the instrument.

In order that candidates at the forthcoming local elections can benefit from these improvements to the rules, we have chosen to move as quickly as we can to try to achieve this, rather than delay the order until after the local elections. If the order is approved, it will come into force on the day after it is made. The Electoral Commission will publicise the changes to the rules and update its guidance to candidates in advance of the regulatory spending period for the 2 May local elections.

I hope that your Lordships will support this order. I commend it to the House and beg to move.

My Lords, these Benches welcome the order. We support Articles 2 and 3, which will bring local election rules into line with those for other elections in Northern Ireland, as we heard from the Minister.

We especially welcome and support Article 4, to exempt disability-related expenses from the definition of “election expenses”. This is an important move to help to close the gap between disabled and non-disabled candidates. The Liberal Democrats have always championed diversity and we are keen to ensure that those elected at all levels reflect the wider population they represent.

One of our successes in coalition was the introduction of the Access to Elected Office Fund for disabled candidates to help with the extra costs of standing for office. We have been disappointed, therefore, to see the reluctance of the Conservative Government since 2015 to continue funding this.

Overall, the provisions of the order are important in furthering equality and transparency. However, as the Minister will be aware, although progress has been made to secure full transparency of political donations in Northern Ireland, there is still a significant gap. We welcomed the Transparency of Donations and Loans etc. (Northern Ireland Political Parties) Order 2018 when it was brought before Parliament last year, which allowed the Electoral Commission to publish information about loans and donations given to Northern Ireland political parties dating back to July 2017—I remember speaking in that debate—but we were deeply disappointed that the order did not provide for the backdating of information to 2014, as the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 allowed.

At the time the order was made, the Electoral Commission recommended that another order be brought forward to allow for full transparency dating back to January 2014, as the 2014 Act had anticipated. The Electoral Commission is already in possession the relevant data to allow this. Responding to the debate on that order, the Minister, said:

“Right now, we are not ruling out the re-examination of the period that precedes 1 July 2017. Indeed, the draft order will allow consideration of it, once we have had an opportunity both to bed in the transparency order and to examine the details reflected therein. We will not rule anything in or out on that point ... I recognise that the issue of backdating will remain sensitive. If, on consideration of the data as it is gathered, ascertained and seen, there are deemed to be issues that need to be examined further, the Government will consider them at that point. We are ruling nothing in and nothing out”.—[Official Report, 27/2/18; cols. 623-625.]

Have the Government had the opportunity to give further consideration to this important matter? If so, what are their conclusions? I end by restating our firm support for the provisions in the order before the House today, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I support the comments made by the noble Baroness from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench on the divulging of information about election expenses. I do so because I recently put down a Written Question to which, I am afraid, my noble friend gave a rather disappointing answer. If further consideration has been given to this important point, I hope that he will now be able to give the House better news.

I will raise one point on the order itself, which I warmly welcome. Paragraph 6.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum informs us that personal expenses have been excluded from the limit on election expenses in the rest of the United Kingdom, under the Representation of the People Act 1983. Why has it taken so long to bring Northern Ireland into line and implement this obviously desirable change there? Was change not considered at any point by the Northern Ireland Assembly while it was sitting?

More generally, since this order relates to local government, is my noble friend able to provide any assessment of the performance of the 11 local councils in Northern Ireland which this year will complete their first five-year term following the reorganisation finally agreed in 2012 after years of discussion and dispute in the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, preceded by earlier disagreement going back to 2005? I have commented in the House before on the very restricted powers of local councils in Northern Ireland—the only elected bodies currently meeting. The Assembly acts as the upper tier of local government in Northern Ireland and I wonder, in view of the prolonged suspension, whether there is a case for reviewing the powers of the local councils to see if there are grounds for increasing them.

Has the Minister reached any conclusions on the topics that have just been raised in the wake of the publication of the excellent report by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the other place? It reveals a good deal about the implications of the previous secrecy of donations to Northern Ireland election expenses.

My Lords, obviously I support the order before your Lordships’ House. It is two weeks now since my noble friend was at the Dispatch Box hoping to bring before the House quite soon news of progress towards the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland. He expressed the hope that progress would be made. Every time that we discuss a Northern Ireland issue, it underlines the vital importance of making progress.

It is now well over two years since we had the Northern Ireland Executive and a similar length of time since the Northern Ireland Assembly met. At the risk of appearing like a worn record—I have mentioned this so many times—will my noble friend indicate that, if the Executive cannot be restored in the very near future, the Assembly at least will be summoned and have the opportunity to pass judgment on issues such as this and on more far-reaching matters?

In three weeks’ time, we could be facing the most dire constitutional crisis in our post-war history—and some would put it more strongly than that. Fundamental to that crisis is the position of, and the difficulties occasioned by, Northern Ireland. Had Northern Ireland had an Executive, it is conceivable, as has been mentioned before in your Lordships’ House, that we would not be in our present predicament.

I make no apology for slightly widening the scope of the debate. My noble friend, whom we all admire for his steadfastness, was at the Dispatch Box a fortnight ago and in all good faith he was hoping to come back to us about now. Can he at least say a word about that?

During this debate, reference has been made to the 11 super-councils that were created five years ago in Northern Ireland. The idea was that reducing the number of councils from 26 to 11 would reduce costs in local government administration. That may or may not have happened.

The order is welcome, of course, because it provides greater opportunity to those who represent wider, larger rural areas and a greater facility for those who are handicapped. It widens the opportunity for more candidates to stand for local government elections in Northern Ireland, and that is welcome. However, reducing the number of councils from 26 to 11 means that many people no longer know who their local councillors are. For the last few decades, everyone knew who their local councillors were. But the larger the councils become, the smaller the number of councillors in Northern Ireland, and local people no longer know who their councillors are. That is damaging democracy.

Worse still, at their monthly meetings some of these 11 super-councils are no longer discussing in public all the main issues but are making those issues subject to committee meetings at which some of the media are not even invited. There is no real democracy in some of our 11 new super-councils. I am sorry to say that some people will no longer know who their councillors are and will not know what is happening because of the items that are being discussed almost privately. That will result in a lower turnout in the local government elections in May.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, and others have referred to the transparency of election donations. I hope that the Minister can give an answer—whether he sings it or says it.

One issue before us, in respect of local government in Northern Ireland, is on giving disabled people the opportunity to stand for election to local authorities— obviously, these Benches completely support the Government on that. The other issue concerns the exclusion of personal expenses from election expenses. Again, we very much support that. It brings the law into line with that in Great Britain.

The issue, though, begs a wider question—two questions, in fact. The first, regarding local government, concerns the fact, as I mentioned last week in the House, that we are in a strange position in Northern Ireland. Some years ago, Northern Ireland had the most sophisticated democratic system in Europe, as a result of the Good Friday agreement, with the Assembly, the Executive, the north-south bodies and all the other aspects of the agreement. Now, its local government is the least democratically run part of the United Kingdom or, indeed, of the European Union. Here in this Parliament there is no nationalist voice in this House or, of course, in the House of Commons. There is no Assembly and no Executive, so the only democratic institutions in Northern Ireland are the 11 local authorities. They will have elections fairly soon. Those elections, of course, will be keenly fought by all the parties in Northern Ireland, and my guess is that they will not be fought entirely on local issues either; they will be fought possibly on Brexit but certainly on politics of a wider nature in Northern Ireland. So the 11 local authorities, although they do not have the same powers as local authorities in Great Britain, have a hugely important role as a forum for political and democratic discussion in Northern Ireland.

It should not be like that, of course. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and others about the restoration of the institutions of the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland is critical, and he is absolutely right to raise it every time Northern Irish business is debated in this Chamber. There will, of course, be an opportunity next week, when legislation comes before us regarding the budget and other issues in Northern Ireland, and I hope that that becomes a debate about where we are in the political situation at this moment. Frankly, it is a disgrace that we are in this position: to go well over two years without any Assembly or Executive in Northern Ireland is totally unacceptable. It is linked heavily with Brexit, and I am sure we will have an opportunity to debate that as soon as we can, but noble Lords ought to understand that at the end of May there are two deadlines: one deadline for Brexit and another for extending the role of the Assembly in order to have further negotiations. On 25 March, that deadline closes. In neither case, it seems to me, is anything happening at the moment.

So today is a mini-debate, perhaps, on this issue and I hope that next week will be a major one, but we welcome the order. It is important, but the fact that it has to be brought in this Parliament rather than in the Assembly in Belfast is a tragedy for us all.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords very much for their constructive engagement on this issue. I welcome the support from all sides of the House for the changes in the orders we are bringing forward today. I think they will extend opportunity across Northern Ireland and that that will be welcomed by all in Northern Ireland. It will bring Northern Ireland into alignment with the rest of the United Kingdom. As often happens in debates on Northern Ireland, we had a small amount on the issue on the Order Paper and then we segued quite quickly into a broader discussion. If noble Lords will allow me to pick up some of those pieces, I will do so.

The substantive point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, is an important one. I gave some undertakings the last time I was at this Dispatch Box. I am always loath to hear my words quoted back to me, but she is absolutely correct. I had a note in my briefing that I felt, when I read it, was not adequate in response to her point, so I solicited further information from my assistants in the Box. They are telling me now that the issues we are talking about, these reforms, have not had a chance to go through a complex election. A complex election is coming in May. I give an undertaking that we shall revert to this issue after that point, when I hope we will be in a better position to move this forward. I appreciate that she would like the answer now, but if she will forgive me I will bring this back after that complex election, when I hope we will be in a position to take this matter forward. I appreciate that it is a complex issue—

The Minister was very generous in his contribution on this issue in February of last year, and I endorse what my noble friend has said. But that was 12 months ago, and it is precisely because these elections are important that this issue of transparency remains so clear in our minds as something that needs to be cleared up as soon as possible. Of course we know that the transparency is there for the future, but clearing up what has happened in the past remains a very important political issue for a number of the reasons that have been given. In the context of the constitutional crisis of the next few weeks, to which the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Murphy, have referred, in which Northern Ireland—where there is such a democratic deficit—is so central, the need for clarity and transparency is all the greater. I understand what the Minister is saying, but coming 12 months after he gave an undertaking that progress would be made on the issue of transparency of election funding, it is, frankly, not good enough to say that we will postpone it a bit longer because there is another election coming up. It is not good enough, and it adds to the feeling that Northern Ireland is being treated in a way which is not in alignment with the rest of the United Kingdom at a time when it is extremely sensitive. The Minister himself says that the purpose of this order is to bring Northern Ireland into alignment with Great Britain. Here is another area where it should have happened long ago.

I will accept the criticism. I will not try to defend myself on that point either. We should be able to make progress on this matter, and I hope we can do so, but at this moment I cannot give an undertaking that progress will be made in the short term. For that I apologise.

If I may move on to some of the other issues raised in this particular debate, my noble friend Lord Lexden asked why it has taken so long. In actual fact, although we are reforming an Act which dates to the 1980s, the reform itself was not instituted in the 1980s. We are bringing ourselves into alignment not that long, broadly speaking, after the rest of the United Kingdom, and I hope that we will be able to make that progress today. My noble friend is also correct in looking at how the reorganisation has worked in Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, has also pointed out, we do not yet have enough information to be able to assess that accurately and in the detail which we would require, but we will have to do so to make sure there was some value in undertaking the revision and reconstruction of those particular wards.

I note also the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, on how larger wards by their nature tend to create a greater distance between the individual constituents—if you will—and those who represent them. I was the former MEP for the whole of Scotland. Frankly, I was widely unknown everywhere in Scotland, but none the less I recognise that the shortening of the proximity between those who do the electing and those who do the response is a challenge. It is greater challenge for those with a larger constituency, particularly if that constituency is a rural one where there will, by its nature, be greater challenges. I accept that on the whole.

My noble friend Lord Cormack is right, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has also pointed out, that we should use every opportunity to flag up where we are on the wider question. Two weeks ago, I hoped to be able to report on greater progress from the first meeting of the political parties in Northern Ireland. I was disappointed that I could not do that at the time. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland continues to meet them, and we are hopeful that we will be able to bring about the gathering which needs to take place as a precursor toward establishing the Assembly in a meaningful way with an Executive drawn therefrom.

We have not yet made that progress, but in truth we will have an opportunity to look at this in greater detail when the Executive formation extension element moves the deadline of 26 March to five months hence. I will bring back that very point to your Lordships’ House for a full debate. We can open that window of a further five months only if we have progress to report. Otherwise noble Lords will legitimately ask us, “What has changed? Why can we move forward at all?”. Noble Lords will say that to me, and I hope to bring forward on that occasion far more detail than I will give them today. At that point, I will explore exactly what we have done to try to bring those parties together.

There is no point in pretending that Brexit is not a part of it—I would sound very foolish if I pretended that—but we have to recognise that we are where we are, and it is against that backdrop that we must make progress. We do not get to choose the timing of these issues; we have to work with what we have before us.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, for raising the important report, which I have read in part. The issue of transparency is absolutely at the heart of Northern Ireland. There needs to be that confidence, which is why the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, needs to be made; we need to have confidence not just in going forward, but also in the past. We need to have that. We need it as quickly as I can bring it back here, and I will bring it back here as quickly as I can.

I am conscious that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, flagged up an important debate next week on the wider budget, and we will have longer to discuss in some detail the functioning of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the delivery of services, and each of the challenges which go with it. I know that we will have a thorough discussion on that occasion.

The restoration of the institutions is important. My noble friend Lord Cormack asks, “Why cannot the Assembly meet again? At least get one of the institutions sitting to explore these issues”. I will take that away again for further consideration, but I do not believe that it should be ruled out of hand. Every possible avenue needs to be explored at this point.

I am exceptionally grateful to my noble friend for what he has just said. Nobody is criticising him personally, but if, in the rather more substantive debate next week, he could report back specifically on that issue, I think we would all be extremely grateful.

Yes; I will report back at greater length on that very point.

I hope, looking at my notes, that I have covered all the aspects. I thank all noble Lords for their support for the two changes themselves, which I believe will be important when they will be brought in. This will bring about a greater diversity in Northern Ireland; we need as many voices as we can possibly have in Northern Ireland, both at local government elections and beyond, when that moment comes. On that basis, I commend the order to the House.

Motion agreed.