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Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2020

Volume 802: debated on Monday 23 March 2020

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

My Lords, this statutory instrument would amend the existing legislative framework for local elections in Northern Ireland so that it will no longer be a requirement that a candidate’s home address must be disclosed and published during the election process.

It used to be an accepted part of local elections that candidates standing for election would disclose their home address and that that address would be printed on the ballot paper. The provision was designed to demonstrate the local connection of the candidate. This local connection is undeniably an important aspect of our local government system. However, times change. It is sadly the case that intimidation and threats are now a part of many elected representatives’ lives. The death of Jo Cox MP stands as a particularly stark reminder of that fact. We fully accept that it is no longer proportionate to require candidates to make public their home addresses in order to stand for public office.

There is no requirement to disclose home addresses publicly at parliamentary or Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. This draft order will provide consistency across all electoral events in Northern Ireland and most other elections across the UK, by removing this requirement for Northern Ireland local elections. The order brings local elections into line with other elections in Northern Ireland by removing the requirement for all candidates’ home addresses to be included on nomination papers and consent to nomination forms and then printed on the ballot paper. Candidates will instead be able to choose whether they wish their home address to be included on these public documents.

Nevertheless, when voting for candidates in local elections, electors have a right to know that each candidate has a tie to the local area. To balance that right with the aim to provide protection for candidates, this draft order will ensure that candidates will be required to provide their home address on a separate form. This home address form, which will not be made public, will be used by the Chief Electoral Officer to confirm that a candidate has a local tie.

It is worth noting that these provisions do not alter the requirements for a local connection. As has always been the case, anyone wanting to stand as a councillor in Northern Ireland must be on the electoral register for that council area, or, broadly speaking, have owned or rented land, or have lived in or worked in the area, for the preceding year. If a candidate indicates on the home address form that they do not wish the address to become public, it will not appear on any public documents, which include the statement of persons nominated and the ballot paper. In such cases, the area that the candidate’s address is in—instead of the candidate’s home address—will appear. I am pleased to be bringing this order forward. It is important that as many barriers as possible are removed from stopping individuals engaging in the public and democratic life of our country.

In addition to removing home addresses from ballot papers, the order makes provision to remove the current legislative requirement that candidates’ surnames are printed all in capital letters on ballot papers. This will ensure that a candidate’s name can appear on the ballot paper as the candidate would normally spell it. For example, where a capital letter is not usually at the beginning of the name, as is sometimes the case with Irish names, that can be accurately reflected on the ballot paper.

Finally, the order will remove the requirement that local councils are described as “district councils” on the ballot paper. The order will provide instead that a council can print its official name and describe itself as, for example, a “borough” or “city” council as appropriate.

This draft order is not controversial but nevertheless it is important. It is about helping to ensure that as many people as possible feel able to be part of the democratic process without feeling intimidated. It is about letting people standing as candidates have their name spelled as they would usually spell it, and about allowing councils to describe themselves on ballot papers by the name that they are commonly known by. I hope your Lordships will agree that, while technical, these are important provisions, and noble Lords will support this order. I commend it to the House, and I beg to move.

My Lords, this is the sort of order that I am sure will not attract any controversy. The provisions on how surnames appear on ballot papers are a simple matter of equal recognition for different traditions, and of fairness.

On the issue of the non-appearance of a home address on ballot papers, I do not think we can let the measure pass without at least expressing some regret, engaged as we are in the political process, that it has become necessary to remove candidates’ home addresses from ballot papers. For the reasons that the Minister gave, it is now sadly necessary to do that.

For those of us who have been involved in elections over many decades, as some of us clearly have, elections have sometimes revolved largely around the issue of the locality of one candidate versus the lack of locality of another. In my early years in Liverpool elections, the by-election was based largely on the fact that our candidate happened to live in the ward in Liverpool where the election was taking place, while the Labour Party candidate happened to live in Southport. No other issue seemed to be important. It is important that there is still some recognition of how local or otherwise a candidate is. Therefore, I have only one question for the Minister. Could he explain what is meant by “area” in the order? Clearly, something less specific than the road on which the candidate lives, but more specific than “Northern Ireland”, is appropriate. What sort of criteria will be applied in describing the area in which a candidate is based?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the order. I agree with him that this is not a controversial issue; I think we can all agree on that. Some of the comments about Liverpool might have prompted me to jump in and be perhaps a little more partisan than I should be, but I will resist the opportunity.

I do not normally cover these issues; I am standing in for my noble friend Lord Kennedy. He and I have worked together on elections over many years. Certainly, when I was general secretary, he was a senior officer supporting me on compliance and some of the legal issues.

One thing that struck me when reading the Explanatory Memorandum was that, as the Minister said, bearing in mind the circumstances in Northern Ireland, removing the requirement to disclose a candidate’s address is not a controversial step. In fact, there is a growing threat to elected representatives, not just in Northern Ireland but everywhere in the UK. Paragraph 7.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum refers to the 2017 report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life which recommended the change. From 2017 to 2020 seems an extremely long time for us to get our act together to address this, particularly as Northern Ireland has been a sensitive area in which security has been a fundamental issue. I can understand that, in the context of Brexit, there may have been other things to deal with, but surely that does not explain the amount of time this has taken. I hope the Minister can reassure us on that.

I totally agree with the measures regarding the use of capital letters and ensuring that everyone can meet the requirements of their own name and language; it a sensible move. However, it would be helpful to understand exactly how many people the Government think will be affected by this change, bearing in mind that the purpose of the original legislation was to ensure that everyone’s name appears in exactly the same format, so that there was no discriminatory impact in the way a name was presented.

The other thing that was mentioned is the question of district, borough and city councils. Again, the Explanatory Memorandum did not quite address this. How many councils are affected by this? It is non-controversial but, again, bearing in mind that the changes to the names of local authorities have been around for some time, it seems that it has taken a long time to address this issue.

I echo some of the comments that have already been made, but that is all I have to say at this moment.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their comments. I note the points the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made about home addresses on ballot papers. He made an important point about the argument that tends to run—this is a cross-party issue—as to whether a candidate is local, how that should be defined and how, when people are elected, they suddenly either have always lived in a particular area or make sure they are doing so right now by suddenly buying or renting. It is an issue that covers all parties. It is a good thing that there is a continuing desire in Northern Ireland for people to know that candidates are local.

On that note, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked about the definition of “area”. Usually—I say “usually” because it is obviously not definitive—a district electoral area is a grouping of four to five wards. I am happy to write to the noble Lord with further detail if I can tie it down a bit more, but that is the answer I have so far.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked a number of questions. I am delighted to see—I am not surprised, because I have seen it in the past—that the Opposition multitask as much as we do in the departments that we cover. It is very good to see him in his place covering very ably for the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. The first point he made—a fair point—was on the amount of time this has taken. As he will know, electoral law in Northern Ireland is separate in a number of aspects from that in the rest of the United Kingdom, so it is unfortunate that this was not able to be put before the House earlier. I take note of the point he made.

He also spoke about capital letters. That is an interesting discussion that I have had with officials. We did not really talk about particular names. I was interested to know how many capital letters were involved. The first thing to say is that, being a Scot, I know how different names are spelled in different ways. The Macpherson clan are Macphersons with a small “p”, but there are some MacPhersons with a big “P”—as the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, will know; I see him in his place. Translating that to Ireland, I am not quite so au fait with Irish names but, if you look at McIlroy and all these similar names, there is no question that there is quite rightly a desire that the names of candidates are spelled in the correct way, both for accuracy and for pride. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked how many people were affected by the change in the way the names were written. It is difficult to assess. It depends on who chooses to stand—that is a fair point. As for council names, the 2019 election was the first time that new names were used, so it affects relatively few councils. I will write one letter to both noble Lords to tie up the ends on this matter.

With that, I hope I have endeavoured to answer the questions but also to have a slightly more rounded debate. I thank the Committee for its attention to this matter and beg to move.

Motion agreed.