I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The House will recall that in the course of the debate on the Government's White Paper on constitutional proposals for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) that Her Majesty's Government could consider hiving off from the constitutional Bill those parts of it which concerned the election, and so make it possible to hold elections in June. My right hon. Friend said that this would be on the understanding that the House would consider a Bill which dealt with the election, and then as soon as possible thereafter a further Bill dealing with the constitutional proposals.
The Bill now before the House is the result of my right hon. Friend's undertaking. Its purpose is to establish a Northern Ireland Assembly and to provide for one election to it. It goes no further than the minimum provision for this one election.
The Bill provides, first that the Assembly shall consist of 78 Members, and that they shall be returned for the Westminster constituencies in Northern Ireland. The revised Westminster boundaries will be used, as they were for the border poll, and Clause 2(3) provides that the election will be on the basis of the single transferable vote. There will consequently be several Members for each constituency, and the number in each case is set out in the schedule.
I appreciate that there may be different views about the size of the Assembly, or the allocation of seats to constituencies, and it might assist the House if I touched on some of the issues which led us to our present proposals.
One of these issues is that it is obviously desirable to have an acceptably narrow spread in the average number of electors per seat in the various constituencies. This is always a hazard in any constituency system. Even on the revised boundaries there is a spread in the single seat Westminster constituencies for Northern Ireland of between 70,000 and 115,000. For the election under this Bill, the spread is by comparison very much less—between about 11,900 for West Belfast and about 14,400 for South Antrim.
Moreover, to get the best results from the single transferable vote, the number of seats in any constituency ought to be at least four, to get the benefits of the multiple seat principle, and not more than eight, because a larger number would produce an unmanageable number of candidates on the ballot paper which is before the elector. It is these limits of four to eight which will operate in the local government elections by single transferable vote which are to be held on 30th May.
As hon. Members will see from the schedule, we have provided a range from five seats in the case of Fermanagh and South Tyrone to eight seats in the case of Antrim, South. All other constituencies will be returning six or seven members.
Taking everything into consideration, the best result worked out at 78 seats, on the basis shown in the schedule. The numbers in the new Assembly will also equal the total number of seats in the Northern Ireland Parliament and Senate.
I come now to the proposals for the franchise and for membership of the Assembly. Hon. Members will find that these are dealt with in Clause 2(2) and Clause 3 respectively.
The Bill provides that the franchise shall be the same as for a general election to the Northern Ireland Parliament—that is, the Stormont franchise, which was used for the border poll. As to qualification for membership, the Bill applies generally the Westminster practice, with the necessary modifications, as, for example, in the list of disqualifying offices or positions, which governed membership of the Northern Ireland Parliament. A change from Westminster practice, which is provided under this Bill, is that a person will not be disqualified simply because he is a peer of Parliament. Most hon. Members will be aware that this follows Northern Ireland practice: a peer can sit in Stormont, and vote on the Stormont franchise.
Before the Secretary of State leaves that matter, may I ask a question? I thought that he was about to enlarge on an important point. He said that the electoral list used for the referendum will be the electoral list used for the election of the Assembly. Is he aware that at least 10,000 eligible voters have been dropped from that list? Has he in mind any procedure under which a supplementary register might be published so that those who have been taken off the list because of a fault in the computer system—as has been admitted by his Department—and who should have a vote will in fact obtain the vote to which they are entitled?
The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) raises an important point but I will not go into it in great detail. I discovered after discussion that, as far as it is possible to judge, there was not a significant difference in the number of people who were left off the register when compared with those who were on the register in the previous election or indeed those on the registers for the Westminster elections in this country. That being so, it did not seem right to have a supplementary register on this occasion. If we were to have the election in June, it would be difficult to have a supplementary register. I accept the hon. Gentleman's anxieties, but I am taking this on the basis that, as we judge the position, the register is not significantly different from the register which was in operation in other elections.
On the question of postal votes, will the rules be the same as those which have applied heretofore, or will postal votes be available, for example, to people on holiday?
I shall come in my own time to that point in my speech, and I wish to deal with it because it is very important.
I was dealing with the point about peers being able to sit in Stormont and to vote on the Stormont franchise. Hon. Members will also be aware that the whole question of qualification for mem- bership is a most complicated branch of the law. That is one very good reason for not making any changes in arrangements which are already working satisfactorily.
The Bill empowers me to make orders governing a number of important matters. It is important that the purpose of these orders should be clear. First, there is the date of the election, which is to be determined by order contained in a statutory instrument. This provision was included since I could not—and should not—presume how long Parliament would take to consider the Bill. But I now understand, from representations which I have received from all parts of the House, that Parliament is likely to approve this Bill by 11th May and, on this understanding, I can announce the date of the election as 28th June.
Having said this, I should make it clear to the House that the main constitutional Bill will certainly be before the House well in advance of the Assembly elections, and I know that my right hon. Friend, the Leader of the House, hopes that it will have substantially advanced its passage through this House by that date, 28th June.
I note what my hon. Friend says and I personally agree with him and would very much like that to happen. However, I should fall into great trouble with this House if I were to presume how the House will deal with the Bill and if I were to interfere with the prerogative of the Leader of the House. For this reason I think that the words which I used were the correct words.
Another matter which is to be determined by order under this Bill, if it is approved, is the date of the first meeting of the Assembly. Hon. Members will find the reference in Clause 1(3). As to this date, the position is that the Northern Ireland Parliament is still in existence, although it stands prorogued, and it would seem wrong that the Assembly should meet whilst the Northern Ireland Parliament still exists. The first meeting of the Assembly will therefore take place after the Northern Ireland Parliament has been dissolved, and this, in time, will be consequential upon the passing into law of the main constitutional Bill. The exact date would be determined after consultation with the leaders of parties in the new Assembly.
The House will note that Clause 1(6) of the Bill provides that a Member of the Northern Ireland Parliament who is elected to the Assembly will have his salary as a Member of that Parliament— namely £1,450 per annum plus £300 per annum expenses, plus up to £500 per annum secretarial allowance—credited towards his salary as a member of the Assembly—£2,500 per annum plus up to £600 per annum to defray secretarial expenses.
The House will wish to know that a major effort is being made in Northern Ireland to explain the single transferable vote system which is to be used both in district council and the Assembly elections. Every household will receive a copy of a very simple booklet explaining proportional representation. These will be distributed by the Post Office and copies will be made available in the Library of this House tomorrow.
A more detailed booklet is being prepared and 200,000 will be available on request. We shall be advertising in newspapers and on television and hope to enlist the aid of television and radio for further explanatory effort.
Instead of indicating one name with a cross, the voter states a choice in order of preference among the candidates— one, two, three, and so on—for as many candidates, or as few, as the voter wishes. Basically, all the voter has to do is to remember that he or she uses numbers instead of a cross when receiving a ballot paper. The count is more complicated. [Laughter.]
In terms of the ballot paper the constituencies will be very large and will involve a considerable number of people and there will no doubt be large numbers of candidates. Is it possible to have the names of the parties put on the ballot paper?
There was a certain degree of hilarity on both Front Benches a moment ago. Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that a system which is complicated but fair is better than one which is less complicated but unfair?
Since I find some difficulty in working out the arrangements for the count, I have a certain amount of difficulty in working out the implications of the hon. Gentleman's question. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, in the good-humoured way in which he puts the point, is right.
I should like to look into that question and have it answered carefully afterwards. I should not like to mislead the House on this matter.
The count is more complicated. A good deal of training for those whose task it is to carry out the count has already taken place and will be completed in good time for the elections.
But the right hon. Gentleman must know the answer to the question which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) put to him. It is fundamental to the system being proposed. If a ballot paper bears crosses, it must be invalid since, under the system proposed, voting is to be done by means of numbers. The right hon. Gentleman must answer the question if he expects the House to give the Bill an unopposed Second Reading.
I am sorry. I did not understand the question properly. As usual, I apologise for my complete stupidity. As I have said before, the ballot papers will have to bear numbers instead of crosses. If a ballot paper has crosses on it and not numbers, of course it is invalid. I apologise to the House.
I am grateful for that reply. However the important point, which perhaps I did not put very clearly, was that members of the public in Northern Ireland should appreciate that just putting one cross on a ballot paper and appearing to plump for one candidate will make that vote completely invalid.
As I have said already, the answer is that ballot papers will have to bear numbers and not crosses. I think that I have made that clear now. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) for stressing it again.
When the hon. Gentleman intervened I was speaking about the count and saying that it is, of course, more complicated. A good deal of training for those whose task it is to carry out the count has taken place already and further training will be completed in good time for the election.
The Bill itself provides in Clause 2(4) that each candidate shall make a deposit of £150. This deposit would be forfeited under provisions which are comparable with the position in the case of an election to the United Kingdom Parliament, where a deposit is forfeited if the total number of votes polled by the candidate does not exceed one-eighth of the total number of votes polled.
Under the order which will govern the rules for the election the House will wish to know that the Chief Electoral Officer will be the person responsible for its conduct. The order will be designed to make the minimum number of adaptations to the existing rules for parliamentary elections. There will be extensive postal voting facilities in line with arrangements planned for the local government elections and each candidate will be allowed free postage for one election address in accordance with normal practice. The hours of polling will be from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. as in the border poll and the local government elections.
The fourth matter to be determined by order, which under Clause 3(4) is subject to the negative resolution procedure, is the making of the usual provisions which have to be made for any election to deal with the consequences of disqualification. Clearly it is essential to specify just what these consequences are. The guidelines for the order are already laid down in the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1957.
I said earlier in my speech that the Bill goes no further than the minimum provision for the first election to the new Assembly. It does not deal with the term of the Assembly, although hon. Members will be aware from the White Paper that its initial term will be for the period from its first meeting up to 30th March 1974 but that if an Order in Council has been made between those dates for the devolution of legislative powers, it will serve for a period of four years from the date on which the order takes effect. Moreover the Bill does not deal with casual vacancies in the Assembly. This, together with a number of other issues relating to the running of the Assembly, will be dealt with in the main constitutional Bill.
This Bill is essentially a limited and urgent operation for one election only. During the debate on the White Paper there was a strong demand from all sides of the House for an election in Northern Ireland by the end of June. Indeed, the House could be said to have willed that end. Her Majesty's Government agree with this view and have sought in this Bill to provide the means. I commend it to the House.
The right hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that the procedure which has been adopted, hiving this legislation off the main Bill in order to speed up the election, came as a result of a suggestion from this side of the House. The Opposition are grateful for it. I repeat what I said after the intervention by the Prime Minister on 28th March, that we will cooperate within the necessary full consideration of an important electoral measure. The principle of an early election is clearly accepted. I shall take that as read and turn straight away to the consideration which I mentioned to the Prime Minister and to which I have just referred.
It is worth raising a number of these points because it is likely that after the election of the new Assembly, when one is considering the steps to be taken for future elections, there may have to be changes in the number of seats and possibly slight variations in the method adopted for this election. We should use this occasion to raise a number of those issues so that we are aware of them on polling day and afterwards.
With regard to the 78 Members of the Assembly, in the schedule the Secretary of State has provided the breakdown for each Westminster constituency, and it would be interesting to know more precisely how this breakdown was arrived at. I notice that Mr. John Taylor has talked about "gerrymandering". That is not unusual. We have had the word bandied about in this House. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) has been a little more prosaic. He has not used that word. But he has asked for additional Members for the Belfast area. Therefore, in my view we should be clearer about the way that it has been done.
In a Press statement the Alliance Party described Mr. John Taylor's attack on the Secretary of State for "anti-Loyalist gerrymandering" as one of the most absurd statements that he had ever made. But in that same handout an issue was raised which is rather more important, and I raise it again now. It said:
It is however obvious that the present allocation of seats was done on the basis of 1972 figures rather than 1973 figures, when there has been a considerable movement of population.
That precise point ought to be considered during the course of the day. According to this Press statement there have been changes in population within the past year.
There are a number of considerations here for the future. The number of seats in a Parliament is a matter for the Legislature. It is decided normally by an Act of Parliament, and a Boundary Commission then looks at the split-up in the light of the Legislature, of the Government and Parliament as to the number of seats that there should be. As I have said, the allocation ought normally to be up to the Boundary Commission. That cannot be done for this election. However, on 31st July last year the then Minister of State said:
Also in 1968 the British practice of having in operation a permanent Parliamentary Boundary Commission for the Northern Ireland parliamentary constituencies was introduced. Such a Commission, on similar lines to the Commissions operating for the Westminster
parliamentary constituencies, has been established. Now that the local government boundaries in Northern Ireland have been determined and prescribed, this Commission will be in a position to carry out its review and give its consideration of any recommendations necessary for a revision of the existing Stormont parliamentary constituencies."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st July 1972; Vol. 842, c. 45.]
I concede that there would not have been time for the Secretary of State to use this Boundary Commission. But if there are to be changes in the future it is as well to establish that there is still in existence in Northern Ireland—I presume—a Boundary Commission which could look at the number of seats to be arranged for the 12 Westminster constituencies.
Whatever the form of the Assembly in the future, as long as the election is based on the Westminster constituencies it will be based on redistribution here. The next redistribution for the Westminster Parliament cannot take place until after 1979 in accordance with the Act in the mid-1950s which said that there would have to be a 10 to 15 year delay between redistributions.
There cannot be an increase in the 12 constituencies without the Government coming to the House and putting forward a major case. Therefore, because there are 12 constituencies and because the Government also have to take into account the 26 local government district councils which the Secretary of State has set up, those two things, the 12 and the 26, have to be taken into account when the Government are looking with greater care at the allocation of seats after the election. The number of seats per constituency should be looked at again after the Assembly is elected.
Regarding proportional representation, I note that the words in the Bill are the same as in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and the local government order last year. I first looked at this point many years ago and I recall the late Professor Laski telling us that there were about 900 forms of proportional representation. Although the single transferable vote is not technically a form of proportional representation, I believe that the Government are right to use it. In any event, it is the same system as is in use in the South and was in use in Northern Ireland in the early days.
I would personally have been happy with the proposed salary until recently. I notice that some of my friends who were elected to the metropolitan counties last Thursday, which are larger than the Northern Ireland will get nothing. Indeed, the members of the GLC, which is responsible for more than 8 million people, with 92 constituencies, will get nothing. Therefore, I point out to hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies that Northern Ireland has surely been marked as different. It is not just a county council.
The Government have said that the new Assembly is different. When I pointed this out to some of my friends on Thursday night, they said "Yes, it is very different from what we may expect." Many of them will be chairmen of committees working 48 to 50 hours a week for nothing. I point out, not in a deprecatory way, that it was worth indicating to the people of Northern Ireland that the Government have said, and this House has willed, that the Members of their Assembly will receive a substantial payment and, therefore, that the Assembly is not regarded as a county council or even as the GLC but is marked out as something different.
I notice that the pay that is to be given to Members of the new Assembly in Northern Ireland is exactly the same—1 hope there is no subtle difference—as to a Teachta Dala in the South. I understand that the pay in the South is to go up shortly. As much as I have just eulogised the large sum of money that is to be paid to Members of the new Assembly, when we see what the Assembly does and the sort of time that its Members give to it, it may be worth looking at it again and allowing the Top Salary Review Board to look at it.
The powers of the Secretary of State in Clause 2(5), on which the right hon. Gentleman spent a fair time, I think represent the core of the Bill. It was no doubt for that reason that the right hon. Gentleman spelt it out in greater detail than we would have known about. I presume that there will be an order similar to that on which the local government procedures were laid down last year. In our view, it ought to be by the affirmative resolution procedure, unless there is a good reason for its not being done in that way. The intervals between the stages of the election, the form of declaration, the method of voting, and so on, are extremely important. Therefore, they should come before the House. I do not put this point to the Secretary of State as if he were wearing his former hat, but I remind him that at our request, because the local government order would have provided only one and a half hours even on the affirmative resolution procedure, the Government gave us a day's debate on it. If we are to debate fully what is contained in Clause 2(5) we certainly could not do it in one and a half hours.
I hope that the Secretary of State agrees that the powers in Clause 2(6)(a),
may include any supplemental or incidental provisions, including provisions creating criminal offences ",
are extraordinarily great. We shall take the opportunity of finding out this afternoon what that is all about. Unless the Secretary of State or his Ministers give us other information, we shall seek to remove that from the Bill.
May I ask the Minister to make clear, when he winds up, the role of the chief electoral officer regarding these new Assembly elections?
Regarding the death of a candidate, I seem to recall that when we dealt with local government there was a curious arrangement; namely, that, although people would have been elected by the single transferable vote, if anybody died or gave up his seat there would be a normal straightforward election for the whole constituency, not on the single transferable vote. I recall that we had an interesting discussion whether the man concerned should be allocated to a certain part of the constituency. It matters not whether that is precisely correct. What matters is that it struck us at the time as an odd way of electing people.
I should also like to know the Government's intentions regarding someone being elected who does not turn up. If people are voting one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, does it mean that the person next on the list moves up? What is the Government's thinking on this point? It will be interesting to know before the time comes.
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that if a person stood on an abstentionist ticket, did not attend and ultimately won on that ticket he should be disqualified? In this House a person may never turn up, but he is not disqualified. It would be unfair to make the rules different.
That is why I raised it. The hon. Gentleman should get this point clear. There is a difference between somebody elected and not coming very often and somebody elected in order not to turn up. In Irish politics standing to abstain has an historical precedent. We should be clear about the Government's view on this matter.
I understand that a candidate would lose his £150 deposit if he got less than the one-quarter of the quota at any one stage. I note that in the South it is only one-third of the quota at the time of being eliminated, and there the candidate would lose £100. I suppose the difference is that it is easier to stay in the race in the North but the candidate pays more. The £150 deposit is the same as here. I have no strong views on it. Indeed, if people are seeking parity—this is an important aspect—the £150 deposit is the same amount as for our Parliament. There is not much of a grumble.
Regarding illegal practices, there is one point which I should like to mention that was brought to my notice by one of my hon. Friends. On the day of the Northern Ireland border poll hon. Members from both sides of the House saw more of the polling arrangements than the Secretary of State and myself as we had to stay here in the afternoon to deal with Questions. I had brought to my notice and highlighted what I have noted in the polling booths of Antrim.
At local and parliamentary elections in this country a candidate can have a polling agent. He gets a duly signed form and is allowed into the polling booths to make sure that all is well. I do not think there is a limit on the number, but I do not know. What surprised my hon. Friends and me was that the polling agent did not sit inside the door and keep a weather eye on what was happening, but sat between the paid staff. I remember on one occasion seeing three people sitting in the polling booth. The Secretary of State might recall that two of them smiled effusively, but I thought we received a bit of a frosty look from the one in the middle. It was not until we got outside that I realised that the one in the middle was a partisan politician who did not think much of either the Secretary of State or me. She was sitting between the two other people, and I think that that is something which we should not allow.
I visited four polling stations, and that happened in them all. I shall tell the hon. and gallant Gentleman after the debate where I came across that procedure, and I think that my hon. Friend could give him a longer list of where that happened.
Would it help the House if I were to say that that procedure occurred at Augher Clogher and Five-miletown and all the other constituencies which I visited, bar two?
There is obviously a split view on this. I have told the House what I saw happen. My hon. Friend saw it, and so did the Secretary of State. It may be that we picked the exception to the rule, but the matter should be looked at carefully because, in my view, that approach should not be allowed.
I am amazed to hear that that happened, because when my polling agents went into the booth they were told that they were to sit not at the table but some way away from it. I have never, in all my electioneering experience, seen them all sitting together, and I should like to know whether this happened in my constituency.
Rather than alter the procedure so that what I have referred to happens in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, we should get the matter right so that it does not happen anywhere.
Are the disqualification rules for the new Assembly based on the legislation dealing with disqualification from the Westminster Parliament? Are the disqualifications in Clause 3 additional to those in the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1957? Apparently this has happened before in Stormont, but I am surprised at the arrangements in the Bill for dealing with Peers.
I recall sitting in this Chamber night after night as a junior Minister debating the White Paper dealing with the reform of the other place. One proposal put forward by the then Government was that both future Peers and existing Peers by succession who choose to renounce membership of the other place should, if elected, be enabled to sit in the House of Commons. The then Opposition saw fit not to support that proposal, and I was surprised to find that things were different in Northern Ireland. Presumably we can allow this provision to go through, but I must say that I was surprised when I saw it.
Clause 3(3) says:
The Secretary of State shall have power by order to make provision—
Those are extremely wide powers. If the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1957 is the basis of that provision, may I ask whether these powers are used in other parts of the United Kingdom, or whether they are meant to apply only in Northern Ireland? In any event, they are so sweeping that this, too, should be a matter to be dealt with by the affirmative procedure.
During the debate on the White Paper the Opposition's view was that the Government ought to find some means whereby members of Sinn Fein were allowed to stand for election in the same way as they are in the Republic of Ireland. Judging from the correspondence which I have received from different parts of Northern Ireland, approval for that suggestion comes from not only one side of the community. As I understand it, under the Bill members of Sinn Fein and other prescribed organisations may stand for election as long as they are not disqualified under the 1957 Act or by the changes made in the Bill. The problem confronting Sinn Fein and other similar organisations arises not under this Bill but under the Bill to be debated tomorrow.
Perhaps I may be allowed to put my case so that the Government will know what it is and be able to make the position clear.
If it were not for the Special Powers Act, or because of what is proposed in tomorrow's Bill, there would be nothing to prevent members of Sinn Fein from standing for election. A member of the organisation is not disqualified unless he is caught by one of the disqualification provisions in the Bill. Therefore, the best way in which the House could make it possible for Sinn Fein to stand would be to make alterations to tomorrow's Bill. If a member of Sinn Fein were to stand and be elected, that would be fine, but when he turned up with his nomination papers the security forces would arrest him, not under this Bill but under the Special Powers Act or the relevant schedules of tomorrow's Bill.
Perhaps my hon. Friend now sees the significance of the matter raised earlier about the designation of political parties on the ballot paper. If a person cannot complete a ballot paper because it means saying that he is a member of a proscribed organisation he is disqualified under the terms of the Bill. It is unlikely that tomorrow's Bill will be on the statute book before the election takes place, but even if it were to be passed it would be wrong to stress that.
Much of what my hon. Friend has said is correct. I am not altogether sure about the ballot paper issue, but I think it would be for the security forces to decide whether to arrest the man or woman concerned.
On the last point made by my hon. Friend, I think that it would be possible for the Secretary of State to remove a clause from tomorrow's Bill in advance of its becoming law. I ask the Government to make the position clear, because if they do they might save a great deal of time today. We shall want to go through the Bill with a fine-tooth comb, but we do not want to get involved in issues which may be better dealt with in some other way.
Entitlement to vote is based on rules for election to the Northern Ireland Parliament. There is a difference here between the Northern Ireland Parliament and the Parliament at Westminster.
The matter of postal votes has been raised. The Border Poll Bill allowed for postal votes on a large scale. I concede that there is a problem in Northern Ireland, otherwise we should not be discussing the whole issue, but I think we ought to look carefully at this question of postal votes and the timing and arrangements for them.
Clause 3 says that candidature is the same as for the United Kingdom Parliament. Would it be true to say, therefore, that a citizen of the Republic, man or woman, living either in the Republic or in this country could stand in the Northern Ireland election because the rules are the Westminster rules?
This leads me to the next question. I recall the Government telling us—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West and some Unionist Members from the Province have talked about this; many of us were surprised a year or 18 months ago to find that this was the case—that a citizen of the United Kingdom and colonies normally resident in this part of the United Kingdom who goes to Northern Ireland may vote. Would the wife of a soldier on a two-year tour, or the man himself if he put his name down on the electoral register, be able to vote? But the bull point is, what about the seven-year rule about foreigners and citizens of the Republic who do not enter Northern Ireland in the way that I have described? Does the existing law still apply in Northern Ireland?
We wish to expedite this Bill. We want elections in June, and the Secretary of State has given us a date, for which we are grateful. It will help that he has given the date today. It will concentrate people's minds even more. We want to test the opinion of the people of Northern Ireland. We think that all should be able to stand. These elections are the key to the future. They will determine how the Assembly will function, through the split between the various parties. Ultimately, the White Paper's success will stem from what we do today. We wish the Bill well and will do all we can to get it through the House today.
I too, like the hon. Member for Leeds South (Mr. Merlyn Rees), wish to expedite the Bill. I hope that my right hon Friend the Secretary of State will not be embarrassed if I say that I can commend him, and commend him very warmly, for having brought forward this section of the White Paper's proposals. As he said it was the general wish of the House that we should get on as soon as possible to elections in Northern Ireland. With that end in view, I commend the Bill.
There are, of course, a number of matters within the Bill which we shall seek to discuss in Committee, but we have no wish to prolong the affair, because we want to make it possible for the Secretary of State to hold the elections on the date that he has announced We are grateful to him for having announced the date. That will be a great help. It is a pity that he could not go further and announce the date on which the Assembly would meet. I understand the technical difficulty about the existence of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, but, before we finish with the Bill, he should give some idea of his intentions.
It would be a tragedy if the Assembly were elected and then did not meet, say, until the autumn—if, in other words, it were left in a vacuum all through the summer. All kinds of things might then happen.
I wonder whether I can help my hon. and gallant Friend, because I very much share his view. It will, of course, inevitably depend on the time at which the constitutional Bill gets through Parliament. I am bound by that, because, of course, the constitutional Bill is that which deals with the present Parliament of Northern Ireland. The Assembly could not meet until that Bill was through Parliament.
—about the timing, if that timing proved to be possible.
There is a greater opportunity now to undo some of the defects in the White Paper which I pointed out in our debate on it. We are now dealing with the Bill setting up the Assembly. Pretty soon, it is the Government's intention to produce the constitutional Bill, "tomorrow's Bill", as the hon. Member for Leeds, South described it. I suggest that my right hon. Friend should produce that Bill in two parts, what I might call tomorrow's Bill and the day-after tomorrow's Bill.
Constitutional Bill No. 1 would do certain simple things. It would, for example, embody the constitutional pledge based upon the result of the referendum, it would set down the local government functions of the new Assembly. In other words, it would be the keystone of the Macrory arch. It would go that far and no further, except perhaps to spell out the ultimate position with regard to control of the police. It would not deal with the construction of the executive, the legislative powers of the executive or the powers to be devolved upon the Assembly. It would not, for example, even go as far as the White Paper in specifying the matters which would be permanently reserved to this House.
Thus, the position in June is that there would be elected an Assembly which could give the Secretary of State a clear indication, as a result of that election and of any alliances in the new Assembly, of the wishes of the great majority of Ulster people over the future of their own constitution.
Constitutional Bill No. 2 should await the setting up of the Assembly and discussions with the parties in the Assembly, and would thus be clearly seen to rest upon the will of the broad majority of Ulster people. I believe that there is much more chance of a settlement agreeable to all if my right hon. Friend indicates that he will proceed in that way. It would rest, as it should, on consent.
It would be right for the Secretary of State to leave certain questions open for discussion with the Assembly. One would be its own franchise. There have been references to the constitutional boundaries and the number of Members per con- stituency, all the things laid out in the schedule. The Assembly, when elected, should have a say in these matters, even if it be not the final authority. It should have some say in its own franchise, its own size and ultimately the extent of the devolved powers. That would be a more sensible and hopeful way to proceed than the present proposal.
At present, the intention is to produce all the constitutional proposals in one Bill immediately, giving the impression that they are imposed, that the Assembly will meet within pretty narrow confines. I suggest that it would be better to leave it much more open, so that, ultimately, the system will be seen to rest upon the consent of reasonable people. I happen to believe that the Assembly will be an assembly of pretty reasonable people.
No. With respect, my hon. Friend has not been listening with his usual close attention. What I said was that there would be certain powers immediately. That is why I am dividing it into two stages. Otherwise, I should have rested my case upon saying, "Let us elect the Assembly"—just that—"and let us hold up the constitutional Bill until after the Assembly has met". I am not saying that.
It should be done in two stages. Certain powers have to be developed straight away upon the Assembly, but all the other things should be left open for discussion with the Assembly. In other words, it should be part local government authority and part constituent Assembly.
The advice that I have had from the Table is that, if the Bill were given a Second Reading, it would be out of order to move that the Assembly should be turned into a constituent Assembly. I understand that. But I suggest to my right hon. Friend that he should treat it in that kind of hybrid way.
With respect, my hon. and gallant Friend has entirely confirmed my original diagnosis, that, admittedly, while the local government matters would be dealt with in the first Bill, in practice, it would be a mobile conference table that he is suggesting.
No. With great respect to my hon. Friend, who is usually acute in these matters—although his acuity seems to have deserted him at present— it would not be a mobile conference table. It would be a method of determining the broad will of the Ulster people with regard to their future constitution.
Does not my hon. and gallant Friend agree with me that in the proposals as put forward there is the suggestion that there should be a conference between this Assembly and the Secretary of State on how power should be devolved on the Assembly? In the character of the Assembly there is the very thing that my hon. and gallant Friend is suggesting, that is, the power to confer.
Yes, indeed. I am most most grateful to my hon. Friend, who is perfectly right. In the suggestions in the White Paper there is already a good deal of what one might call conference table stuff, but left out of the subject matter for conference are a great many things which have been permanently reserved to this House of Commons. I am suggesting that they should not be so. There were certain matters which were within the power of the old Parliament of Stormont —power over its own franchise and over the method of election. There would have been power to decide whether it wanted the election by proportional representation with the single transferable vote. At present, this is something imposed upon the Ulster people without their consent, that is, consent through any kind of representative assembly. These questions should still be left open, and left open until after the Assembly is elected.
I concede that everything could not be left open. That is why I suggest to my right hon. Friend that this should be done in two stages. If one can produce constitutional proposals at the end of the day—however one does it—which do not appear to have been imposed in the way proposed by the White Paper, without consultation, one has a better chance of a peaceful settlement ultimately in Ulster, because in the end one must rest it upon the broad consent of the majority of people in Ulster.
Ulster people are not—although the Press might suggest that they are—unusually bloody-minded. The majority of Ulster people are reasonable people. I believe that the Assembly will be an assembly of reasonable people. But they will not arrive in the Assembly in a wholly reasonable mood unless there is some indication that to a considerable extent they have a reasonable say in their future destiny
My right hon. Friend is unlikely to agree with that view. I discussed it with him a long time ago—last July, I think Since then, he has come to the conclusions which he set out in the White Paper. But I should still like it on record, if nothing else, that this would have been the wiser way to proceed.
There is a great number of other matters, raised by the hon. Member for Leeds, South. I profoundly hope that there will be a possibility of dealing with those in Committee I shall leave what I have to say about those matters until the Committee stage.
I shall touch briefly on what the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) said. It may be that, like his hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills), I did not catch precisely what the hon. and gallant Gentleman was saying. But it appeared to me at the end that he was suggesting that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had produced a White Paper which he was imposing without adequate consultation. As far as I can see, the Secretary of State has been doing nothing but consult since he became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. If ever there was a man who consulted more, I cannot remember who he was.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I was not complaining that there was a lack of consultation. What I was saying was that there was no Parliament, no consultative body. Would not it be better to wait until we had an Assembly elected under the rules laid down by this House? One would then know with whom one was consulting, and one would know who represented whom.
That may be. But surely it is generally recognised in this House that the situation in Northern Ireland is such as to require quite extraordinary measures to be undertaken, extrordinary in terms of any other part of the United Kingdom, under the bipartisan procedure adopted so far by the Government I do not see the validity of the kind of criticism made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman.
I say that by way of introduction. I do not intend to speak at great length. As the Secretary of State would expect, I welcome the Bill and the fact that free elections are to take place. I congratulate him on the considerable efforts he has made personally, which have led ultimately to this moment.
I should like to make three basic points about the Bill. There was some reference earlier to proportional representation, as the Secretary of State will recollect. A certain amount of joviality permeated the scene when it was explained that complicated instruction programmes were to be embarked upon, and many leaflets and pamphlets, et al, were to be distributed to one and all, so that there should be no difficulty about understanding the whole business.
I should like, first, to do something which has possibly been done previously, that is, to quote from paragraph 39 of the White Paper, which deals with the way in which the election is to be undertaken. This paragraph in the White Paper is the genesis of the proposals in the Bill. It reads:
Under the simple majority vote system using single-member constituencies, the drawing of demonstrably fair electoral boundaries is of such crucial importance that it could only be done by an impartial Boundary Commission procedure, with provision for representations, hearings, etc. This would rule out any elections this year.
That is a straightforward and practical matter. The White Paper continues:
These are technical difficulties. But there are arguments against this system at present even if it could be introduced in time. If the Assembly is to play a significant part in working out new structures and procedures, it is of particular importance that its membership should reflect …".
This is a point which bears on what the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South said. He was talking about a procedure which reflected what people said. Paragraph 39 continues:
… the wishes of the community as accurately as possible. It has been decided that there shall be an Assembly of about 80 members … "—
in fact, we have 78—
… and that the system of election best suited to this occasion is the single transferable vote (STV) method of proportional representations … ".
That is of considerable significance in general, quite apart from the particular of Northern Ireland. The Unionists got rid of proportional representation in the 1920's basically because of fear. The border was then, as it has continued to be, the basic issue. I suppose that in a way it has been maintained as the basic issue by the form of electoral procedure which existed. The removal in the past by the Unionists of proportional representation meant that other issues were not allowed to intrude upon the political scene. With single-member constituencies the only issue which in the end was fairly being put to the electors at General Elections was the border issue.
The Bill accepts the differences between the two parts of the United Kingdom and legislates for those differences. We must remember that proportional representation was put into the Northern Ireland Act by Lloyd George to protect minorities. It is easy to see that the wheel is going full circle. We have come back again to the same position and the same way of trying to do things.
It makes a profound difference. I shall allow myself to be deflected by the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South. The sad thing is that the lack of difference is not in the lack of opportunity that is now being presented but in the lack of any new attitude permeating people like the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South. He is not prepared to try to work to seek a more sensitive means of reflecting opinion. I find that very sad.
There is a system in Australia which is not the system that we have in this country. Would the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) not agree that the system of proportional representation in the Free State has not thrown up any Liberals or many representatives of minority interests? In fact, there was only a minority representative who represented South Donegal and Leitrim, an independent Protestant and Fianna Fail member, who gerrymandered the constituency and lost his seat.
The hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) demonstrates a certain amount of lack of knowledge of the situation. He began with Australia, which has what is known as the alternative vote—in other words, a 1–2 system. That is not proportional representation, neither is it a multi-member system. It is not comparable to STV.
The hon. Gentleman might care to go somewhere rather closer than Australia— namely, to France. He will find a considerable discussion going on now in French political circles about the desirability of changing the French system to accord more closely with the German system. People in all walks of political life recognise that the French system does not reflect adequately and fairly what people feel and want. That is what the Secretary of State is trying to do.
I shall bring this part of my speech to an end.
A basic point which we must record is that we are not introducing into Northern Ireland a system of Government only because of a situation in Northern Ireland. We are, in the United Kingdom, introducing a new kind ot Assembly into a part of the European Community. The new kind of Assembly which we have chosen to introduce is one based on a single transferable vote. In so doing we are basically recognising the fallibility of the system which we operate. If the system which we operate was not fallible and was not subject to weak- nesses we would not be making such a change.
The question of those who are able to stand and to take part in elections has been referred to by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees). I agreed with what the hon. Gentleman said. I have looked at Clause 3 and the end of Clause 2 and I confess that it is unclear how people will be prevented from standing. I take the point which emerged as a result of the intervention of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), that action will probably take place at the point of nomination and the declaration of the association.
It would be a good thing to allow members of the Sinn Fein to take part in elections, in the same way as members of the UDA should take part. It is a good thing that every individual, however extreme or moderate his opinion may be, should feel the freedom to take part in a free election. As democrats we have nothing to be afraid of in doing that. If that freedom is denied there will be the opportunity to say "It is all fixed. We were not allowed to take part. If we had been able to put up a candidate we would have done marvellously well." That would defeat the object of the exercise.
The Secretary of State will know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) has already written to him about the issue of freedom. My right hon. Friend and the right hon. Gentleman have exchanged correspondence. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give the matter further thought. I know, as he has already said, that it is possible for persons with extreme political views to stand at elections if they separate themselves from the organisations with which they have previously been associated. That is not enough. It is a good thing to get the matter in the open and to have people of extreme views able to stand in freedom. That would be of benefit to all.
I support the hon. Member for Leeds, South about the width of power which the Secretary of State is taking and the limited degree to which the House will be able to debate orders which are made in pursuance of the Bill—namely, an hour and a half.
The explanatory and financial memorandum to the Bill states:
It is not anticipated that the Bill will require any increase in the permanent staff of the public service.
That may be so, but it depends on how the public service operates. It is of great importance, for example, that the committees which are to be a fundamental part of the Assembly should be given adequate support assistance to enable them to do their job effectively. I hope that there will be no question of financial stringency in that direction.
The hon. Gentleman will have to await the constitutional Bill for all these matters which appertain to what happens once the Assembly is elected. This Bill is to do with the election.
I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says.
I welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman announced the date of the election today. I hope that there will be the fullest participation in it. The Bill gives not only the chance for the return of peace in Northern Ireland but the opportunity—this is basic— for the building of a fairer, more sensitive and more tolerant democracy in Northern Ireland than has previously existed.
I believe that the people of Northern Ireland will be grateful to the Secretary of State for announcing today the date on which the election to the Assembly will take place. This is a very important matter, and in view of his announcement, the local government elections become more and more irrelevant. I believe that the people of Northern Ireland will now set themselves towards taking the opportunities of 28th June.
As the Bill deals with the election to the Assembly and is limited to that election, I am sure that it is the opinion of every Member of the House that the election should be fair and just and that it should be seen to be fair and just. I want briefly to develop this thesis. I do not see how the House can say that the election will be fair and just unless as far as possible everyone who wants to place his views before the electorate has the opportunity so to do. This is a very thorny problem and the Secretary of State should apply himself to it. It is far better for people to go to the electorate, no matter what their views may be, to stand upon them to campaign upon them and to have them tested by the ballot box. When a barrier is put in the way of a person doing that, he will seek other means for the expression of his political thoughts.
If a person is wanted for subversive activities, if he is doing something illegal, then it is the duty of the authorities to deal with him. But if a person who is not engaged in subversive activity, albeit he believes in the goals of subversives, then he should be able to go to the electorate and say, "I am not engaged in subversion and I want to put forward certain views ". Those views may be repugnant to many sections of the community, they may be thoroughly intolerable to certain sections of the community, but in this House we should look intently on the matter and seek a way whereby persons not engaged in subversive activities, who are not wanted by the authorities but yet have extreme Republican views, or even extreme UDI views—people who feel that by force of arms Northern Ireland should leave the United Kingdom—are able to come forward and put those views to the test of the ballot box. That is the final test.
I cross my sword metaphorically with the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston). Of course the Secretary of State has consulted. But the trouble in Northern Ireland is that everyone claims to speak for everybody. I have never met a politician there yet who will admit that his standing in the country may have gone down. They all say that their standing is stronger than ever. But 28th June will tell this House and the world who speaks for Northern Ireland. I am content to let the electorate speak and I trust that this House, if it has any wisdom, will listen to what the electorate says.
This House may have strong views on its sovereignty. As a Member, I have always accepted and emphasised that this is the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom. But it would be stupid of the House if it rejected the overwhelming wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland expressed in the ballot box. It will have to listen to those views in the end. Let us hear on 28 th June what the ordinary man in the street has to say. Let us hear his decision and what future he wants.
I want to make my position absolutely clear because I might be misrepresented. My political opponents and many people in certain camps would like to say "Paisley is advocating that the IRA should be able to campaign." I repeat, therefore, my view that if a person is not engaged in subversive activities then, whatever his views may be, he should be able to get his name on the ballot paper and test those views. This is of vital importance to the future of Northern Ireland. I should like to see the people of Northern Ireland engaging in their greatest political campaign ever. Let them seek votes. Let them seek to test their views before the people of Northern Ireland.
Is the hon. Gentleman recommending to those who vote for him and his party that they do so in the clear knowledge that it is the constitutional proposals of the White Paper or nothing? Or is he making it clear to the electors of Northern Ireland that some candidates reject the proposals of the White Paper and seek through the Assembly some other form of constitutional arrangement?
My views are perfectly clear. I reject not all the White Paper but certain things about it. For example, I think that it is ridiculous for hon. Members to say that they want to put the border completely out of politics. Her Majesty's Government are saying, in effect, to the people of Northern Ireland "You have had a referendum to decide the issue but in the White Paper we propose that the first item on the agenda shall be a tripartite meeting so as to subvert the declared wishes of the people of Northern Ireland on their constitutional status." That is something I shall be opposing before the electorate.
The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) will also be telling his people the things in the White Paper which he does not accept and which his party is rejecting. Only one party, the Alliance Party, has accepted the White Paper in full. It did so with cheers in the Ulster Hall, and it gave the White Paper a standing ovation.
It would be churlish of me not to give due credit to the Secretary of State. There was a time in Northern Ireland when few people had any good to say about him. I never engaged in "bashing" him, as he knows. The Alliance Party has given him a standing ovation. Let it go to the country with its views. Let the country say what it wants, and let this House heed what the country says. I am sorry that I have enlarged on this aspect perhaps a little longer than I had intended, but this is a very important matter.
As nearly as is possible, every person in Northern Ireland who is eligible should have a vote at the election. I fear that the Secretary of State does not understand the seriousness of what has happened over the last electoral lists that were prepared in Northern Ireland. People tell me "Those who are not on the lists should have put their names in to be on the revised list." But hundreds of them did that, and then when they saw the final list found that their representations had not been heeded. What is more, some people who have checked that they were on the original list found that they had been taken off the final list. People who have had a vote in every election in Northern Ireland since 1920 find that they will have no vote at this important election.
I know that there are difficulties, but it is the duty of the House to see that there is a supplementary list containing at least 10,000 of those missing from the present lists. That number represents a large proportion of the electorate.
Representations have been made to the Secretary of State, and one of his Ministers of State has admitted that there are serious mistakes on the electoral list. If the computer is wrong, the information that was fed into it must have been wrong. It is no use saying that what has happened results from a computer mistake. When a person is told at the polling station that he does not have a vote, he will ask his Member of Parliament "Why haven't I got a vote? Why am I forbidden the right to express my wishes at this election?"
I ask the Secretary of State to have a careful look at the matter. The 28th June is a considerable time away, and I think that it would be possible to hear the representations of those whose names are mistakenly missing from the lists and to see that a supplementary list is supplied for the various constituencies.
As far as possible, the same number of electors should be able to return the same number of Members. The hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) was hardly fair to the people of Northern Ireland who have raised certain objections to the number of seats in constituencies. I represent in the House, under the new boundary changes, over 100,000 voters. It is proposed that there should be seven seats in North Antrim, yet the county of Armagh, which has only 89,000 voters, also has seven seats. There is a great disparity.
I am not saying this because it suits me. It would suit me far better to have seven seats in North Antrim, because Bally Castle and the Glens in my constituency is a strong Republican area, one of the most historic Republican areas in the county. By refusing to give eight seats to North Antrim, the House is telling against not only the Loyalist community but the Republican community. It should be concerned about that.
There have been arguments about gerrymandering. I was never in the Government in Northern Ireland—thank God for that! —so that guilt cannot be applied to me. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone the seats will average out at about one for every 13,000 voters, yet their ratio to the electors is 5·3 per cent. In West Belfast the percentage is also 5·3, but the Government are giving that constituency six seats and Fermanagh only five.
I do not agree with Mr. John Taylor and everything he stands for. Many a fight have we had in Stormont across the Floor of the House. But when he asks "Why not give Fermanagh and South Tyrone the same as West Belfast?", he is arguing on the figures. We in the House should not be sidetracked by red herrings. We should say that as far as possible the numbers that return a Member should be the same in every constituency.
I shall stick to my figures on this. Londonderry, with an electorate of over 90,000, has seven seats. Yet in Antrim, which is not to the west of the Bann but is to the east of the Bann, over 100,000 electors are needed to obtain seven seats. I think that the only place that is under-represented on the ratio is Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which has five seats. Probably in an election the extra seat to which I believe it is entitled would go to a supporter of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. McManus) or someone of his political opinions. Therefore, I am arguing against my own case, but I do so because the House should be absolutely fair in this matter.
The hon. Member for Belfast, West smiles, because, with a small electorate, he needs only 11,000 votes to be home and dry. In North Antrim nearly 15,000 would be needed to win.
The House should consider the matter objectively and say "As far as possible, we shall do what is right, irrespective of what happens." The majority in Northern Ireland feel that the Loyalists always go to the wall and that the Republic elements have the benefit; Republicans feel that they go to the wall and that the Loyalists have the benefit. Because of that clash of opinion the House should deal with the matter objectively as far as possible.
As usual, the hon. Gentleman is presenting a liberal face in the House. Does his liberal approach extend so far as to agree that in the upcoming election persons in Northern Ireland who may have resided there for a time but have not met the seven-year residence qualification, residents of the Republic who have not been in the North for seven years, should have a vote, as in Westminster elections?
People who are not resident in Northern Ireland should not stand. How could they represent an area that they have not lived and not worked in, an area where they did not know the situation? We should have one electoral list, and one list only. If it is for the United Kingdom it should be for the United Kingdom, and if it is for Northern Ireland it should be for Northern Ireland. In the Bill we have regulations dealing with the Northern Ireland list and other regulations dealing with the United Kingdom way of running elections.
It would be far better if the Government made up their mind how many votes are involved. The difference between the two electoral lists is only 7,000. After all, 10,000 people who are eligible to vote have already been dropped. The hon. Gentleman has only 7,000 to worry about, not like the 10,000 dropped by the computer. It must have been a Republican computer.
I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement that the political affiliation of candidates will appear on the ballot paper. It is very important, especially with proportional representation and a large number of candidates, that the party affiliations, or the things that candidates stand for, should be on the ballot paper.
I shall not now argue the method of voting. The hon. Member for Inverness quoted Lloyd George. But this Parliament need not say to the Parliament of Northern Ireland "You should not have given up proportional representation", because this Parliament decided that the Parliament of Northern Ireland had the right to decide at any time how it should conduct its voting. If the 1920 Act had made it clear that for all time it would have to be by proportional representation we would not have had the turn of the wheel at all and we would still have proportional representation. Do not let anyone think that proportional representation is the panacea for all evils in Northern Ireland. The people are just the same. The majority of the people will return a majority to the Assembly, whether this House likes it or not. There will be a realignment of opinion. There could be great changes in the realignment of political associations in the Assembly, changes that may surprise even this House. It must not be thought that all will be well because we are to have proportional representation.
I do not often admire Mr. Lynch but I admire his honesty in that he says he wants to get rid of proportional representation.
He is too late, yes. He did not succeed this time but he might succeed in the future. After all, Conservatives held the Greater London Council for a number of years. They do not hold it today. Things change. Even Mr. Lynch could come back into power.
It is no argument to say that proportional representation will cure all ills. It will be very difficult for the people of Northern Ireland to operate this system for the first time. Even the Secretary of State, who is engineering this, could not answer a straight question from the hon. Member for Leeds, South about putting an X on the ballot paper. The hon. Member wanted to know whether that would invalidate the vote. May I ask whether, if a person uses one vote, that will invalidate the vote?
I am grateful for that reply.
I am rather amazed by what the hon. Member for Leeds, South told us about this unique placing of polling agents. I have attended many elections in Northern Ireland. It has always been the rule that the presiding officer and his clerk sit at the box together and the polling agents sit at the end of the table or, if it is not large enough, on seats adjacent to the table. I am surprised that in the recent election they actually sat in between the presiding officer and the polling clerk. How did the hon. Gentleman know who was the polling clerk and who was the presiding officer? If he asked him, well and good. If this happened I would deplore it. I have never seen it taking place. If it occurred at Augher Clogher and Fivemiletown, although it is not a constituency represented by my party, it should be cleared up.
Hon. Gentlemen on the Government Bench need to be able to say what the duties of polling agents are, where they are permitted to sit and whether they are permitted to mark off the numbers of the people who have voted. The whole objective of having polling agents was to guard against intimidation. In Irish elections that is evidently the time when the dead rise from the grave and come from various places of everlasting pain to record their votes for certain candidates. We need to know what the polling agents are permitted to do, what their duties are and where they are to sit.
I find myself in almost total agreement with what has been said by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). Like most other representatives from Northern Ireland, he will be prepared to accept the verdict of the electorate when the elections take place on 28th June. I reinforce the appeal made by the hon. Gentleman and by all political representatives in Northern Ireland, from the extreme right wing of the Unionist Party through the whole political spectrum to the extreme Republican wing, that the Secretary of State should remove any obstacles or impediments in the way of political organisations so that they will all have the opportunity to go before the Northern Ireland electorate with their policies, programmes and philosophies.
Only by allowing every political party and organisation this opportunity in a democratic election can we ever be sure of what the Northern Ireland electorate believes in. I agree with what was said by the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) that if restrictions remain there will be people—perhaps not only on the Republican side, but more than likely—who will say that had they been given the opportunity their qualities would have been overwhelmingly supported by the electorate. They will be able to say that they represent a substantial section of the electorate but because of the ban placed upon their activities by this House they were unable to contest the elections and engage in the democratic process.
They will then be able to say that if they are not allowed to field candidates and seek the support of the electorate they must continue to resort to violence. We have seen so much violence in Northern Ireland in the past three or four years that the House should in no way lend itself, even unwittingly, to a continuation of that violence. In Committee we will seek to persuade the Government to remove any such limitations or restrictions.
I listened with a great deal of interest to the remarks of the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) in seeking to persuade the Secretary of State to agree to certain changes. He appeared to be very reasonable. Yet only three or four weeks ago he, the hon. Member for Antrim, North, Mr. William Craig, a former Minister for Home Affairs in Northern Ireland, and Mr. John Taylor, a former Deputy Minister for Home Affairs in Northern Ireland, formed an unholy alliance and engaged in a conspiracy. That is what they were doing.
They said that they did not accept the terms of the White Paper and would contest the elections with the intention of wrecking the Assembly. It is on record that they said they would field candidates with that specific intention. If that is their intention, can it be any worse to accept Sinn Fein candidates? We cannot tell how many such candidates would be elected, but I do not think they would be in a position to wreck the Assembly. This is one section of the community specifically telling the Secretary of State that it does not agree with the White Paper and will field candidates to wreck the constitutional proposals. Yet it is allowed to take part in the elections, while other people, such as members of Sinn Fein, who do not believe in violence, have never resorted to violence and would not contemplate it, but who have an unswerving allegiance to the ideal of a reunited Ireland, are to be prevented because they hold that ideal, from engaging in the political process. I do not see how the Secretary of State can justify the ban which it appears he wishes to maintain on Sinn Fein.
I have heard rumours that the Secretary of State may consider easing the ban, if not lifting it. But the proscriptions are not mentioned in this Bill The matter will be dealt with in greater detail in tomorrow's Bill, but there is no guarantee that that Bill will be passed through the House before the elections to the Assembly take place. The date mentioned by the Secretary of State was 28th June. Normally, nomination day would be 14th June, and, in the circumstances advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), it would be on that day that the nomination papers would be refused by the returning officer.
In view of the representations made repeatedly to the Secretary of State in the past few months by all the political parties and spokesmen in Northern Ireland—people who are desperately seeking a way to bring politics to the forefront, to stop the gunmen and take violence out of the situation, and who form the overwhelming majority of people in the Six Counties—why does the right hon. Gentleman maintain his intransigent attitude and continue to bar from the elections those who seek to create a republic by peaceful and non-violent means? The Secretary of State will contribute greatly to easing the tension in Northern Ireland if he agrees to the honest and reasonable demands made by every political spokesman in Northern Ireland.
We as a political party advocate that the proportional representation voting system should be used. I do not believe that it is a foolproof system, but it will throw up a better type of candidate and eliminate the more extreme type. That is why it is so necessary in this election.
The hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder), in an intervention, said that he did not agree with the proportional representation system because it had been used by Fianna Fail to gerrymander a Protestant out of a seat in Donegal. That is completely untrue. It is well known that I have never been a wholehearted supporter of Fianna Fail, but it was not the electoral system which defeated that candidate. If that were so, it would be very strange that the same political party should be nominating a Protestant—Erskine Childers—for the highest office in Ireland, namely, President of the Republic. We must therefore treat the remarks of the hon. Gentleman with great reserve.
In the border poll recently, many people availed themselves of the opportunity of the postal vote. We requested our supporters not to desist from taking part in the poll but to use their postal votes to make sure that no one else voted in their names. In the forthcoming election it is just as important that similar postal voting facilities should be granted, and even extended People will not be voting on the silly issue of the border this time, but in what are known as the hostile areas in Northern Ireland people might be intimidated from voting. Therefore, every facility should be granted to people so that they may avail themselves of the postal vote.
Reference has been made to the activities of certain agents during the border poll. I understand that many of them took advantage of the fact that none of their political opponents participated in the election. We did not have agents or observers in the schools at that time, but I gather that certain people, such as members of the Unionist Party, took advantage of the absence of our candidates. I give notice that during the elections for the Assembly the same degree of arrogance will not be shown by those acting as agents on behalf of the Unionist Party.
On the question of seats, I know that the Secretary of State must have experienced extreme difficulty in trying to arrive at an equitable number of electors for each constituency. The hon. Member for Down, North referred to the smaller number of electors in the Belfast, West constituency. The register on which the forthcoming elections will be carried out is a 1972 register. There is a massive redevelopment scheme in the Belfast, West constituency, and that is why there have been fewer electors in that area. But in the next year or so the area will be rebuilt and there will be an adequate number of electors to justify the number of seats.
There will be tremendous pressure, possibly by way of amendment in Committee, to increase the number of seats in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which, on the present proposals, is to have five seats. There are three Unionists in that constituency—Mr. West, Mr. Taylor, and Mr. Brooke. One of them would lose his seat under the proportional representation system. That is why such a furore has been created throughout Northern Ireland by spokesmen for that constituency. I do not think that the Secretary of State should unduly concern himself with the personalities involved or the amount of support which they would seem to have for their arguments, because there will be three extreme Unionists fighting for two extreme Unionist seats.
The Bill has been advocated by all the political parties in Northern Ireland. Therefore, we must accept it. We support it in its present form but we hope that in Committee we shall have an undertaking from the Secretary of State that the ban on Sinn Fein and all other organisations will be lifted. The situation is farcical, because the ban has been lifted from Republican clubs. Official Sinn Fein and Republican clubs are exactly the same. If the ban is taken off Republican clubs it must be taken off official Sinn Fein, otherwise a candidate may say that he is a member of a Republican club and also a member of Sinn Fein. The Government would not wish to be embarrassed by dual membership of two organisations because it would create confusion and chaos on nomination day.
I appeal to the Secretary of State to listen to the voice of reason in Northern Ireland. All reasonable people in Northern Ireland want the elections to take place. They want to discover what the feeling of Northern Ireland people is. There is only one way in which to do that and that is by letting anyone who thinks that he has a policy or programme put himself forward as a candidate. He should then abide by the decision of the people of Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Belfast West (Mr. Fitt) made a general complaint against persons taking part in the border poll, but I could not help thinking that he might have had less cause for complaint if his friends had taken part in that poll and if we had been enabled to hear the voice of the entire people of Northern Ireland. However, I am very glad to hear from him of the eagerness of Republicans in Northern Ireland to take part in the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Those of us who resisted the suspension of Stormont and recognise that Northern Ireland's special and historic identity entitles her to her own regional institutions must applaud the intention of Her Majesty's Government to restore a measure of legislative autonomy. I therefore welcome the Bill, so far as it goes, but it is, in a sense, a skeleton. The flesh and life are to be added. It is a Bill to provide for elections on the basis of STV to a legislative chamber whose shape is not yet fully delineated.
If I concede that the House should enable the Government to have their Bill with all speed, it is not because there is not a great deal to be said upon it but because it is time, and more than time, that Ulster's politics—which, under direct rule, have been dragged down into the streets and even into the gutters— should be redirected into democratic channels. The political party and not the private army is the basis of democracy as it is known in the British Isles. The Government are therefore to be congratulated on the urgency they are showing in the preparation of the elections and, like hon. Gentlemen who have spoken from both sides of the House today, I thank the Secretary of State for announcing the date of 28th June.
Without quibbling over nomenclature, I hold, as I have consistently held, that Ulster must have a proper Parliament and parliamentary government again. Ministers should not be tempted to downgrade Northern Ireland's institutions in fact or in title just because the panoply and paraphernalia of Stormont were unpopular with Republicans.
If the North and the South are to grow together and work together, and if the Council of Ireland is to mean something, Northern Ireland must be endowed with executive and legislative organs of such competence and dignity as will enable the representatives and the leaders of the North to talk and to work with those of the Republic on level terms. Of course, the White Paper gives important powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly, but the taxing power will be here.
This again raises the question of the underrepresentation of the Province in this House. I do not want to revert to the matters which were debated when we discussed the White Paper, but I remember that when I asked the Front Bench about the important question of what happened if Members were returned to the Assembly and then refused to take part, I received no answer. Also, when I intervened in the speech by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) I got no reply. I am glad that, speaking for the Opposition today, he took up this point. It is a point which was raised by Mr. Garret FitzGerald, who is now Minister of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, in his book, "Towards a New Ireland". It is an important point. I simply suggest that if a Member is returned and does not discharge his duties he should be replaced by the next candidate on the list.
The White Paper proposals have been described as Ulster's last chance. They are not, in my view, but they are certainly a new chance for this Government and Parliament to redeem the error of just over a year ago—a new chance for my co-religionists in Northern Ireland. Despite the injunctions of the SDLP and other sections of anti-unionist opinion, a substantial number of my fellow Catholics in the North felt able to vote in the border poll. Here is a second opportunity for both the minority and the majority in the community to declare by the ballot against the bullet and the bomb, and to expose the outrageous pretentions of those who terrorise, because they cannot peacefully persuade, their fellow countrymen.
I share the dislike of my Ulster Unionist colleagues for the concept of compulsory power sharing. It is alien to our tradition and constitution. It might be said that it will institutionalise sectarianism, but fortunately—I speak as a Conservative and Unionist Member—the White Paper does not say there can be no executive in Northern Ireland composed by the Unionist Party. It says it cannot be composed from a sectarian party.
I hope, therefore, that in the election campaign and the election literature of the Unionist Party—and even in the choice of candidates—Mr. Brian Faulkner and other Unionist spokesmen will declare and make manifest that they mean to make the Unionist Party a broadly-based and non-sectarian party.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) is an Imperial Grand Master. I think that that must be one of the few imperial things that we have left. Some years ago he invited me to speak in an Orange Hall at Banbridge. He knows I am not eligible to be an Orangeman, but I did not speak against the Orange Order. What I did was to say, both in that Orange Hall and in other places in Northern Ireland, that it was high time for the severing of the formal links between the Orange Order and the Unionist Party. They are as obsolete as the formal links which used to exist between the Primrose League and the Conservative Party. Their part is played.
So there is a new chance for Ulster— here is a chance for the people of Ulster to break out of the political and ethnic ghetto and the psychological state of siege.
In an intervention when my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) was speaking I mentioned the polling stations at Augher, Clogher and Fivemiletown. I let them come trippingly off my tongue, lest I did a discourtesy to the Unionist representatives here of those particular places, where the Unionist agent was specifically sitting at the polling station next to the polling clerks and the presiding officers was at Clogher and Augher. At Aughna-cloy it was more in the nature of having a conducted tour of the polling stations by the Unionist representative, who seemed to have control of the situation far better than the presiding officer. I say that to make the matter completely accurate. I am not being discourteous. I give way to the hon. Member who accompanied me on that tour.
Would the hon. Member not agree that the last case he has mentioned was exceptional on our tour? My impression was that the gentleman in question had lunched extremely well, perhaps not wholly on solids; but I thought that, in general, on the tour on which I had the pleasure of accompanying the hon. Gentleman there was nothing really to complain of in the conduct of the poll.
With the greatest respect to the hon. Member, I did not draw the conclusion about the Unionist observer at Aughnacloy he did. Perhaps I was being a little more charitable. After all, he was a political opponent—that is, one of the hon. Gentleman's supporters. Nevertheless, I had a feeling, which I had throughout the election, because of the proximity and the Unionist agent. Was he there for impersonation or what have you? He was so close to the presiding officer and the polling clerk that one could have reason to suspect he was one of the official trinity in each room. One had reason to suspect that he could be so close to the ballot paper and ballot box that he could have an unfortunate influence upon a person who was capable of being intimidated.
At Grove Primary School in North Queen's Street many agents were tramping around during the last half-hour of the poll. Some were sitting at the desks and some seemed to have a roving commission. Above it all were crossed flags —the Bloody Hand of Ulster and the Union flag—very much symbols adopted by those of a particular political persuasion.
I am sure that the Secretary of State would not have approved of their being present in the room, and I hope that in the Assembly election similar events will not occur. The election will take place before we have the benefit of the report of the survey done by the professor from Queen's University, and I should like to know when we shall see that report.
The allegation was that polling agents were placed between the two official officers. Surely it is not improper for polling agents or observers of either party to be fairly close to the presiding officer, because they have to see that he operates within the law.
No one has suggested that the presiding officers were seeking to influence the way in which people cast their votes. If hon. Gentlemen are making that supposition—I see that the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) nods—they should sustantiate that statement. If that statement is correct, the whole basis of Northern Ireland elections and the honesty and impartiality of the officials is at stake.
The hon. Gentleman could not be more wrong. He seemed to be nodding agreement to what the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) said, and I thought he was rising to substantiate that. Over the years we have been led to believe by Unionist Members that Northern Ireland is just as much part of the United Kingdom as is Kingston upon Hull, North. But in my constituency last week there were no representatives of political parties in any room in which people were casting their votes.
There was no need for them to be. There were people outside—mostly Tories, in a last forlorn hope—and no one objected to that. What we object to is the practice of people being permanently stationed at the same table as the presiding officer and polling clerk. That is quite wrong.
There seemed to be great hilarity when it was suggested that a polling agent had a right to see that the presiding officer was carrying out his duties. But surely that is another reason for the polling agent being there. Our polling agents were always told that they had the right to search the ballot box before it was closed, and that they did. I have made it my business in Northern Ireland elections to see that my agents put their own seal on the box at the end of the day. We should know clearly exactly what a polling agent has the right to do.
In my own constituency the ballot box is sealed when it arrives. Let us make sure that a proper rubric is drawn up by the Northern Ireland Office about what is right and what is not right for polling agents to do. When I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South, I did not say that in the polling stations in which I was present the polling agent was sitting between the presiding officer and the clerk. My hon. Friend was merely pointing out that that did happen in one case.
I regret that we are taking all the stages of the Bill in one day without the opportunity to look properly at the manuscript amendments that will be put forward from both sides of the House. I understand the reasons for the haste and I appreciate that the election is being held earlier, but could we not have abandoned the debate on the Diplock Report tomorrow, to allow two days on the Bill and a proper opportunity to consider the amendments?
What will happen about the report of the professor from Queen's University, particularly in relation to the important developments which took place in the border poll, on the siting of polling booths and the extension of the postal vote? Will the same polling stations be used for this election as were used in the border poll, or are we to go back to those which were used in earlier elections? Will there be restricted postal voting or the extended postal voting that was so successful in the border poll? The arguments that led to the siting of polling stations and the extension of the postal vote in the border poll apply also in this election and will possibly apply in the local elections.
I should like to see the Secretary of State's powers under the Bill subject not to the negative but to the affirmative procedure, so that we may have proper discussion in the House.
I hope that in Committee there will be an opportunity to examine the Secretary of State's arguments for not lifting the ban on all the proscribed organisations. If my amendment is selected, I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to say more about the difficulties he has had. I echo what has been said within Northern Ireland and the Republic, that it is far better that these extremists be shown up and soundly defeated at the polls—or, if they have support, that we should be able to see the support they have and know the men with whom we are dealing.
Although the Bill is clearly not without some blemishes, I believe that there will be a complete welcome in principle for the concept of an early election in Northern Ireland and for the clear acknowledgement by the Government that this is the will of this House and also of the people of Northern Ireland. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has been able to announce the actual polling day, although I am bound to say that it was a date which many people had ringed in their diaries as a likely possibility. After the four years of agony through which we in Northern Ireland have passed, it is right that elections for the new Assembly should be held as soon as possible.
One other matter arises out of an understanding of the problems in Northern Ireland. Often during the past four years ideas and plans have been promulgated, and yet between the plan and its implementation things have gone wrong. On this occasion the opportunity for action has been taken as quickly as possible. The classic example on the other side of the coin was the border poll, which was excellent in principle and conception but, unfortunately came out about six months later than the ideal date, which would have been last autumn.
Although the Ulster people are undoubtedly weary of violence and destruction and are anxious to have an Assembly in operation giving voice to local sentiments, it would be an error of major proportions for anybody on either side of the House to assume that they will be prepared to accept anything.
Whether we are discussing this Bill or the major constitutional Bill which will come later, there is one yardstick which can fairly be applied to judge both measures. Is it fair, is it realistic, or is it contrived and artificial? Great emphasis has been placed on the importance of the new Assembly operating as fairly and humanly as possible. This is what we would all wish to see, but, unfortunately, there is a fine line between what is manifestly fair and what looks to be contrived and artificial. I do not say this in any threatening or argumentative sense, but I believe that if a political solution in Northern Ireland is thought to be contrived and artificial, by the nature of the political facts of life in the Province it would be doomed to failure—which is the one thing that nobody on either side of the House wishes to see.
The number of Members envisaged for the Assembly and the system of franchise are the two main points in the Bill. I was surprised to see the figure of Members set at 78. Following all the calculations I had made, my sum did not come out at that total. It is to be a mere amalgamation of the two old houses of Stormont, 52 in the Lower House and 26 in the Senate. For this reason I hope that it is not too late for the matter to be reconsidered. One of the main arguments used for an early restoration of a Northern Ireland local assembly was that the Macrory recommendations would substantially downgrade local government powers and functions and that to replace them an assembly of some kind would have to be set up as quickly as possible. I was totally and utterly opposed to Macrory, and I remain so, but since those recommendations are now the law of the land we must accept them as such. With the downgrading of local government, there seems an opportunity to give an increased local government slant to the representation in the new Assembly, bringing the total to about 90.
There is another point which I believe should be considered. I realise that this is a hobby horse of mine, which I have ridden both inside and outside the House on other occasions, but with the passage of time I believe that it has remained valid. Having achieved a brand-new structure on which to build, and bearing in mind that the Assembly will be unicameral, this would have been an ideal opportunity to provide for the nomination by the Secretary of State of certain persons who do not have constituencies or constituency responsibilities but who might be members of the Assembly by virtue of the public office which they hold in the community.
I am thinking of people like the Vice-Chancellors of the two universities, the President of the Chamber of Commerce, the President of the Tourist Board, the Secretary of the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the President of the Ulster Farmers Union—people who, in a parliamentary structure such as we have at Westminster, would be fitted into the second Chamber. In Ulster we shall not have a second Chamber, and yet I am convinced that people of that sort in Ulster would have a valuable contribution to make in the new Assembly. I do not know how many such Members there should be—it might be only 10 Members—but that is the sort of principle which I believe could be accepted in some form. I also ask my right hon. Friend to seek to disqualify as few people as is humanly possible.
I remember in two elections fighting candidates from Sinn Fein, among others, and it came as a slight surprise to think that they would not be allowed to stand for the new Assembly. Even though a person might be decisely defeated if he were allowed to stand at an election, the fact that he is refused a chance to stand will give him ground to say "I have been robbed—cheated of the seat. I would have topped the poll if only I had been allowed to stand." We must not put people in this ridiculous and spurious position. Let them stand and let them be dealt with by the electorate in the normal democratic fashion.
I am not entirely happy with the single transferable vote franchise. I have never been a devotee of proportional representation as being an efficient and effective voting system, but that is by the way. Since we desire an early election we want to see as little red tape as possible, but as soon as the election is held I hope that an independent Boundary Commission will be set up to redraw the boundaries of Northern Ireland, based on whatever is the final decided figure for the Assembly, and by the time of the next election we can have the ordinary single-Member constituencies.
With multi-Member seats those who are victorious at the end of the day take the entire territorial area of the constituency and say "I will do that bit of it, and also that bit", moving round six or seven points of the circle. That is highly unsatisfactory and undesirable from the point of view of the constituents in those areas. The constituents should decide who are to be their Members. It should not be decided by some artificial drawing of mythical areas in the constituency to suit the convenience or whim of successful candidates.
I should like also to ask about the electoral register. Many people have made representations to their local electoral office, telling the officials "I am not on the register. What can be done about it?" If ever there was an important register in Northern Ireland it is the one that we are using this year. I know that many of my constituents have sent in notes to the local electoral offices and have received an answer. The answer is that there were mistakes on the register, and rank carelessness. I disagree with the figure put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). I think that the number of people left off the register is much greater than the figure my hon. Friend put forward. Why cannot those who had submitted their names at the time of the border poll, up to the 1st May, be included in a supplemental list?
I appreciate that it would be impossible to redefine an entire register, and nobody is saying that that should be done. But it is extraordinary that in a densely populated part of my constituency two half-streets were left off completely. Those are not the kinds of mistake which are normally made in the compilation of a register. One cannot make excuses about clerical errors. It was rank inefficiency, and the electorate should not have to suffer.
Likewise, I trust that we shall have a full use of the postal vote system. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) made the point about the validity and usefulness of the postal vote structure at the time of the border poll. I very much want to see this again—with one minor alteration because of the confusion which arose on the question of what constituted a welfare worker in the employment of a local authority. I am not saying that they should be ruled out as witnesses of voting applications. But there was an element of uncertainty in the interpretation of the grades that qualified out of that broad description, and that should be clarified. Let as many people as possible be allowed to vote, and let the postal vote net be drawn as widely as possible.
I was confused earlier by the discussion about the use of figures as opposed to crosses. When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State pointed firmly to use of figures he caused me confusion in one regard. I know that this was not the question that he was asked, but if a voter wishes to vote only for one person he writes the figure "1" in the appropriate square. However, people have been accustomed to putting a single cross in a square. If there is no other mark on the ballot paper to indicate a clumsiness of voting intention, although I know what the rules say on this matter, cannot something be done provided that the voting intention is clear? We all know how people become confused in polling booths, and we want to minimise that confusion to the best of our ability.
When we come to the poll, I hope that there will be a massive turnout of everyone in Northern Ireland to express their wishes. There has been a feeling that we are now facing a voting structure designed to weaken the democratically expressed wish and voice of the majority. That is obviously an unforunate view. It is one of the corner stones of democracy that the will of the majority, clearly expressed, should prevail. I hope that people will turn out and vote in massive strength, so that we really know the feelings of the electors of Northern Ireland.
Arising from that, I hope devoutly that the House will give due weight to the feelings expressed by the electors of Northern Ireland. This is the chance that we have waited four years to have. I hope that people will take it and that neither side will say at the end of the day "We do not much like the result". That result really is binding.
I shall be brief because I approve entirely of what is being done here. Facing the situations which we confront in Northern Ireland, I agree that we must make this constitutional change as quickly as possible and, in the circumstances, that means in one day.
What I had intended to say was shot out of my mind by the unusual generosity of the Secretary of State in first admitting in response to a question that he could be wrong—the first time that I have heard such an admission from the Treasury Bench since coming to this House—and, secondly, by his very early announcement of the date of the election. These were two rather important matters—the character of the Secretary of State, in view of the enormous powers that he will acquire as a consequence of the Bill becoming an Act, and the tremendous importance of having this election as early as possible.
We must not place a heavier burden on the Bill than it is constructed to carry. I do not believe that the simple process of having an election to whatever kind of Assembly will bring peace automatically to Northern Ireland. I do not believe that the introduction or the re-introduction of a system of proportional representation will alter the political map of Northern Ireland to any great extent. Elected assemblies merely mirror the society which elects them. One does not change a society by changing the mirror.
In recent weeks, however, we have seen evidence that the political structure in Northern Ireland is beginning to change, and the pace of change may be much more rapid than some of us in this House have expected. It is very significant that on the Unionist side of these terribly ideological barricades working class people are moving into the political arena, not in ways of which I approve and not making the kinds of speeches which I like to hear, but nevertheless intervening strongly and changing the character of Unionism in Northern Ireland.
The fact that Mr. Billy Hull now plays a very prominent part in the political life of the Province is a political fact of tremendous significance, and it encourages those of us in this House, including the Secretary of State himself, who want political struggles in Northern Ireland to begin to conform to the pattern which I arrogantly regard as normal. To me the normal pattern is that which we have in the rest of the United Kingdom where political parties may start out as interest groups, begin to acquire other political baggage as they develop but forget at their peril that they are interest groups.
Class politics is normally denigrated in our institutions of higher education. It is frowned upon. In my view class politics is the only kind of politics that we can have. The sooner that people in Northern Ireland begin to think in terms of interests instead of which side they might have fought on in a long forgotten battle—long forgotten in the rest of Europe—which took place in 1690, the better for all concerned. The question is whether the election which will follow the passage of the Bill will help in the process of almost self-restructuring Northern Ireland politics. I believe that it will.
I do not like any form of proportional representation anywhere in the United Kingdom. The object of a political system is to produce Governments which can govern and alternative Governments which can take over if the first Government fall down on the job. It is not to create political assemblies in which every fine distinction of political thought can be represented in some way. Even a country which applies a more proportional system by using the list system of voting, the Federal Republic of Germany, has thought it wise to impose the 5 per cent. barrier so that crackpot organisations cannot find representation in the Bundestag.
I am congenitally opposed to proportional representation even in this limited and rather old-fashioned form of the single transferable vote. But I am prepared to accept it in these circumstances because holding an election by this method gives some kind of guarantee to the religious minority. We are talking here of a religious minority, and we shall be in a much more civilised situation when we can blot out these adjectival qualifications from political utterances about Northern Ireland. But the religious minority is being given a guarantee that, whilst it cannot outvote the candidates who belong to the religious majority, at least in its political representation it will be able to take a constructive part in the political activity that will go on in the elected Assembly. If that guarantee is successfully conveyed and produces a high poll in the Catholic areas, it will be a step towards the reconstruction of the Northern Ireland political system, and I accept it, although in Committee I may support efforts to change it.
I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument and am seized of the point that in his opinion proportional representation is not acceptable and, indeed, is not necessary here. I agree with him to the extent that it may not have been necessary prior to 1970. However, does he agree that in present circumstances it will be difficult for anyone who voted at the 1970 election for a Conservative policy because he still has a Socialist policy? How can provision be made for people who may in future want a Conservative policy to exercise a continuing influence here? Is it not a case for proportional representation?
I do not see how, if I went along that side road and constructed in my mind a system of proportional representation for the United Kingdom, such a system could guarantee the kind of result in the United Kingdom as a whole that the hon. Gentleman obviously wants. Governments of all political colours rarely do what their supporters want them to do. They do what is considered necessary. That is why we get anguish on the back benches on the Government side, whatever Government are elected.
It is necessary to pass one final sentence, as it were, from the walls of this House to the people of Northern Ireland. They are not receiving in the Bill a kind of parish council that will be called an Assembly because it is necessary for the Secretary of State to have an accurate political map of Northern Ireland. We, in this House, when we pass the Bill, as I know we will, are giving the people of Northern Ireland something unique in the United Kingdom—something considerably more than the metropolitan county councils in this country. In future, by our committee system we shall give powers to ordinary Members of that Assembly which are not enjoyed by back-bench Members of this House—powers comparable with those enjoyed by continental parliamentarians. This may be desirable; it may be undesirable. However, it is something different and quite considerable.
This House in its wisdom has decided that the people of Northern Ireland shall have a special status. In my book that means a slightly superior status in electoral terms. I can only hope that they will seize all the opportunities that are now being offered to them and will use this Assembly for the basic job of restructuring politics in Northern Ireland and bringing peace back to that tormented and unhappy Province.
The announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State today of 28th June as polling day will certainly enable the great political debate in Northern Ireland to go forward. On that basis, I welcome it very much indeed.
Since we debated the White Paper some weeks ago there has been an increasing momentum of political activity in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Ilkeston (Mr. Raymond Fletcher) was absolutely right when he said that we are seeing a process of considerable political change in Ulster. We are seeing new regroupings going on, and this creates many problems of conscience for many of us who have been involved in these matters.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is wrong in suggesting that Ulster moves on to class politics. I had hoped that, for various reasons of history, we had avoided that. If we can move on to a new political era I hope that we shall not take the backward step of merely having divisions on the basis of class. There is much to be said for having them on wider issues.
I come to my main point on the constitutional Bill. I hope that every effort will be made by the House as a whole to aim at getting the Bill through before, say, the middle of June when the main part of the election campaign will be getting to its final stage. It will surely be seen as totally undesirable for elections to be taking place in Northern Ireland and to have wide open many of the issues which will be dealt with in the Bill, because the people will be being asked to vote on issues which would appear to be not finally determined. I hope that the House will see the strength of that argument.
This brings me to the speech by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr), who put forward the view that there should be two constitutional Bills, the local government parts being firm and the rest being left loose for a later Bill—open and vague for the Assembly to negotiate. He kindly suggested that perhaps I had not entirely heard his argument, perhaps because of increasing old age, or had perhaps not understood it. I think he was being unduly anxious. The point was that I was seeing right through his argument.
I come back to the basic point: is it to be an Assembly to do a job of work, or is it to be a conference and negotiating table?
My hon. and gallant Friend says "Both". Perhaps I may be allowed to make two points on that argument. I voted basically in support of the White Paper. There were parts in it with which I disagreed. However, there had been a mass of consultation on it. It is by no means the first choice of everyone in Northern Ireland, but it is, in my view, a reasonable basis of compromise. My view is that it should be firm on the outline to create a structure on which we can proceed.
My second point is that it is not desirable to have an election fought on the basis of each party putting forward its own negotiating position, once more going through that process, having a further round of negotiations after that, and, at the end of the day, expecting something magic to appear. It is much better to go firm now on the outline. I should have preferred the White Paper to be firmer on the details, so that the political parties would then have the job of fighting the election on issues and policies for the good of the people of Northern Ireland.
My hon. and gallant Friend referred to the principle of consent. I recognise, not with hindsight, that it is vital to operate on the principle of broad consent. However, I put it another way. Indeed, I put this jointly in a letter to The Times in January, but I recognise that this is now a lost cause. It is water under the bridge. But there was much wisdom in saying that, having had first a referendum on the border, we should have moved to a second referendum by putting the White Paper's proposals as a whole to the people of Northern Ireland and giving them a chance to vote "yea" or "nay" because on their endorsement of such a structure we would have had a more satisfactory basis for going forward.
Broadly, I welcome the proposal for proportional representation, but I differ slightly in tone from the hon. Member for Ilkeston in that, while there is much merit in seeing two clear-cut divisions in a national Parliament, this is not to be a Parliament in that sense but is a form of regional assembly, and there is, therefore, merit in having a broad reflection of the various political movements in Northern Ireland represented in it.
It is important to draw public attention to the method of operating proportional representation. It is said that it is immensely complicated, but I believe that if people can operate a football pool system —which is beyond me—they can under- stand these things if they are properly and clearly presented to them. I ask that consideration be given to encouraging the media, particularly television, to put out programmes on the working of proportional representation. If that is done, people will quickly get accustomed to the system and adapt to it.
My right hon. Friend announced this afternoon that the names of the political parties are to be put on the ballot paper. This is fundamental, because in many constituencies there will be 15, 20 or possibly even 25 candidates going forward for election. People will be confused unless the names are printed on the ballot paper.
The question arises whether Sinn Fein should be allowed to stand at the elections. It is not often that I agree with the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), but I thought that on this issue he was right and that he put the matter very well.
At the 1959 elections in my constituency there were some 5,000 votes for Sinn Fein out of a total of more than 70,000. At the next election, in 1964, Sinn Fein received fewer than 2,500 votes, yet my constituency contains such areas as the Ardoyne, Old Park Road and Marrow Bone. The terrorists do not win at the ballot box, but in the kind of situation which exists now the terrorist, by exerting his influence and by his activities, can create an appearance of momentum.
The House knows of my detestation of everything for which Sinn Fein and the IRA stand—I need not emphasise that— but I want to see the widest range of candidates standing at the elections. I know the devastation which the IRA has caused, but I want to see what votes it gets at the end of the day. I believe that it will be totally and utterly rejected, but I do not want it to have an excuse to create a myth about the support it enjoys. I want to see the myth exploded, as it can be by the secrecy of the ballot box and seeing what support the IRA gets.
The great political debate has begun in Northern Ireland. Let us carry forward the momentum to election day.
I welcome the Bill because it is brief and yet seemingly adequate, and also because it holds out the promise of a most welcome response. But how far it will achieve that response will depend on how wide and how genuine is the participation of all sections of the community, not only at representative but at voting level.
I want to draw the attention of the Minister to three items in the hope that he will look at them, and if he thinks they will achieve the response which I know he is seeking, will act upon them if he is able to do so.
The first concerns the pay and working conditions of Assembly men. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) dealt with this. The Assembly men will be varied in background and in resources Some will be poor, and these are the people about whose response we cannot be certain. Where it is possible to provide an incentive by giving a better salary and secretarial allowance I hope that that will be done. I hope, too, that their working conditions will receive careful consideration. The Devlin Report recommended an increase in salary for Dublin Members of Parliament. I hope the Minister will ensure that there is not an initial differential here to the disadvantage of Members in the North. There is a case for helping poorer candidates in order to meet the wishes of those who are anxious to see class politics ushered into the North as early as possible.
I echo what has been said about the need to permit Sinn Fein candidates to take part in the elections in order to achieve the broadest possible basis of participation, but I want the maximum participation by the electors, too.
I want the Minister to bear in mind what has been said in this debate. I shall not go over the ground again. He will recall what was said by the hon and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr), the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), whose experience of the border poll was the same as mine. Although I was more distressed than my hon. Friend was at seeing Unionist practices, I do not suggest that this reflects badly upon them because apparently they are the normal procedures. But the hon. Member for Antrim, North must know that they are questionable when compared with standards in this country. I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider whether these practices should be allowed to be continued, because when I was there last month I thought that they might act as a deterrent. It was difficult not to get the impression that the Unionists had taken over some polling stations.
Is it not difficult to avoid that impression if there are no agents of the opponents of the Unionist Party present at the polling booth? That is what happened because of the boycott of the referendum. At a normal election the agents of both parties would be present.
I understand that that was so, though I did not see them, nor did my hon. Friend. I do not doubt what the hon. Gentleman says, but where that practice occurs it is to be deplored. I ask hon. Members to consider how far it is likely to make for participation.
The other point is about standards of operation. Reference has been made to polling agents from the Unionist Party sitting between polling clerks and being indistinguishable from them. That practice must be questionable, especially where they are looked to for information, as I saw happen in Calkill Primary School in County Tyrone where the polling agent and not the presiding officer was the recipient of questions by electors. This practice is unthinkable in English terms. The difference is one of standards, and I hope that the Minister will look into this matter. I came away from Northern Ireland feeling that what I witnessed must act as a deterrent to those whom the Minister and every one else wants to bring into these elections, especially the first one.
I want the widest possible involvement by parties. We saw it on Thursday, and we see it at every election in this country. I was active last Thursday, as were hon. Members of all parties. But those in this country who correspond to the people we saw working in Northern Ireland do their work openly and outside the polling stations. They are just as effective, but they do not interfere with the work of the presiding officer, nor lend themselves to practices which strike us as questionable.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way, especially since I have not taken part in the debate. I happen to have come into the Chamber just when he is referring to the experience we both shared of being in Northern Ireland at the time of the referendum. As I read it, the agents were inside the polling stations with the presiding officers to help prevent personation. If representatives of all the other parties had been there too, they would have increased the chances of avoiding personation, and that would be a good thing. I agree that this situation differs from our system, but if that is the object, there is nothing wrong with it.
In the light of what I have so far argued, I cannot agree with the hon. Member. I believe that there is much wrong with it. As for the need to deter personation, that can be done by agents of parties who are not on the premises but outside, as they are in this country—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I must proceed—
We should be very interested in this. The difference between an English election and one in Ulster is that in England one does not suffer from a party setting out to do widespread impersonation. With us, this does happen. If the hon. Member can tell me of a way of operating without having agents inside the polling stations, I should be delighted to hear it.
As I said, I believe that this function by party representatives is necessary, but I also believe that it can be done otherwise. It can be done, as it is in this country, by agents off the premises. Once party representatives are admitted into the polling stations, what some of us witnessed last month inevitably follows. They then sit at the table and are indistinguishable from the polling clerks. They even, as we also saw, take over from the presiding officer. They may even wish, I take it from the argument of the hon. Member for Antrim, North, to seal the ballot boxes or to search them. All this is incomprehensible to us in this country, accustomed to 6ur standards as well as our practices. I hope that the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South will agree that, given practices in Northern Ireland that he deplores and wishes to see ended, one way in which that can happen is to proceed as quickly as possible to standards which are widely accepted in this country.
I may be able to help the hon. Member. He refers to standardisation. What better way to standardise than on the basis of the Representation of the People Act? Presumably he will accept that without any reservations, since it is the Act which governs this Parliament. Perhaps I might quote from page 188 of the "Parker's Election Agent and Returning Officer":
The ballot box shall be sealed up so as to prevent the introduction of additional ballot papers … and the presiding officer, as soon as practicable after the close of the poll, shall, in the presence of such polling agents as are in attendance make up … separate packets, sealed with his own seal and the seal of such polling agents as desire to affix their seals.…
Yes, of course, but that is the responsibility of the presiding officer. He may admit witnesses, but that does not mean that he has to have those witnesses around him all day, much less joining him and his staff at their table.
All these protestations from the Unionist Members present must be very familiar, certainly to some hon. Members of this House. They protest now that nothing was wrong with the border poll, that everything was in order. For years and years they have been saying the same about Stormont—that Stormont was a grand place and did a good job and that nothing should happen to it. Eventually this House had to admit that it was not such a grand place, and it had to be prorogued. Surely the House will look with at least some suspicion on the protestations now coming from the same quarter along the same lines. Of course everything that the hon. Member has said about the border poll is true, Anyone who lives in Northern Ireland knows that these things happen every day. That is why it is very difficult to have what is called a free election in Northern Ireland.
I agree with my hon. Friend, but I am taking the arguments as they have come along and have tried to treat them seriously, hoping that other hon. Members will pay me the same compliment, and believing that, like me, they are concerned to achieve the widest possible participation by electors. I therefore hope that they will see that one way in which this can be brought about is by removing any deterrents to some sectors of the community, such as the proprietorial attitude towards election practices and polling stations by Unionist agents.
I am reminded by my hon. Friend that at one polling station, when I asked the Unionist Party representative whether he knew every elector who was eligible to use the polling station he said that he did. That bears out my earlier contention, that the practice of scrutinising electors with a view to deterring impersonators could be done just as well outside the premises, in the school yard, as it is in this country.
But I wish to come to my last point, which again concerns participation. I am anxious to remove any possible deterrents to that participation, especially in the first election. We want that first election to get off to the best possible start and to be highly successful for every party so far as getting out the vote goes.
I was very impressed with the returning officer in County Tyrone. He told me, among other things, that he was also concerned to get the greatest possible response that day, and that he had, therefore, asked the Army, who he agreed had to maintain a presence, to do it dis- creetly. He was delighted, therefore, when a presiding officer rang him early that day to complain about the lack of an Army presence. The returning officer checked with the Army and was assured that soldiers were there already. He was very pleased that the Army was doing what he had asked, doing its job but with the greatest discretion.
I was therefore all the more concerned when I visited the Dungannon court house to see fusiliers with guns cocked at windows opposite the polling station, and had to push my way through the door past two more fusiliers with guns cocked into the room where polling was taking place, only to see yet another fusilier, also with his rifle cocked, stationed between the ballot boxes.
What I am saying in no way reflects upon those lads or upon the Army. I merely ask the Minister to bear in mind what the returning officer for County Tyrone said to me. Would the Minister, like that returning officer, ask the Army to do its job—of course—but also to bear in mind on polling day the need to measure the advantage of maintaining an open presence against its possible deterrent value and the need to ensure that it really cannot be discreet when it has to maintain soldiers in the vicinity of an election station—as I saw in Dungannon. I ask this simply for this further reason of participation and the widest possible response from all the electors.
I agree that there is a need for the elections to the Assembly to be held as soon as possible, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State has announced an early date. But it is also vitally important that the Assembly should meet before the passage of the constitution Bill.
Like it or not, the Members of this Assembly will be elected because of their attitude to the basic proposals in the White Paper. With respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills), even at this early stage those proposals are clearly understood by the people of Northern Ireland, who have already formed their opinions about them. Therefore, the Assembly will very accurately reflect the opinions of the mass of the people throughout Northern Ireland, and the balance will be struck accordingly. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), I fear that the advocates of the PR system will be surprised.
When the will of the electorate has been clearly expressed, how can this House of Commons set aside or defy the views of an Assembly which has recently been elected on rules devised by the Westminster Parliament?
When it comes to the orders which will govern the mechanics of the election, it is important that the Secretary of State should do his best to lay before the House in draft form roughly what he proposes to do, so that there may be scope for discussion and, if necessary, changes before the orders are brought before the House to be debated and voted upon. If the Secretary of State says that is not possible, or if there is a technical reason why it would not be possible, I ask him seriously to consider the possibility of consulting the leaders and the representatives of the parties from Northern Ireland in the House. By so doing he would find that he would be able to iron out a great many of the difficulties which arose, for example, in the later stages of the border poll operation. It was only with great difficulty that many of those problems were overcome in time to get the poll going.
I refer particularly to two difficulties which are related. The first concerns the hours of the poll, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. I suggest that this period is not long enough. If it is felt that an extension would, perhaps, place too great a strain on the staffs and the security forces, some thought should be given to allowing a generous overlap at either end to avoid the difficulty encountered by people travelling quite a distance from their place of employment and not having an opportunity to make use of the half hour in the morning. If they were to have an additional period at the end, it would avoid the rush which we would undoubtedly have at practically all polling stations in the final hour. I have known some people who had to be excluded because they were in a queue which had to be cut off when the polling station closed at the appointed hour.
To a great extent, this matter is related to the problem of the position of the polling stations. If the polling stations are to be restricted, as they were on the occasion of the border poll, obviously the congestion at the polling stations, again in the vital final hour, will be very much greater. Our experience did not show that the wider postal voting facilities did very much to lessen that difficulty. There was the unexpected problem of five or six polling districts suddenly finding that they had to make use of the facilities of a relatively cramped polling station.
When my right hon. Friend and his colleagues are drawing up the scheme of polling stations, I ask that they give rather more thought to accessibility. I hope that they will bear in mind that in many cases the towns in Northern Ireland, for security reasons, are closed to traffic. There were many examples of polling stations situated in a cul-de-sac. One can imagine the traffic situation, with drivers endeavouring to get in and out through a very narrow bottlenect in the evening. Those points should be examined carefully.
I conclude with my views on the vexed question on the polling agents. I cannot understand what all the fuss is about. I could understand it if elections in Northern Ireland were conducted on rules devised by the Unionist Party.
It has been my duty to act as election agent at two elections for the Parliament at Westminster. Therefore, I can claim to know at least a little about this subject. I take the liberty of reading to the House the instructions to polling agents. These are contained in "Parker's election guide" on page 19. They are set out very closely in parliamentary election rule No. 33.
(a) To prevent any person, other than the real person on the register, or the real proxy from applying for a ballot paper or voting, and any person from voting by himself or by proxy, a second time.
(b) To prevent any person from applying for a ballot paper or voting as proxy for a dead or fictitious person or from voting as proxy when his appointment as such is no longer in force.
(c) To keep, upon his copy of the register, a correct record of the voters who have polled.
(d)To take an exact note of any irregularity, or of anything unusual occurring in the station.
(e) To be present at the marking by the presiding officer of the votes of blind, physically incapable, Jewish, and illiterate voters.
There are many other points with which I shall not weary the House. I have mentioned the point about the sealing of
the ballot box when polling is completed. I have seen this done on many occasions. This is provided for in an Act of Parliament—of this Parliament at Westminster. It is not an invention of the Stormont Parliament, far less of the Ulster Unionist Party.
On the point about whether polling agents should have a right to inspect the empty ballot box, one hon. Member of the Opposition said that, as he understood it, the ballot box arrived already sealed. That is absolute nonsense. It is clearly stated on page 173 of Parker's guide, that
Just before the commencement of the poll, the presiding officer shall show the ballot box empty to such persons, if any, as may be present in the station, so that they may see that it is empty, and shall then lock it up and place his seal upon it in such a manner as to prevent its being opened without breaking the seal, and shall place it in his view for the receipt of ballot papers, and keep it so locked and sealed.
That reference is in Parliamentary Election Rule No. 35. All this makes one feel very uneasy as to how elections for this Parliament have been carried out in the past.
The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) seemed to want it both ways. He seemed to say that it was utterly wrong for the polling agents to be seated anywhere near the table. He also said that he had disapproved of the practice where the polling agents were standing somewhere near the door to the polling station and not seated—the practice about which he complained. He suggested that they should not even be in the room. However, in view of the rules that I have read to the House how could polling agents be expected to observe and carry out their duties if they were not in the room in which balloting was taking place and if they were not situated convenient to the ballot box for which they were responsible and to which they had been allocated?
Some hon. Members have regarded with mock horror the suggestion of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) that in some cases polling agents felt it necessary to assist and advise the presiding officer. When I called on one of the polling stations in my constituency during the border poll, I was informed reliably that it was one of the political agents who caused the presiding officer to stop the improper practice of marking on the face of the ballot paper the voter's electoral number, which could have had serious consequences, and which, I understand, would have caused those ballot papers to be rejected as spoiled papers when it came to the count. I have no knowledge of how that matter was dealt with, but I understand that the rules were very tightly applied in those cases. This again proves that the polling agents act responsibly and in accordance with the laws laid down by this Westminster Parliament; and that they take their duties seriously.
I have been absolutely appalled by the amount of ignorance of the basic electoral laws that has been displayed in this debate. I must warn the House that I will seek an early opportunity, if it is not too late, to call for an inquiry into the practices followed here in Great Britain in the 19'70 election. Whatever might be the result of such an inquiry, and whatever might be its effect on the fortunes of hon Members, the one thing certain is that the abysmal ignorance of their own electoral law displayed here by hon. Members will cause many people in Northern Ireland to question the right of such people to impose on those in Northern Ireland electoral structures which they do not particularly want.
I am sure that when various hon. Members representing English constituencies and their various election workers become aware that their electior practices are to be investigated by a member of the Ulster Unionist Party they will quake with fear, because they know that he will attend such an inquiry with clean hands and without blemish or stain in respect of the history of his party.
Representation in Fermanagh and South Tyrone has been mentioned by a number of speakers, including the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), and it appears from the figures that there is a case for another seat there. I speak a little with tongue in cheek because it is certain that were another seat to be added it would go to a Unionist and I could then be accused by people who might otherwise support me of campaigning to get the Unionist Party another seat. Nevertheless, a breakdown of the figures indicates under-representation and I ask the Secretary of State to see whether he cannot bring Fermanagh and South Tyrone into line with the rest of the constituencies.
I urge on the right hon. Gentleman the need to maintain the postal vote with the same arrangements, if possible, as obtained for the border poll. The postal vote is vitally important. Everyone in the House who has the slightest knowledge of Northern Ireland must know that much depends on the district from which a voter comes. For instance, East Belfast is an area in which most of the anti-Unionists—or Catholics, to put it bluntly —have been intimated. On polling day those opposing them will assume that 999 per cent. of them will vote for an anti-Unionist type of candidate and think it a good idea not to let them approach the polling station.
There are two ways of ensuring that that does not happen. The first is to allow those who are in that situation, or anyone else who wishes to do so, to use the postal vote. They will not then be placing themselves in real or imaginary danger by approaching a polling station.
The other vitally important method is the siting of polling stations. We know that the number of these stations was greatly reduced for the border poll, but on this next occasion we should return at least to the system as it was at the last Westminster election. The coming election will be confusing enough for people. They will have to travel longer distances either way, and spend a longer time inside the station. It will all take a little longer. As one hon. Member pointed out, this time it will be less easy for a voter to personate. Instead of a voter slipping into the station, putting his cross on the paper and slipping out again, as hitherto, he will have to spend more time in choosing from a panel of several candidates. During that time the polling agent will be able to note the colour of the man's shoes or suit, so that if he comes back to vote a second time the chances of his being recognised will be greater than they were under the previous system.
The hon. Member mentioned my constituency but he is wrong in what he says. At the border poll the number of polling stations was exactly the same as at all ordinary elections. One of these polling stations was in the New Lodge Road, where the majority of the minority—the Republicans—were supposed to vote. I can tell the hon. Member that if no minority votes were cast in the New Lodge Road polling station it was certainly not the result of the location of that station.
That may be true but I was not speaking of areas like the New Lodge Road.
I view a little sceptically the figure mentioned by the hon. Member for Antrim, North of those people who are disqualified. This election will be fought on the basis of a Stormont election as opposed to a Westminster election. That means that persons from the Republic of Ireland who have not lived in Northern Ireland for seven years cannot vote. They may have lived there for six-and-half years, but they still cannot vote. There are about 7,000 of them. People in the minority will see members of the Armed Forces who may have been in Northern Ireland for one, two or three years and will greatly resent their presence because they will be entitled to vote in the election while those who have not attained the seven-year residential qualification will be excluded. I ask the Secretary of State to change the regulations in that respect so that the maximum number of people are given the opportunity to vote.
Another vexed question is entitlement to stand for election. At the moment, Sinn Fein and various other organisations are banned. Many people have argued that these restrictions should be lifted, and with that argument I totally agree. Some have advanced the argument for ignoble and ulterior motives, thinking that if these people stand for election they will be decimated, or slaughtered— that all sorts of dreadful things will happen to them. That might suit the purpose of some in this House, but the better approach is that of a free election.
For the first time in four or five years the people will have freedom to record their votes, but how can it be described as a really free election if certain people are specifically excluded from standing? I urge that these restrictions be removed in order that we can have really free elections in Northern Ireland, at which people can freely present themselves to the electorate and at which the electorate can vote freely.
The Government view is that these people are to be excluded because on one day they want to be involved in politics and on others in violence. If that is the Government's view—and it is not necessarily mine—what is the situation of the Ulster Defence Association, which the Government freely admit has been involved in violence against the security forces? There is no suggestion—nor am I saying that there should be any suggestion—that they should be excluded from the election. I am saying that the rules do not appear to be the same in both cases. For example, Mr. Craig is on record as saying on many occasions that if the British Government do not do what he wants, or what his supporters want, he and his supporters will take up guns and fight. That is a clear declaration of intent.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North has said that if there is an attempt by this House to put Northern Ireland into a united Ireland he will fight.
The hon. Gentleman has said that he will defend Ulster to the last drop of his considerable amount of blood. That is a clear declaration of intent to use violence if the ballot box fails. What is the difference? Can the Government point out the difference?
I made it clear in this House that if, against the wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland, this House attempted to put the North of Ireland into the South of Ireland I and many thousands more like me would fight. When the majority ceases to be the majority I shall abide by the democratic process.
That is a direct challenge which has been unequivocally and publicly stated to the Government that are supposed to be the overall authority in the United Kingdom. It is said, "If you do that sort of thing we will fight."
On the other hand, the Government say that people cannot use the ballot box one day and the gun the next. But the argument is not carried through to its logical conclusion. If that is the Government's position, all people who have been involved in violence or who have threatened violence should be treated equally. I am not suggesting for one moment that Mr. Craig, the UDA or anybody else should be prevented from taking part in elections. I am saying that in the eyes of the minority this is another example when there appears to be one law for one side and another law for the other.
Further, quite apart from the question of who stands or whose name is allowed to go on the ballot paper, there are other things that will interfere with the freedom of the elections. I refer to the activities of the security forces. The other night a relatively small incident took place in my area which indicates to people of Republican persuasion that even if they were allowed to contest elections they would be likely to get a hostile receptian from the security forces.
A number of people in my area attempted to hold a meeting to arrange for a commemoration service on Easter Sunday. Everybody in the House will be aware of what Easter Sunday means in Ireland. All the persons going to the meeting were arrested by the security forces and put into a public house. Most of them, or many of them, were keeping Lent. That was a further infliction of torture upon them. They had taken a pledge against alcoholic spirits during Lent.
They were placed by the Army in a public house and they were:not allowed to have a meeting. Those people have said to me, "It is said that restrictions should be lifted on the Sinn Fein and other organisations. Even if they are, how will we be able to take part in an election campaign or have any reasonable chance of putting forward our point of view when we cannot go to a meeting to plan a simple commemoration without being arrested? "
If the hon. Gentleman will give me the exact details of the case to which he has referred I shall be pleased to look into the matter. I must have details of when the incident happened, what the proposals were, what the people who attended wanted to do, and who they were. When I am given those details I shall certainly investigate the case.
I shall be pleased to furnish full details.
Another situation which mitigates entirely against any sort of election is that which has arisen and which continues to exist in South Armagh due to the excesses of the paratroopers. The Secretary of State is well aware of the position. The minority community in the South Armagh area have got together— including the SDLP and the extreme aspects of Republicanism—and agreed that in the present circumstances, and unless and until the paratroopers are instructed to behave themselves a little better or are removed from the area altogether, they cannot see any point in elections.
If it is the Government's intention that there should be elections, and if they intend to get politics going again in Northern Ireland, the Army is going the right way to ensure that there will be no participation in any elections.
What has happened in South Armagh might very well tomorrow happen in other areas. It is clear that there is a danger of such a thing happening in the Ardoyne and parts of the Falls. The anti-Unionist community is being forced to have another look at the prospect of participating in elections. It is said "We have a White Paper and there are certain things in the White Paper which we like, but the Secretary of State, in giving it to us, has said ' There you are, there is your political chance.'" They feel that the Secretary of State has a big stick behind his back and is ready to hit over the head anyone who does not welcome the White Paper.
Would it not be right to say that in Belfast there was the commemoration of the shooting by the security forces of an officer of the Irish Republican Army—Joe McCann—and that yesterday over 1,000 people attended a commemoration service without let or hindrance? Is it not also true that another officer of the IRA who was shot had a large funeral in the city of Armagh? Is it not true that people paraded in IRA uniforms and fired volleys over the coffin of that funeral without let or hindrance and without being molested? Those matters should be borne in mind. Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that there will be a boycott of the elections?
I am suggesting no such thing. I am trying to inform the House of what I believe to be a growing feeling within the minority community. I am trying to indicate the way in which that community sees matters developing. They see the White Paper presented in this way—"The White Paper has been published in such terms as to make any reasonable person wish to agree with it. Therefore, anyone who does not agree with it is unreasonable and an extremist. We have an army to deal with such people."
One man from Armagh said to me, "The Republican clubs are now off the banned list, but how many Republican club members will be left alive by the time the elections come?" Two men were shot in Armagh. I was told that they were two prospective local government candidates. There are not all that many prospective candidates, and two have gone already. Who knows, by the time the elections come there will not be many more.
Hon. Members may shake their heads, tut-tut, and say that this is dreadful talk, but it is happening. Unless the Secretary of State instructs the leaders of the Army to tell their men to behave themselves and to stop harassing the minority areas, there is every possibility that politics will not get off the ground. If those steps are not taken, there is every possibility that the minority will be forced to the conclusion that there is no point in going to the ballot box when there are soldiers breathing down their necks every minute of every day.
The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. McManus) makes me wonder how my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in a broadcast on 28th March could say that he felt that the holding of the plebiscite had taken the border completely out of politics in Northern Ireland. Anyone who has listened to speeches advocating that members of the Sinn Fein should be entitled to fight the elections as a political party will realise that the border is far from out of politics in Northern Ireland. I venture to suggest that it is much more firmly entrenched in Northern Ireland's politics than it has been at any time for the last 50 years. I say that with great regret.
I welcome the Bill, as I have previously made clear. However, there are a number of points in it which I should like my right hon. Friend to clarify.
There is one point in particular which I want to refer to. I have had correspondence with my right hon. Friend about it, so he knows my views. This concerns the lifetime of the Assembly. If my right hon. Friend expects the Assembly to be more democratic than the Stormont Parliament, in the sense that parties will split up and there will perhaps be regular changes of Government, I do not think that the four-year period proposed is the right length. Very few Parliaments last their full term, and the life of the Assembly is, therefore, more likely to be two or three years, which is too short a period for a Parliament to be efficient. I should like my right hon. Friend to look at this point again and consider whether the period should not be five years, as at Westminster. I think that this would be more appropriate.
I do not want to go too far down side waters. I know that the Bill applies only to the first Assembly, but the example it sets is likely to be followed thereafter. I believe that it is right to fix the period. Indeed, I think that Parliament at Westminster might benefit from an extended term—say, six or seven years. But certainly five years is the minimum for any Parliament in order to give coherent and stable government with the Government working on policies and being able to put them into effect.
Another aspect is the number of constituencies. Like others, I am surprised at the number 78 which has been pulled out of the hat. I believe that it would have been more sensible to adopt another idea which has been canvassed in Northern Ireland. This was that there should be one Member per 10,000 electors. This would have given the Assembly about 100 seats. One wonders whether proportional representation would have been necessary under that system.
I presume that proportional representation has been introduced in order to give the minority a better show. I say that I presume it has because, although it is one of the fundamental recommendations of the White Paper, I have heard little argument as to exactly why proportional representation has been adopted as opposed to the system of single-seat constituencies. As I say, presumably it is in order to give the minority a greater show, but the disadvantages have also been canvassed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills) referred to the merits of proportional representation. But it has one substantial deficiency. This is that, in such large constituencies, with five, six or seven Members, the personal connection between the Members and their constituents is broken. That is a considerable disadvantage. It is a powerful argument in favour of having an increased number of single-Member constituencies, thereby getting round the obstacle of ensuring representation of all shades of opinion.
My hon. Friend also called for a poll on the White Paper. I am not too happy about that suggestion, and have not been since I first saw it in The Times. I feel that it would place people who object to the recommendations of the White Paper in a very difficult position. If they were to vote in a plebiscite against the White Paper and lost, what would they do? Is it not more likely that they would become polarised and go forward perhaps with a chip on their shoulder, either not prepared to participate or—if they were extremist—wishing to destroy the Assembly and the framework of government set up?
I accept that this was a novel proposal and that it is now water under the bridge. But it was an attempt to ensure that whatever proposals were in the White Paper should be underwritten by a broad cross-section of the people. Of course I see the problems, but I think that in retrospect one may feel as things develop that it was a wise suggestion.
I accept that. It is really a matter of choice between the advantage of having the opinion of the people of Northern Ireland voiced in this fashion and the disadvantages of polarising opinion.
I turn now to the role of the Secretary of State. I realise that this topic will perhaps come better on the constitutional Bill, but we are now considering a Bill to set up the new Assembly, and, therefore, I feel it germane to consider fundamental matters such as the role that the Secretary of State will have. Clause 2 (5) and Clause 3 (3) contain wide provisions in relation not only to the mechanics of the election but to the powers of the Secretary of State. These provisions are rather too wide, and I would rather not see them left in the hands of the Secretary of State. If the Assembly is to become a true Parliament of Northern Ireland, giving sufficient cause to Her Majesty's Government to hold down the number of Northern Ireland Members at Westminster, surely the Secretary of State should not have so much power. He cannot have it both ways.
I was perhaps arguing from the particular to the general. I was arguing that, as the Secretary of State is taking wide powers in the Bill in connection with the holding of the election, he might well argue in future that he should exercise wide powers of control over the new Executive in Northern Ireland. I hope that this does not turn out to be the case. I would welcome reassurance on this point tonight from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State.
I now move to some of the matters on which I would like clarification. We have to consider rapidly what amend- ments we propose to put down to the Bill. Unless these matters are cleared up. therefore, our decision on the amendments to be framed will not be easy to formulate.
First, I would like my hon. Friend to say something in his reply about the relationship he expects between the Assembly and the Executive to be set up. Secondly, can he clarify further the degree of financial independence which is to be exercised by the Assembly? Thirdly, there is the question of the control over internal security—another matter which I know the Secretary of State is concerned about and which is of very great importance in Northern Ireland. Can my hon. Friend go further than has been done so far and explain what the Secretary of State's intention is in connection with the control of internal security— that is, the police?
I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend yet again, but he has raised three points and I would not wish anyone to feel that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is being discourteous if he does not deal with them when he replies. All these matters are the concern of the main constitutional Bill, and the points put by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) will certainly be given consideration in the drafting of that Bill. They are not matters for this Bill, which is concerned specifically with the election. I do not want to stop my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East from making these points, but I emphasise that one cannot expect my hon. Friend the Undersecretary of State to refer to them in his reply tonight.
I am most grateful to the Secretary of State. But you will probably see what I am worried about, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are putting the cart before the horse; we are being asked to vote for the setting up of an Assembly when we do not know what it will do or what its powers will be. We are being invited to give the Government a blank cheque. That is why I deal now with these general matters rather than with more detailed matters which can be dealt with by way of amendments. I accept my right hon. Friend's statement with that qualification.
What will be the system of postal votes? Will people on holiday within the United Kingdom or in Northern Ireland be entitled to them? There has been a change in the law recently. Will it apply in Northern Ireland?
I turn to a question which has been debated widely by hon. Members on both sides, and particularly the hon. Members for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy)— whether the Sinn Fein movement should be entitled to fight the election. I strongly disagree with some of the arguments advanced on both sides.
With reference to the militant role of the Ulster Defence Association compared with the IRA, I invite hon. Members to consider the history of the past three years. There have been more than 750 deaths in Northern Ireland. More than 150 soldiers have been shot. The IRA has claimed responsibility for each death, not only of soldiers but of police, reserve police and members of the Ulster Defence Regiment, men who were serving their country and trying to protect their homes. Each was assassinated, often brutally and callously, by the IRA.
The Sinn Fein is the political wing of the IRA. Can we allow members of a body declaring itself to be the political wing of another organisation, which employs force for a seditious end, to fight an election? That is totally unacceptable in Northern Ireland. I ask my right hon. Friend to consider that point very seriously.
A number of hon. Members have referred to the disparity between the numbers of electors per Member of the new Assembly. I suppose that I am one of the few Members who have been subjected in another capacity to the rigours of an election under the single transferable vote. I am a member of the Political Purposes Committee of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, which has well over 500,000 members, and which uses that system. It is a most complex system of voting, requiring considerable care in explanation to the electorate, at least on the first occasion when it is used. Therefore, I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement that he will publish two documents, a short version and a more detailed version of how the system works.
It is important in a single transferable vote system that emphasis is put on equality, as near as possible, in the numbers of electors, because it is the percentage of votes cast, divided according to a formula, that determines the quota on which a man is elected without the necessity of other votes being transferred. If there are wide discrepancies in the numbers of electors for a seat, there can be a wide disparity between constituency and constituency.
However, I had really wanted to deal with other matters raised by the Bill. First, although the Secretary of State has announced 28th June as election day, I regret that he did not see fit to postpone the local government elections and that they are still to take precedence over that far more important occasion. The right hon. Gentleman always finds a reason to reject the Opposition's proposals on these matters, despite the apparent co-operation that the Opposition are giving him in the passage of the Bill.
My argument is not based on the date of 28th June. The Opposition asked for June, and the right hon. Gentleman has just squeezed the election in by a couple of days. My argument is based upon the Opposition's legitimate request that he should postpone the local government elections. The case was made by the Opposition side, and by some on the Conservative side, that the local government elections would cause confusion, that they would be exposed to being fought on the issues of the White Paper rather than on local government issues.
The Secretary of State tried to get round the point with the red herring of the date of 28th June, which my hon. Friends also support. He tried to get away from the charge I am making that on questions such as the postponement of the local government elections, and, I have no doubt, on many other points in the passage of this and future Bills, he will still steadfastly refuse to accept the crucial points made by my right hon. and hon. Friends. There is no doubt that the postponement of the local government elections was such a crucial point.
Some hon. Members seem to think that the Bill should be rushed through the House. I urge that we take a little time. The Bill gives the Secretary of State wide powers. Although he told the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) that it was only for one election to the Assembly, it still gives him tremendous powers. It will be taken as a precedent when we come to decide the long-term position. The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt say then "You accepted this for the first election to the Assembly. I exercised those powers all right then. You cannot deny them to me now that I am asking for them again."
The right hon. Gentleman may well say that.
The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) gave us a detailed lecture on United Kingdom electoral law as it affects the Westminster Parliament, and expressed surprise that one or two hon. Members had apparently not fully studied and understood their own electoral system.
The difference between the rest of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland is that we have reached a stage when it is no longer the custom and practice, because it is no longer necessary, to appoint polling agents to protect us against impersonation in our elections for the Westminster Parliament. Impersonation is a very minor matter in this country, though it does happen. I recall someone in my constituency being sentenced to six months in prison a few years ago for impersonating a voter. I think that it was in one of the elections during the 1950s.
We do not appoint polling agents. On a purely non-statutory basis we appoint tellers to stand outside the polling stations to ask electors voluntarily to give them their electoral numbers, so that we may request those of our declared supporters who have not yet recorded their vote to do so as soon as possible.
That is the difference between the practice in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We do not have the same problem and, therefore, have not operated what to us are obscure and unnecessary provisions in the electoral law. That does not mean that Labour Party election agents do not know about the law. They do, and if necessary all electoral regulations could be put into effect. It is not because of ignorance that they are not operated; it is because there is no necessity.
The point which was troubling some Conservative hon. Members was the assertion that these were irregularities. The suggestion was made that it was wrong for a polling agent to be viewing the voting. As my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) pointed out, these people were acting within the law. There was a bit of hilarity even from the Front Bench about the point that a polling agent had no right even to watch the presiding agent doing his duty. It was on the legal point that we felt the House should be informed.
I have made my point and explained why we are not all absolutely familiar with these provisions. In my view, it is undesirable that polling agents should sit within the polling station. I believe it would be better if they were outside. It should be done on a voluntary basis, near the polling station, not inside.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not have any experience of a poll in the middle of winter in Northern Ireland when it can be very cold and wet. How does he expect the polling agent, operating from outside, to be able to check and watch in poor weather and bad light? If he is inside he will also be able to observe the way in which the poll is conducted.
I have no reason to believe that those who are politically interested in Northern Ireland are any less hardy than the politically interested in England, Scotland or Wales. I can assure the hon. Gentleman, and I can here only speak for my own English constituency, that we are sufficiently hardy to stand outside polling stations in cold weather. If it is any consolation to him I can tell him that I was elected to this House in November 1965 on a day when the heavens opened and the rain cascaded down for almost the whole of the time that the polling stations were open. Despite that, every polling station was manned by tellers of my party, and, as far as I am aware, there was no impersonation. We had a very good turn-out, as a result of which I am here. I am sure that the same thing could be done in Northern Ireland.
I would like to complete my hon. Friend's education on this point.I do not think that he ought to go away with the impression that we do not have tellers in Northern Ireland. We do. In the recent election there were some tellers outside. They each had a register that had been marked up with postal votes and everything else. This is how they voluntarily get the information, standing outside the station. This is in addition to the other practices which have been described.
I agree that it is highly desirable that this should be done outside the polling station.
The point I wanted to raise was in connection with the wide powers which the Secretary of State is taking in Clauses 2 and 3. These give him the power to create criminal offences and to alter the circumstances in which disqualification can be imposed. We ought not to pass such a Bill dealing with electoral law in Northern Ireland which gives the Secretary of State such wide powers. Many examples have been quoted of what some consider to be unusual practices. I put it no higher than that. Everything which the Secretary of State does in connection with this Bill should be subject to an affirmative order in this House. I hope that my hon. Friends will not accept any smooth answers from the Secretary of State as to why certain things are not expedient for these elec tions. It is absolute vital that we as a House have the right to confirm any regulations which the Secretary of State may wish to make.
I do not take the view that because the Secretary of State is a fairly affable chap he is in some way different from the rest of Government Ministers. He is a Conservative Minister and should receive from Labour Members exactly the same sort of scrutiny as any other Conservative Minister. I am somewhat perturbed at the close affinity which appears to be building up in all sections of the House with the right hon. Gentleman. I do not take the view that, although we can call this the most reactionary Tory Government of the century in an industrial relations context, when it comes to Northern Ireland we can all be buddies together and push legislation through the House.
In any case, the Secretary of State of today may not be the Secretary of State of tomorrow. My hon. and right hon. Friends may be giving powers in this measure which would be exercised by someone whom they do not hold in quite such high esteem as they appear to hold the present Secretary of State. I hope that the Under-Secretary will give an unqualified undertaking that the Government will accept a manuscript amendment saying that the powers of the Secretary of State in relation to this measure shall be subject to an affirmative vote by this Parliament. If that cannot be given I hope that some of my hon. Friends at least will join me in saying "No" to the Bill.
I welcome the early opportunity being given to the people of Northern Ireland to express their views through the ballot box. It is a long time since there has been an election to what was the Stormont Parliament. Some people in Northern Ireland feel that some of the present Stormont Members do not necessarily reflect their opinions. The law-abiding majority have been waiting patiently to reply to the enemies of Ulster who have had it so good for so long. I congratulate my right hon. Friend upon fixing the election for 28th June. That will give pleasure to all in Northern Ireland except, perhaps, the extreme Republicans who are not interested in the democratic processes. They are the people who largely cause the trouble in Northern Ireland.
I do not like the idea of proportional representation, when it is not applicable to Great Britain. Perhaps there will now be greater support for its application throughout the United Kingdom. It is good to see the hon. Membed for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) present representing the Liberal Party. No doubt his party's numbers would be increased considerably if proportional representation were introduced in Great Britain. The loyal people of Northern Ireland will respond to the challenge that this election gives them and will not leave this House in any doubt about the strong feeling of the majority in that beleagured and hard-pressed Province.
My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) emphasised that the election must be seen to be fair and just. That is most important. But the Secretary of State misleads himself if he discounts the complaints about the present electoral register. I challenge my right hon. Friend to state the number of complaints about the register which have been made on previous occasions and the number which the chief electoral officer has received about the present electoral roll. If the computer was at fault, the electors should not be disenfranchised. It is imperative that a corrected register should be produced, otherwise the grave dissatisfaction which has been felt will colour people's approach to the vital election on 28th June. Many of the complaints about the register have been made by people who are not normally politically active, and by professional people, who have suddenly found their names removed from the register, through no fault of theirs, and who have therefore been deprived of the opportunity to expressed their opinions through the ballot box.
The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. McManus) launched a bitter attack—perhaps less bitter than normal—on the members of the security forces which I do not think many people in the House appreciated. I had nothing but the greatest sympathy for the security forces during the border poll, and their job in the coming election will be four time more difficult because there will be election meetings throughout the Province. They will have a grave and difficult task in providing protection for the candidates and, on election day, for people going to the polling stations. We should always praise the soldiers, who have a thankless task.
However, the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone at least agreed that there was under-representation for his area. That is borne out by the figures which my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North gave. In West Belfast one needs only 11,865 votes for a candidate to be elected on the first count, but in what I would describe as a Unionist or anti-Republican constituency, such as South Antrim, one needs 14,394 votes to be elected on the first count. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, to the west of the Bann, one needs 13,917 votes. The Government emphasise how meticulously fair they have been to everyone in Northern Ireland, but those figures do not bear out their statement. There should be another Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. There are discrepancies in other constituencies.
Another question to which I wish to refer relates to polling stations. Their number was reduced for the border poll. That must not be repeated in the election to the Assembly. It created great hardship in my constituency, and I am sure that that hardship was reflected in other agricultural constituencies throughout Northern Ireland. Some old people, and young mothers with children, had to travel considerable distances to polling stations. They did not have cars—or cars were not provided for them. The political parties in Northern Ireland do not have the sums of money behind them which the Labour Party and Tory Party have in England, and they cannot provide travel facilities. The situation is not fair or democratic. The Government must promise to provide the same number of polling stations for the election on 28th June as operated in all the previous Stormont elections.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the polling stations would remain open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There was a valid reason for limiting the time that they were open during the border poll, although it was regrettable. I visited polling stations on the west side of my constituency, at Hillsborough, and people were still coming to vote at 8 o'clock at night. I could understand why the stations were closed at that hour because it was dark at that time of year, but on 28th June it will remain light until very late. The polling stations should be kept open until the time to which we have become accustomed.
Not only are people in Northern Ireland accustomed to voting in the evening, as is the case in the rest of the United Kingdom; we shall have a completely foreign system of voting—proportional representation—which will cause difficulties for the electors. At the polling stations people will be presented with long lists of candidates, and it will take time for them to go through the lists and understand what they have to do. They will have to gather their thoughts and then spend time in working out the order in which they vote for some or all of the candidates.
It will be grossly unfair if the polling stations are closed at 8 p.m. I appreciate the heavy burden placed on the security forces, but it is essential that everyone in Northern Ireland, irrespective of politics, should be able to vote—and most people vote in the evenings.
It would even be all right for the Secretary of State to say that the polling stations should not open until 9 a.m. but should stay open until 9 p.m. The extra hour in the evening is far more important in allowing people to get to the polls. If it is a question of strain on the security forces, it is better to lose an hour in the morning rather than in the evening.
I agree, save that in Belfast, for instance, many people prefer to vote as they go to work in the morning. However, if it is a question of hardship on the security forces, the period during which the polling stations are open should be extended to 9 p.m. It is essential in this election, above all, to have the maximum period to enable people to cast their votes, and the Government should ensure that the polls are kept open for the ordinary period.
The Bill before the House today, in terms of its consequences, may outstrip even the Act of Union of 1801. When that Bill was being debated in this House no one could have foreseen the profound effects which the union of the two Kingdoms of England and Ireland would have on the British constitution or the responsibilities of the British Government. We should have to be blessed with political foresight of a very high order to see the consequences of setting up this new Northern Ireland Assembly. We could be setting in train in this country a process of political change which would have far-reaching consequences on the unitary system of government. No doubt, the Scots and the Welsh will be awaiting the result of the Crowther—or as it is now called, the Kilbrandon—Report. I do not know why there is such great delay in producing that report. But no doubt the Scots and the Welsh will have an interest in the system which is being established in Northern Ireland today, because it might be repeated in their parts of the United Kingdom in time to come.
By the Act of Union, 500 years of Irish parliamentary life was extinguished. Fifty years of Northern Irish parliamentary life is for ever extinguished by this Bill. Lord Castlereagh's measure cost the English Treasury £1¼ million in compensation. "Bloody Castlereagh", as he was called by the Dublin mob, placed a value on every man; he bought out he said, "the fee simple of Irish corruption."My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is getting his way at a bargain price —£250,000 for the salaries and allowances of the 78 Members of the new Assembly and another £250,000 for alimony for the Members of the old Stormont.
It is interesting in this context to remember that one of the Members of Stormont, a friend of the hon. Member for Antrim, North, Mr. John McQuaid, resigned his seat and his salary and went back to the only job he had as a docker when Stormont was suspended.
He did it voluntarily but—I am open to correction—he did not wish to take part in the farce which the suspension of Stormont created.
Irish historians are always making comparisons between the Union of Scotland and England and of Ireland and England, but as least in the former case the plans were agreed by parliamentary commissions of both Parliaments, and Scotland retained much of her own identity. But in 1801 Ireland was completely submerged in the larger Kingdom.
No parliamentary commission preceded the present Bill. Stormont was wound up and it was cleared out of the way and replaced by a kind of dictatorship or, virtually, government by decree. All and sundry were invited to put forward their ideas for a new kind of government in Northern Ireland. The unelected, who represented no one but themselves, were given equal status with the elected representatives of the people, and took part in the Darlington talks, which were a marvellous piece of showmanship by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
Between the date of the election—28th June—and March 1974, the Ulster Assembly will concentrate on the machinery for devolving powers in Northern Ireland. The actual powers to be devolved will presumably be the subject of the second Bill. I go along with what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) had to say in respect of the main Bill.
However, we have here a real Irish situation. An Assembly is to be elected and yet it has no powers, no revenues, no legislative functions. It has not even got the right to decide when it will first meet, or the place of meeting, or the time of meeting. All the important questions are to be "as the Secretary of State may direct".
I cannot understand why this Bill cannot provide for the new assembly to meet at Stormont, or why the power must be given to my right hon. Friend to decide where it should meet—unless it is to meet in the Portadown Parliament, or Dungiven Castle, where the Republicans held one of their parliamentary gatherings.
Not in the Dail, nor Dungiven Castle.
I want to take up a point made by the leader of the Liberal Party during the debate on the White Paper. It was not referred to by the Liberal Party spokesman today, and I can understand why, since it was fully explored by the leader of the Liberal Party during the debate on the White Paper. He wondered whether there might be a case for the presence of hon. Members from Northern Ireland in an ex-officio capacity in the new Ulster Assembly. He thought their presence might be a useful form of cross-fertilisation between the Assembly and this House. There are substantial reasons for dual membership, and I would go along with this idea, because, according to the White Paper, the Secretary of State will retain the power to intervene in the acts of the Assembly. He can withhold his consent to its demands, and veto its actions. The Secretary of State will no doubt inform this House from time to time, when he has to take action of this sort. The Ulster Members must be able to ventilate their views in the only real Parliament in existence in the United Kingdom. In the old Stormont, the Government of Ireland Act and the conventions which grew up out of it prevented this House from questioning the actions of the Northern Ireland Parliament.
As I understand it, the position in relation to the new Northern Ireland Assembly will be different. While the limits of its responsibilities will be clear and unambiguous, ultimate responsibility will rest at Westminster, even for the devolved powers. Hon. Members from Northern Ireland, as ex-officio members of the Assembly, could provide a direct channel between the members of the Assembly and this House, thus complementing the official position of the Secretary of State.
That is all I wish to say. I do not wish to detain the House any longer, except to say that I share in the criticism expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the powers taken in this Bill by the Secretary of State. He is creating a strange Assembly. It is really more like a consultative assembly. Nevertheless, he is paying its members well—and the members of the old Stormont—perhaps in the hope of keeping them quiet. Here we have a wonderful rural picture of farmyard domesticity. It conjures up a picture of the Secretary of State, like a clucking hen, surrounded by a brood of newly hatched chicks—I am saying this for the benefit of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who is agricultural Minister in Northern Ireland—
I know. There is a saying in politics that if one waits long enough for a point of view to come from the other side it will arrive, but I never thought to see the day when a Unionist politician would criticise the proposed electoral procedure in Northern Ireland and the distribution of seats by proportional representation.
I understand the anxiety that has been expressed about the allocation of seats. On one side Mr. Austin Currie complains and on the other side Mr. John Taylor complains. It might be said that those complaints cancel each other out and that there have been no serious complaints made in the debate. The allocation based on the 12 constituencies is an expedient to ensure that the elections are held as soon as possible, and on that basis we support it, but we do not support it for all time. Although alterations could be made in Committee, it would not be possible to add one seat to West Belfast and two to Fermanagh and South Tyrone without upsetting the whole balance. There would, therefore, have to be a radical alteration.
The hon. Gentleman has always been anxious that the people of Northern Ireland should be properly and fully represented in a new Assembly at Stormont. He should, therefore, back me up in wishing to see fair representation throughout Northern Ireland. He says that the complaints of Mr. Austin Currie and Mr. John Taylor cancel each other out, but he should remember that the Alliance Party has also said that there is misrepresentation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) also commented on that. But, although the Alliance Party has criticisms, it accepts the general basis. We want to see fair play. No one has accused the Secretary of State of gerrymandering. The Opposition are saying that the allocation of seats could be improved. When the new boundaries are drawn, between now and 1980, the electoral system will be re-examined in the light of what happens in the Assembly elections. I see no impediment to going ahead with the proposals.
Hon. Members have shown a great deal of interest in what has been said about polling agents. On many occasions I have seen polling agents in the polling stations, and what concerns me is that frequently only one party is represented.
I was in one polling station in a Unionist stronghold in which the repre-sentatives of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) were present. The two young ladies told me that when they had gone to the polling station in the morning they rather expected to be thrown out, but to their surprise they were accepted, and they managed to get on reasonably well with the official Unionist polling agents. I am concerned that in the forthcoming election there will be representatives not only of the party of the hon. Member for Antrim, North and the official Unionist party but of other parties, including the minority groups such as the SDLP, the NILP, and the outright Republicans. Difficulties could arise from this if there were no proper supervision.
No doubt polling agents could attend polling stations in a parliamentary election in Great Britain, but that has not happened for many years because there has been very little impersonation and the returning officers and officials have the confidence of the people. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Atter-cliffe (Mr. Duffy) said, we are not casting doubt upon the impartiality of the returning officers in the border poll. They did an excellent job, and the fact that they did so should alleviate some of the worries that have been expressed. Polling agents of whatever party should not be allowed to sit with the polling clerks. They should be separated from them, and the representation should be kept to the minimum.
In one polling station in Londonderry the agents wore Union Jacks in their lapels. I protested about that because I thought it wrong that party favours should be displayed. But in another polling station it was difficult to see who were agents and who were polling clerks. I came to the conclusion, therefore, that it might be better for the agents to wear favours.
With the historical background, it is incumbent upon all parties and all organisations to do all they can to ensure the smooth running of the election. I hope there will not be friction in certain areas, because that could lead to trouble.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that, equally, there are areas in Northern Ireland to which members of my party, the Unionist Party and other loyalist parties would be afraid to go. In recent days no Unionist member has ventured into Toome. I put in my agents at the election, but the police had to get them out. What is true on one side is equally true on the other.
There will be areas in which it will not be possible for polling agents of all parties to be present. It will, therefore, be incumbent upon the agents who are present to act properly and impartially. Perhaps the Secretary of State will consider the desirability of repeating in the June election the parliamentary observation which took place during the border poll.
It is desirable that any parliamentary deputation from this House should study the rules under which the elections are to be held, and, particularly, the basis of the representation of the people.
We know the rules, and the hon. Gentleman referred to them previously. Perhaps he will offer to give that delegation a briefing before it goes to Northern Ireland.
It may be necessary for people to spend a long time in the polling station. I know the security problems, but the hours during which voting will take place will be daylight hours. Perhaps the Secretary of State would consider lengthening the period of time from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. or even from 7 a.m. to 8.30 p.m. During the evening of the border poll I saw polling stations packed to the doors. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider this point.
We welcome a continuation of the postal vote. It has been represented to me that in a postal vote it should not be necessary to have to apply twice —once for the local government elections and again for the Assembly elections. Would not one application be satisfactory for both elections? I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider that point, too.
The Opposition feel very strongly about the question of affirmative motions. We do not feel it right for the Government to take powers without parliamentary approval. The right hon. Gentleman-knows that there has been much argument about affirmative and negative resolutions and the lack of time for debate. I hope, therefore, that we may have an explanation from the Secretary of State on this matter. We shall be pressing the point strongly a little later in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be dealing with this matter, but I am prepared to meet the argument in the Committee stage. As an ex-Leader of the House, may I say that there would be nobody less inclined than I am to take powers without reference to the House. I do not wish to take powers without parliamentary approval, and I shall be explaining my full reasons when I come to the amendments.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that explanation.
I should like to turn to another matter which has occupied a good deal of attention in this debate. I refer to the question of the Sinn Fein being allowed to stand in the election. With the exception of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster), it must be said that most hon. Members—including the hon. Member for Antrim, North and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt)— have urged the right hon. Gentleman to look again at this issue. We realise that the right hon. Gentleman has a problem in terms of allowing the man with the gun to stand for election. We are, as is well known, completely opposed to people who use guns, but at the same time we believe that if there are people who represent a political wing in such an organisation, a ballot box test may be a more effective way of defusing that gun than are the precarious methods used by the security forces. The right hon. Gentleman has already gone a considerable way along the road in his attitude to Republican clubs, and we would ask him to consider whether he believes that it would be politically advantageous to allow all parties and organisations to stand in the election. We all appreciate that if people stand for election and are wanted by the security forces, in any event, they will come under the normal law. We want to see all people participating, because, as the hon. Member for Antrim, North said, the ballot box will decide the issue.
I have tried to emphasise some of the central points in this debate, and I have been brief because we are anxious to come to the Committee stage, in which there are still important points that remain to be examined.
I was interested in the editorial in the Irish Times on 11th April and in its attitude to the Bill. The hon. Member for Antrim, North, who is not present at the moment, may be interested to hear that the editorial took the view that people with fancy religions would be eligible to stand. I do not know what view the hon. Gentleman would take if the established church were allowed to stand, or if the Roman Catholic clergy were to stand in this election.
I must stress that the Opposition are not making this point. I am referring to the Irish Times editorial. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State will deal with that point in his reply. I am not making a major issue of it. Enough people appear to be willing to stand without having to go round looking for alternatives.
The editorial stresses that the election has already started and concludes by saying:
The show is on the road.
I agree. I believe that the election show is on the road. We welcome that fact,
and this Bill seeks to bring about this aim. There are improvements which we believe can be made, and we can deal with them in Committee. Therefore, I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
This has been an interesting and a quite long debate, and I am sure the Government are grateful for the constructive nature of the contributions which have been made.
I must begin by stressing what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in opening; namely, that we are considering an urgent operation to enable elections to be held for the new Assembly before the end of June. My right hon. Friend has now named 28th June as election day. It was the general wish of the House that this should be done and the people of Northern Ireland will look to the House to see that nothing is allowed to hinder progress.
May I begin by addressing myself to the speech of the hon. Member for Sal-ford, West (Mr. Orme)? I deal first with his point about the polling booths. In Northern Ireland, as in Great Britain, polling agents are allowed inside polling places. These persons must not be confused with checkers, who are employed unofficially by the parties and who stand outside. The recognised work on electoral procedure states:
Poll clerks can be seated on either side of the presiding officer and the candidates' polling agents next beyond the poll clerks.
I think that that makes the position clear. However, in view of the matters which have been raised, certainly my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will discuss them with the Chief Electoral Officer and, of course, the leaders of the parties. My right hon. Friend will consider carefully all that has been said today.
I now deal with the list of postal votes for the elections. It is true that one has to make only one application for a vote.
With respect, applications can be made for postal votes. That is what I was seeking to explain.
I turn now to the speech of the hon Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees). I thank him for his co-operation and for the views that he has expressed He asked a number of questions, and I shall do my best to answer them.
The Boundary Commission certainly is in operation in Northern Ireland. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is useful to discuss many of these matters now because later on they can be considered and possibly dealt with when we come to the constitutional Bill. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that it was useful to discuss these matters now.
The hon. Gentleman and a number of other hon. Members have asked about the register. I understand that the one to be used is the 1973 one, which is the latest one. We recognise that there are changes in the population. We shall be considering a number of amendments on this point in Committee. But, to be frank, there would be no time to bring in a supplementary register. It would be difficult. However, as I say, we shall go into this matter in more detail later.
Then I come to the powers of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State especially those set out in Clause 2(5)(a) to (f). These powers are necessary to conduct the election. They do no more than deal with changes required for STV, postal votes, and matters like that.
I come then to the point about affirmative orders or the negative procedure. Again, we shall go into this in much more detail in Committee. However, the timetable envisaged does not permit the affirmative procedure. It is intended to publish the election rules very soon after the Bill becomes law, and it will be necessary to start implementing them at once. That could not happen if we had to wait for an affirmative resolution. There would then be no hope for elections before the Summer Recess. The timetable is already very tight. We can return to this point in Committee. I am assured that under the negative procedure proper time will be found to discuss all these matters.
Certainly we shall consider that.
Turning to the question of the Chief Electoral Officer, his duties will include registration as returning officer. This is normal.
I was asked about casual vacancies and whether they would mean reverting to the normal voting system. There is no provision for this in the Bill. Obviously, that would be a matter for the constitutional Bill. One hon. Member asked what would happen if the gentleman concerned did not turn up. Again, there is no provision. But there is no need, even in this House, for the Member to turn up.
I come then to disqualifications for the new Assembly. Again, this is a difficult one. But these are powers which are required for dealing with this problem and with the new Assembly.
Next I deal with Sinn Fein. I understand that there is nothing in the electoral law or in the Bill to stop a member of Sinn Fein standing and putting "Sinn Fein" as his party on the ballot paper. But he will do so at his own risk. It would be quite inappropriate to use electoral law as a means of regulating which organisations are illegal in Northern Ireland. To seek special provision in the Bill is to seek to give immunity under the law to some organisations whose members are engaged in criminal activities. It is right that electoral law should not prevent anyone from standing. Equally, it is not right to give people engaged in crime an immunity which they do not enjoy at present.
I do not quite follow that. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that an individual could stand as a candidate and put "Sinn Fein" on the ballot paper after his name? For the sake of argument, let us suppose that the security forces knew nothing against him. Would he be prosecuted as a consequence? Even at the end of the hon. Gentleman's explanation I am not clear what the practical effects will be.
I do not think that I can answer that question because it is a hypothetical one anyway. But, as I say, there is nothing to stop such a person standing. That is the important point.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but this is rather important. He says that there is nothing to stop such a person standing. Why, then, is the organisation proscribed in another Bill with which we shall be dealing later?
I think that we are in a somewhat unsatisfactory situation now. We on this side of the House, supported by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), feel that we should attempt to get all shades of opinion standing in these elections as the only way to prevent political martyrs. Is it the fact, as the hon. Gentleman has argued this evening with somewhat greater clarity than I used in my opening speech because of my lack of knowledge on the matter, that, according to the electoral law, there is nothing to prevent anybody standing for Parliament, but that in Northern Ireland, because of proscription under the Special Powers Act, and as the Bill that is to come before us tomorrow is not yet the law of the land, anybody who is a member of a proscribed organisation would have to consider his position carefully? Is the hon. Gentleman telling us that if we have this view we should press it strongly tomorrow in another context rather than today in the context of electoral law?
May I ask my hon. Friend to consider carefully what he is saying? What is the effect of a body being proscribed? Is he saying that a candidate can add on the ballot paper either "Sinn Fein" or "Irish Republican Army"? If so, it is absolutely outrageous for the relatives of those who have been killed by the IRA in Northern Ireland, and it will cause chaos.
As reference has been made to me, may I ask the Minister to give way? It would be unfair to anybody in Northern Ireland to go with what has been said tonight. It is not very clear. I should think that if a man admitted on a ballot paper that he was a member of a proscribed organisation it would surely be held in evidence against him. I should like to emphasise that I was careful not to mention any organisations. I suggested that a person who believed in the political objectives of any political organisation and who is not wanted by the security forces should be entitled to stand. A Unionist or a Democratic Unionist Member could be a member of an illegal organisation, but if the police did not know that he was engaged in subversion he could still stand at the election. However, if he was a law breaker, even a Front Bench Member— I do not suggest that a Front Bencher would be engaged in anything so wrong-he should not be entitled to stand. I am sure that the Minister does not wish the impression to go out from this House that if a man says that he is a member of a proscribed organisation nothing will be done about it.
With respect, I said nothing of the kind. I was trying to be factual. I am no lawyer. I am merely stating the electoral law. My right hon. Friend has given an assurance that he will deal with this point tomorrow. I do not think that we can be fairer or clearer than that
A question was asked about citizens of the Republic standing for election to the Assembly. That is possible, subject to the normal disqualifications. I hope that I have managed to clear many of the points which have been made.
I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I understand that under the electoral law members of the British Army in Northern Ireland will be entitled to vote for election to the Assembly. Perhaps that point could be clarified. My understanding is that at the moment members of the British Army in Northern Ireland were entitled to vote in the border poll. I can understand that, because they were subjects of the United Kingdom. Will they be permitted to vote for election to the Assembly?
I think we ought to get this point clear. Speaking with knowledge of former days at the Home Office, I understand that if members of the British Army who are citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies are living in married quarters near Lisburn with their families on the day that the register is compiled they will be able to vote in Northern Ireland.
There has been a tremendous number of interruptions and I am finding it difficult enough to try to answer all the questions that have been asked without giving way yet again. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue for a little longer before the next interruption.
I noted carefully the points raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr). Obviously, he will raise many of them in Committee.
I was grateful to the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) for his support of the Bill.
I noted with interest the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). He feels very strongly that people's opinions should be put to the test. That is what this is all about. That is what the election is for. We want to get the Bill through so that people in Northern Ireland can test the water, test the candidates, and so on. To that extent my hon. Friend and I are in agreement.
My hon. Friend was concerned about the supplementary list on a register. This, too, will come up later, but my hon. Friend has heard my views on it. The allocation of seats will be coming up for consideration in Committee, and I think that that is the best way of dealing with the matter.
The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) talked about taking politics off the streets and into the Assembly for debate, thus reiterating the point that has been made once or twice. I am sure that that is the way to do it.
There will, I hope, be wide use of postal votes, and this will be the same as for the border poll and for the local elections.
I was glad of the welcome given to the Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs-Davison). He is right in saying that speed is of importance in this matter.
I have tried to answer several of the points raised by the hon. Member for Kingston - upon - Hull, North (Mr. McNamara).
I shall look into that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Pounder) welcomed the Bill in principle and thought that the timing was right. I am sure that my hon. Friend is correct, because we want to keep the political initiative going.
I was glad of the welcome given to the Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills), and I appreciate the interesting points which he raised.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) raised the question of salaries. I think that this matter is dealt with in the Bill, which, in my view, provides a reasonable salary and expenses.
I have dealt with the questions that were asked about polling booths.
My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) mentioned several details about hours of the poll, and I think that I have dealt with that. My right hon. Friend will look carefully into this matter. I think that there will be more hours of daylight at the time of the elections.
My hon. Friend also raised the question of accessibility. This is the sort of thing that we shall take note of and look into very carefully.
Interesting points have been raised by several hon. Members, and what they have said will be looked into. It has been said that different arrangements could have been made. It would be remarkable if hon. Members could not propose amendments to any of the details in the Bill. The main guidelines were spelled out in the White Paper, on which there was a full debate. The Bill follows those guidelines as closely as possible for the limited operation which is envisaged.
This is a Bill to set up an Assembly and provide for one election to it. More detailed proposals, including some of the topics which have been the subject of criticism today, will be dealt with in the main constitutional Bill. I believe that the Bill fulfils a pledge given by the Government with the support of all parties, and I would ask the House to support the Government tonight in honouring their commitments.