I beg to move,
That the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 (S.I., 1973, No. 740), a copy of which was laid before this House on 13th April, be approved.
This order relates to the elections to district councils in Northern Ireland. These are to be held on 30th May 1973, and it was therefore necessary to introduce the measure under the urgent procedure. Its provisions affect neither the Northern Ireland Assembly nor Westminister elections.
The order provides for postal voting facilities, specifies the hours of polling, and gives candidates standing at the elections the right to send election addresses post-free. Also it authorises the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland to prepare a polling station scheme for the elections.
Article 3 provides that anyone who is on the register of electors and who can satisfy the returning officer that he is the person he says he is, and has an address in the United Kingdom, can get a postal vote. This was the basis for postal voting in the recent border poll.
Hon. Members will have noted that paragraphs (3) and (4) of Article 3 enable my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make regulations about postal voting. There are three aspects of those regulations, which were made on 18th April 1973, to which I draw attention.
First, electors who were granted postal votes at the border poll and who wish to have similar facilities at these elections did not have to complete further application forms. It sufficed if by 10th May they returned their polling information cards duly signed. If they did, they will receive their ballot papers automatically without further ado. Second, new applications for postal votes must be received not later than 17th May. Third, the application forms for postal votes used in the border poll gave rise to some criticism and have been revised in, I think, a helpful way. The application form is indicated in Schedule 1 to the regulations, and the categories of people entitled to certify the forms have been extended, in line with comments made in the House.
At the same time, a comprehensive publicity campaign is now under way to describe these arrangements in detail to the electorate and to make as clear as possible their rights and the procedures which they should follow. I have seen some of the television parts of this publicity campaign, and I assure the House that they are extremely effective in getting over the message simply and clearly.
Article 4 deals with the right of candidates to send election addresses post-free. Hon. Members will be aware that these elections will be according to the principle of proportional representation, each elector having one transferable vote. One of the consequences of the decision to introduce proportional representation was the need to form electoral areas sufficiently large to enable proportional representation to function effectively. The Government considered, in the light of the numbers of electors and the geographical area covered by each candidate, and because of the rather difficult conditions which may still prevail in some parts of Northern Ireland, that it would be fair and right to allow for free postage for election addresses in the same manner as for parliamentary elections.
Article 5 enables the chief electoral officer to prepare a polling station scheme designating the polling stations to be used at these elections. The House will see that paragraph (1) of this Article is permissive and not mandatory. The reason for this is that there was a doubt as to whether the chief electoral officer would have sufficient time to prepare such a scheme based on the 1973 register of electors, which came into operation on 16th February this year.
The chief electoral officer has now been able to prepare a scheme based on the current register and this will be much preferable to using the old 1972 scheme. It has been necessary for the chief electoral officer to rearrange the register for local government purposes because the boundaries of the local government areas do not follow the parliamentary boundaries in Northern Ireland. There are over 500 wards for local government purposes, and the chief electoral officer hopes to designate almost 600 polling places on the basis that the elector should be inconvenienced as little as possible, which must, of course, be right.
I apologise for not being here for the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks. I believe he has mentioned the matter of postal votes. There is an important matter which I hope he can clear up. It relates particularly to my own area. The deputy returning officer in the County of Fermanagh, contrary to reports in the Press, has said quite categorically in the last few days—a number of people are worried about this —that the closing date for applications to his office for postal votes is the 17th, and that he is not giving out any more application forms. A number of people will now be not entitled to have a postal vote in the local elections. Can the Minister clear this matter up? Is it the 17th which is the last day for application for postal votes?
It is indeed the 17th. That is the last day for applications for postal votes for both the local government and Assembly elections. I will undertake first thing tomorrow to look straight away at the point about application forms being physically available for those who did not have postal votes in the border poll. If that is so, it will be looked at first thing in the morning.
Would the Minister make it clear that application is an application and not an application form duly filled up? This is what has caused confusion. We have returning officers who say the application must be a proper application duly filled up by the 17th, and that is not available after the 10th. It must be applied for before the 10th and the application must be a proper application duly signed by a minister of religion or someone. This is the point which is worrying people.
I think I have the point aright. The hon. Member is saying that it is not so much a question of the form not being available but that people who apply for the form find difficulty in doing so. I will certainly look at this first thing in the morning.
On the matter of deputy returning officers, I understand that this is very irritating especially to candidates. Is the deputy returning officer required to be available between the normal office hours of 9 am to 5 pm to answer inquiries from candidates, or can we have it said on his behalf by somebody in the same building that the deputy returning officer is not available? There seems to be a point of importance here. Is he within his rights so to do? Or is he required to be available to candidates or their agents to answer legitimate questions from 9 am to 5 pm?
I will answer procedural questions on legalities when I sum up at the end of the debate. I will certainly take note of that point, but I think that while moving this motion it would be better that I should concentrate on what is in the various articles in the order.
Article 6 reproduces for the purpose of these elections the hours of polling which applied at the border poll, 8 am to 8 pm. Besides security, one reason for the reduction of hours at the border poll compared with a general election— at which polling hours are from 7 am until 10 pm—was that lighting-up time was earlier in March when the border poll was held. Admittedly, on 30th May the position will be somewhat different, with lighting-up time in Belfast that evening at 10.17 pm. But with polling closing at 8 pm all those going to polling stations will be able to vote well before sunset and be able to return home without rushing before sunset. I do not think for one moment that the limitation of hours—the same limitation as in the border poll—will adversely affect the number of persons voting, particularly in the light of the postal voting provisions.
Additionally, the hours of 8 am to 8 pm as opposed to 7 am to 10 pm will materially assist in the recruitment of staff to run the polling stations. That was our experience at the border poll.
I have outlined to the House the contents of the various articles in the order, and I shall be glad to go into any further points that arise. I will do my best to provide explanations for the points which have already been raised.
We welcome the order, which provides for the impending local elections in Northern Ireland. We said originally that we should like the elections to be postponed, but that argument did not carry weight with the Government, and now that we are faced with the elections we hope that they will be conducted successfully and will act as a basis for the more important Assembly elections which are to follow.
A great deal of confusion has arisen about the postal vote. The Minister said that the provisions made for the local elections are the same as those made for the border poll and that all who apply will obtain a postal vote. That is a tremendous expansion of the postal vote system which bears no comparison with the system in the rest of the United Kingdom, and we understand the reasons for that.
Will the Minister say what percentage of the people eligible to vote in the border poll applied for a postal vote? That figure will give us an idea of how many people are likely to apply. I understand that all who had a postal vote in the border poll will qualify for one in the forthcoming election merely by applying, but that those who did not have first to apply on an application form which must be signed by an appropriate person and sent to the authorities. The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) raised a valid question on that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. McManus) said, the qualifying date for both the local and the Assembly elections is 17th May. A person who has not applied for a postal vote for the local elections or for the border poll will be excluded from doing so for the Assembly elections. What is the reason for this?
We must also keep in mind that a person could be quite well until 28th May and between 28th May and 30th June be taken sick. That person would be denied the right he would get in a normal election two weeks before to apply for a postal vote.
This is the point which I am seeking to raise. I know that it is not strictly germane to the order, but it is linked to the provisions in which applications for postal votes will apply both in local elections and in Assembly elections.
There have been complaints by political parties in Northern Ireland about the rush that is involved, and the Minister must make the situation clear. My hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone drew attention to the short period of time left from today—14th May —to the closing date of 17th May and I suggest that it might be necessary for the Minister to consider an extension. I am sure the House would not object.
There is a further point to be considered. All those who had postal votes in the referendum received a small piece of paper with names on it and they were required to post it back. There was no method of date-stamping and the returning officers—and this happened—could arbitrarily return the paper and say that it had not been received in time. Because it was not date-stamped, the applicant had no way of saying "The form was posted off on such-and-such a date". This happened quite a lot in an arbitrary fashion.
I am sure the Minister heard that first-hand evidence of the situation and I hope that he will consider it. We feel that this is an important matter because much will revolve around the postal vote. In the border poll there were 160,000 postal votes. No doubt a vast majority of the community will participate in these elections and this will mean a much heavier postal vote. This is probably one of the most central issues in the election procedure and I hope the Minister will take note of these points.
We welcome the provision of post-free election addresses at local government elections. This is unique and we shall not quibble about the cost. I understand that it will cost a great deal of money, but it is essential that there should be such a service in terms of Northern Ireland. I hope the Minister will take precautions to see that the election material is delivered and not dumped because it might not be relevant in a particular area. Because of the situation in certain sensitive areas this free post might be the only material which residents will see representing the point of view of opposing parties, whatever those parties may be. Therefore, it is essential to see that such material, from whatever quarter it comes, is properly delivered.
I wish to refer to Article 5 which deals with polling stations. I witnessed the border poll and because of the security situation at the time the concentration of polling stations left a lot to be desired. The Minister said that this time there are to be 600 polling centres—which, I believe, is twice as many as in the border poll. That is a considerable improvement.
Certain political parties—not least the Northern Ireland Labour Party—are angry that they have not been consulted about the location of polling stations. Some difficulty has arisen as a result, but I hope that the increase in the number of polling stations and increased postal voting will help to alleviate some of the problems.
As the Minister said when we were debating the 1972 order, polling hours would have been from 7 am to 10 pm. Nobody is advocating those hours at these elections. We welcome the fact that as a result of pressure from this side of the House polling is to go on until 8.30 pm, but I cannot see why polling at the local government elections on 30th May cannot go on until that hour. I should like to know the Minister's reason for closing the poll at eight o'clock. Having been there at the time, I know that when the doors were closed at 8 pm during the border poll some people were not able to vote. We all want everyone to vote so that we can test the strength of the vote for all candidates, and I should welcome the Minister's comments on this matter.
There is to be a diminution of local government powers, but the authorities will still be able to deal with certain vital local government services, and they will have power to appoint area and regional boards which will be dealing with administrative matters such as housing, health, and so on.
We hope that these elections will be successful from the point of view of participation. According to what one reads, it looks as though there will be real participation. The number of candidates seems to be endless, and we welcome that.
Valid points have been raised about postal votes, the delivery of election addresses and polling hours, and I hope that the Minister will deal with those matters. We feel that if properly dealt with they would help to strengthen the position still further.
One cannot help feeling that the exercise on which we are engaged tonight is in some danger of exposing parliamentary democracy to ridicule, because we are solemnly legalising procedures which have already been set in motion. Many electors in Northern Ireland have already applied for postal votes, yet only tonight are we authorising what has already been done.
I am grateful for the assurance that has been given by my hon. Friend that the apparent muddle over postal vote applications will be looked into. Only this morning an intelligent constituent of mine showed me a copy of a letter which he had dispatched to the deputy returning officer for my constituency on 2nd May but to which he had not received a reply. Time is running short and I therefore urged him to telephone to see whether matters could be speeded up but I have the fear that that pattern may be repeated elsewhere.
I welcome Article 4 authorising the provision of free postage because, as the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) said, the vast increase in the constituencies of the local government candidates to fit in with the PR system would have imposed a tremendous financial burden on candidates. I am grateful that that provision has been made. But it must strike people as being ludicrous, because it is all retrospective.
Before leaving for London this morning, I was engaged in helping to advise on the design of an election address to ensure that it complied with regulations which had already been circulated and published irrespective and in advance of any decision made in the House tonight. I realise that this procedure may have been necessary to enable the elections to be held but, after all, the Government have known for months that the elections would be held on this date. Even if we discount that consideration, the Government ought not to make a habit of this kind of thing.
Will my hon. Friend the Minister look into a problem which has been the cause of a certain amount of confusion? Where the areas of two deputy returning officers overlap, it often happens that a polling station is shared by those in their areas. As recently as the border poll it was found that presiding officers, and even senior presiding officers, had received different sets of instructions—not conflicting instructions, perhaps, but instructions containing just enough variation to cause confusion and to disrupt the smooth running of the polling station at the vital stage in the early morning when it was getting under way. Will my hon. Friend look into the possibility of ensuring that standardised instructions are issued common to all presiding officers and polling stations whatever their geographical location?
My final point concerns the hours of polling. I have previously asked that consideration be given to those who take some time to get home from their place of employment. Other hon. Members from Northern Ireland have constituencies geographically larger than mine. Travelling time at the end of a day's work is very great in some cases. People subject to this difficulty are concentrated into the final hour of polling. It has been the experience—confirmed by the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme)—that at the border poll the congestion was great. The additional number of polling stations may do something to alleviate this problem, but to balance that advantage there will be the greater application of the PR system, which is providing complication enough at this stage, confirming my fear that the process will be slowed down and that passage through the polling booths will be very much slower. Will my hon. Friend see whether an extension can be granted to bring these elections into line with the Assembly elections, and to 9 p.m. if possible?
I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) in pressing the great importance of the point he was making towards the end of his speech. In these elections it is very important that the polls are open until at least 8.30 p.m.
The point made by my hon. Friend in relation to PR is quite right. There will be a fair amount of congestion of people coming home in the evening and then polling. On a summer evening at the end of May, 8.30 p.m. would not be an unreasonable time. There may be difficulty with this in the order, but I hope that certainly for the Assembly elections this will be borne very much in mind.
I echo many of the points made by my hon. Friend. I underline the great importance of the new arrangements for free postage at elections. One should express appreciation to the Government that this facility has been made available to the various parties and candidates. It is right that it should be and it is equally right that we should pay tribute to the Government for recognising that. It is important to have this as a means of communication. This election and the Assembly election will be dealt with on the basis of this sort of personal approach by the candidate, as well as by the use of television.
My impression is that the arrangements for postal votes are not working satisfactorily and I welcome what my hon. Friend said about having another look at this. There is a fair bit of tidying up to do. I recognise that there is pressure on electoral staff, with all the elections, the Border poll and so on. I welcome the order.
There are a few points I wish to draw to the attention of the Minister. It has been reported to me that several of my constituents have applied for a postal vote and been told by the returning officer that he was not giving out any more application forms. When it was pointed out what had been published in the Press, he said "The Press can say what it likes, I am sticking by the regulations". The Minister has said he will look into this.
If someone, for reasons good or bad, does not apply for a postal vote for the Assembly election, does that mean that if he falls ill he cannot vote? I recommend that some arrangements similar to those which applied in the district elections should apply in this case so that a person could apply up to 10 or 12 days before the election.
In my constituency one returning officer has been peculiarly unavailable during the past week. I have attempted to contact him a few times and he is just not there. Some other person speaking on his behalf, with I know not what authority, informs me that he cannot be found. This reached ludicrous proportions with the notice of poll. I understand that this is published in all recognised papers—that is, papers circulating throughout an area reflecting differing points of view.
In County Fermanagh there are three such papers, but for some reason the returning officer decided to use only two. When asked why, he said that he did not have to give a reason, which is quite right. He can use his discretion. This introduces an unnecessary irritant. In all other areas of Northern Ireland returning officers have used all local papers.
I respectfully suggest that the method of voting by proportional representation and of counting the votes has not been adequately explained. It is complicated. For the benefit of candidates, agents and others intimately involved, some further explanation might be necessary. I know that a little book says that it is "as easy as one, two, three", but it certainly does not seem to be so. The method of counting votes was left a little vague.
I am sure that the hon. Member has the interests of Scotland very much at heart. There is general agreement about the difficulty of understanding the method of counting the votes under the peculiar system that the Government have adopted in this case. Most people—even Unionists— have been sending people to Dublin to sit in on council elections and watch it being done, so that they can see how the system is operated, only to discover that the transfer is to take place under a different system. For those who are most intimately connected with the election and who would in normal times be present at the counting of the votes, an effort should be made to provide a means of reaching a proper understanding of the method.
My final point concerns the number of polling stations. I understand that regulations have been made providing that agents shall not be allowed to leave their seats, and that buttons must be worn. There is a group of people who traditionally congregate outside the polling booths—tally clerks, and so on— who have no status in the election itself. What attitude will the security forces adopt to a number of people milling round the entrance to polling stations? Will such people be allowed to remain there? If so, how many? Is there a recommended number? Will they be able to go there being reasonably certain that they will not be constantly moved on by policemen or soldiers? These things should be known in advance, so that candidates and their agents can make the appropriate arrangements for the election.
I hope that the Minister will be able to clear up the points to which I have referred.
Like everyone who has taken part in this debate, I want to add a word of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Minister of State and my right hon. Friend for providing free postage in the local government election. I have never been able to understand why those who, on past occasions, have stood for local government have received no expenses and no free postage. This still applies on this side of the Irish Sea, and I devoutly hope that what is embodied in this order will stretch to all future local government elections.
Is the hon. Member aware that at the recent elections on this side of the Irish Sea, for the first time, the identification cards—the polling cards— were sent out on a free postage basis? It had never been done before. It was very acceptable to all political parties. One wonders why it was not done a considerable time ago.
I am indebted to the hon. Member for that information. I was not aware of it. I share his satisfaction at the new system.
I turn to the question of polling hours. Like my hon. Friend the Minister of State, I have seen the advertisements claiming that it is "as easy as one, two, three". The leaflet may be as easy as that, but the television advertisement certainly is not. We must be realistic and assume that the elderly voter in particular will probably take twice or three times as long to make out his ballot paper as he took to write a simple "X".
Although we want to accommodate both the security forces and the presiding officers and staffs, and everybody who is involved in organising the election, account must be taken of the fact that anything untried and unknown will cause complications on polling day. Allowances must be made for that.
A number of comments have been made already about postal votes. On occasions like this I do not like to raise particular constituency problems, but the point has been raised by more than one hon. Member of the non-availability and the difficulty of obtaining application forms. This is true of part of my constituency, as I was told at six o'clock this evening. As many people as possible should be allowed to have a postal vote and the system should therefore be as easy and as flexible as possible. I understand that whereas it was possible to obtain postal vote application forms at the time of the border poll, this does not appear to be the case in one part of my constituency. I should be grateful for confirmation about this.
There is reference in Article 3(1) to the electoral register. While I realise that nothing can now be done to help to correct the appalling mistakes that have appeared in the register, we must hope that they will not lead to an unfortunate result in any of the constituencies. It is not good enough to say that an error is no greater or less than on previous occasions. While wearing one of my other hats I take an interest in what goes on concerning certain frauds in other parts of the world where one is told that 2 per cent. is not unreasonable. That may be all right as a statistic but it still represents a fairly hefty figure. Two per cent. in certain areas will make all the differance between a result going one way or the other. Nothing can be done at this stage, we are told, but this is an appropriate occasion on which to register one's regret at the considerable errors and omissions which occurred in the register which is now being used for the second time and which in a month's time will be used for an even more important election.
I should like to ask the Minister some questions which are troubling the people of Northern Ireland about these elections. It would have been better for the local government elections to have been postponed until after the Assembly elections. The people will wake up too late to discover that, because they took no interest in the district council elections, they forfeited their right to vote by post in the Assembly elections.
I want to register the strongest possible protest against the action of the chief electoral officer in dictating to the people of Northern Ireland that if they did not apply for a postal vote in the local election they will not get it in the Assembly election. That is unreasonable and totally unfair. The electorate are the persons to be considered.
We have heard far too often from the chief electoral officer that this cannot be done. One of my hon. Friends raised the question of 10,000 voters who were dropped from the electoral list, and we are told that this is just a matter of detail and that nothing can be done about it. When this was raised before, we were promised by the Secretary of State and his hon. Friend that it would be looked at again. Now we are told that those in Northern Ireland who did not take an interest in the district council elections for one reason or another—perhaps because the candidates they wanted to vote for were not permitted to stand or perhaps because the party they are interested in was not putting candidates forward but was concentrating on the Assembly elections—are not permitted to have a postal vote for the Assembly elections. These people will be discriminated against.
Will the Minister give us an assurance that he will look at this matter again and make available for the people who want to vote in the Assembly elections a reasonable time—say, up to three weeks before the Assembly elections—to apply for a postal vote for these elections?
Hon. Members have praised the Government, I suppose in measure rightly, because they have provided the right to send election addresses through the post. In local government elections it is not possible reasonably to deliver election addresses through the doors. I have taken part in many local government elections in which many candidates were delighted to do it because they delivered their own addresses and introduced themselves to the people, but now many wards are clustered into one and it would be an imposition on any local government candidate to say to him "You have personally to deliver all your election addresses across a wide area". The Government have said "We will give you free postage". I do not think they could have done anything else under the proportional representation system because the wards have been linked together.
I thank the Government for what they have done in respect of the poll cards. We never had this facility for the Stormont elections or local government elections. I pressed this matter some months ago. There is no mention about poll cards in the statutory instrument—I do not know why—but they are useful. I welcome the fact that an official card will be sent in both the Assembly and the local government elections. Some cards have not been addressed properly and people in Belfast have been put in the wrong area. There has been some confusion and controversy over this matter. I trust that the Minister will take cognisance of that fact.
Another important matter is the postal vote. If a person who receives a poll card on which it is stated "If you want a postal vote, send this back; if you voted by post at the referendum, you will receive your ballot paper through the post in due course" does not apply for a local government vote and is not voting in the district council election, will he receive a postal vote for the Assembly election? I have previously failed to get an answer to that question. Must that person apply by using his poll card for the district council election? Suppose that a person says "I will vote on 28th May by going to the polling station", but he is taken sick and he receives his poll card for the Assembly election, having voted personally in the district council election. If he sent his poll card back, and if he voted by post in the referendum, would he receive a postal vote?
Those are the sorts of question which people are asking. There has been no Government publicity in the newspapers or on television about these matters. There is no mention in the television advertisement even of the limited number of candidates. According to the advertisement, people can vote as many times as they like. If there are 26 candidates in Omagh, can people mark from 1 to 26, or can they vote only for the number of candidates to be elected? That is another question which needs to be clarified. [Interruption.] One can vote for everybody on the ballot paper, but that is not clear and many people believe that they can vote only for the number of seats in the area.
A very important matter is the delivery of the addresses. There are areas in which postmen are dilatory in delivering. Can we have an assurance that every effort will be made to see that everybody who is on the list will be sent an address and that everybody will receive one? It may be that the address will be the only information that many people receive about the election.
The siting of polling stations is another important matter. People in a North Belfast area which is 98 per cent. Protestant were asked to cross over the Ardoyne Road and make their way into the Ardoyne to cast their vote at the local government elections. I took up the matter with the electoral officer on behalf of candidates standing in that area but I have not had the position clarified. It is wrong to ask people to go into what is to them a hostile area. In the case to which I refer, Protestants were asked to go into a Roman Catholic area. On that basis, it is quite possible that Roman Catholics will be expected to go into an almost 100 per cent. Protestant area in, for example, North Antrim, to cast their vote.
It is no use saying that such people can get a postal vote. There has been confusion about the postal vote system. In North Antrim there has been the same situation as in South Tyrone. Some deputy returning officers refused to supply forms after 10th May. They have said "Your application must be in by 10th May." That means that if an application form is not properly completed and handed in by 10th May, the applicant will not get a vote. I hope that the Minister will clarify the position. Is it right that a person can go on the morning of 17th May and get a form, complete it and deliver it? That is a matter which requires clarification.
A further matter is that returning officers sometimes cannot be contacted. For example, the returning officer for Ballymena is, on the face of it, always in Ballymena, yet when people go to Ballymena they are told that he is in Antrim. [Laughter.] The Minister laughs, but if he were a local government candidate and he journeyed from Randalstown, for example, to find the returning officer in Ballymena but the girl said "He is not here", would he laugh then? He might ask "Where is he?" The girl might say "He is in Ballyclare." If, on travelling by car to Ballyclare, the Minister was told that the officer was in Antrim, he would not laugh. Deputy returning officers should keep office hours or should be available at some hour during the day so that candidates and their agents can see them.
Some deputy returning officers have one set of rules and other officers have another set. In one area of the Ballymena area it is possible to get application forms after 10th May, but a few miles away the deputy returning officers says "No, they are not available." Why is there such confusion between deputy returning officers?
Another important matter is timing. I do not understand why the time must be half-past eight. Following from that is the number of people who are permitted to stand outside polling stations. In Omagh there will be 26 candidates. Electors will have to look to find exactly whom they wish to vote for. To explain that will be a difficult matter. If there are 26 candidates, how many polling clerks or tally-room clerks will be allowed to stand at the entrance to a polling station?
Will the security forces be able to say "We cannot have anybody standing here"? If that is said, everybody will have to be shifted. These are important matters which lead to the smooth running of an election. It is better to have them clarified here so that we know where we are. If this is done the election will run smoothly and everyone taking part in it can be satisfied that he is having a fair crack of the whip.
Most of the points made in the debate have turned on the crucial question of postal voting and it is to that that I shall address the bulk of my remarks.
We expect a heavy postal vote in the elections. I am grateful for the remarks about the provision made in the order for postal voting. The hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) asked about percentages in the border poll. Sixteen per cent. of those entitled to vote applied for postal votes and 8 per cent. actually used them.
The central question relates to the date of 17th May. Certain realities have to be faced by hon. Members, particularly those deeply involved in and familiar with the situation in Northern Ireland and the business we are all going to be about in the next few weeks. We are faced with the organisation of two highly important elections within four weeks. This is a massive organisational task by any standard.
The border poll itself was a major organisational task and all those who observed it, whatever their views of the outcome, would say that it reflected credit on those who organised it. When it comes to the organisation of postal votes on this vastly extended scale, with a greatly increased facility, there is a sheer impossibility in going through the process twice—a whole system of qualifications, applications and the checking of applications and then the granting of postal votes first for the elections of 30th May and then for the elections of 28th June. It is a four-week period in which it would be physically impossible—anyone experienced in elections on this scale would find it so—to go through the whole process again for the second time round. That is not to say that it is impossible—because the scheme makes it possible—to apply for a postal vote for the district elections and then for a postal vote for the Assembly elections. What has not been possible, however, and is physically impossible in organisational terms, is that the entire system should be doubled up and run through again in the very short space of time between the two elections.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) says that the people of Northern Ireland will wake up too late. I am second to none in my respect for his analysis and understanding of the views of his constituents and of the people of Northern Ireland, but in this case I do not share his dim view of them.
There has been extensive publicity. Many people have indicated that they fully understand what the requirements are for postal votes, and it would be wrong and premature for us to assume in a gloomy fashion that everyone has been fast asleep like Rip Van Winkle, that no one is going to apply for postal votes on the days required and, therefore, that thousands of people will be deprived.
Before predicting that everything will go wrong because people will wake up too late, we should see how the system works out and has already worked out. Some of the dates involved have already passed. This order is being debated under the urgent procedure and it was activated some weeks ago. The dates involved have been blazoned around Northern Ireland and are, I believe, clearly understood by the vast majority of the people.
The dates depend upon the central fact that those who had a postal vote in the border poll had by 10th May to sign their poll card which they would have received so as to apply for a postal vote, if they wanted one, for the district and assembly elections. Those who did not have a postal vote in the border poll had until 12th May to request a postal vote and until the 17th May to put in their application forms. As I said earlier, I shall look into the claims which have been made that there is a physical shortage of application forms. If that is so, it is certainly wrong, and I shall look into it.
The hon. Gentleman says that it is impossible to go through the whole process twice. We are not asking for that. Although the vast majority of people will have had forms for both elections, some may have missed the vote for the local elections. What is to prevent such people then applying for a postal vote for the Assembly elections if they need one? The information I have received is that the electoral officer is the stumbling block here, and I want to hear from the Minister about that.
I do not think that that is the correct way to put it. Obviously, the electoral officer is a key figure. There rest on him major responsibilities in the organisation of the election. Any process which set out to steamroller the judgment of experienced officers in this matter and go flatly against their experience would probably end in disaster.
It is obvious, moreover, that in the four weeks between 30th May and 28th June it would be extremely difficult for an arrangement to be made which would provide another deadline for application forms to be sought and filled in and for the whole postal vote procedure to be gone through for those who, in the words of the hon. Member for Antrim, North, had not woken up and realised that they had to make their application by 17th May.
We have first to see who is right about the readiness of the people of Northern Ireland to follow the highly publicised procedures on the right dates. It is premature now to say that the system will lead to great difficulties and a large shortfall in terms of those who really wanted to vote and did not get the chance. The first step is to stand by the Government's view that the publicity has been extensive, that people are taking the opportunities offered to them and that they are getting their applications in by 17th May. That is the position now, and it is on that that we must judge.
Many people I know did not receive their poll cards until 9th May. What happens in their case? If they sent them off on 9th May, they would not be received by the returning officer until the 11th or 12th, such is the way the postal service operates at present in Northern Ireland. Do they then forfeit their right to a postal vote? It is a serious matter, and I am putting my remarks tonight in serious terms. This is the sort of problem we face on the ground. The Minister should clarify the position. It is not these people's fault that they did not receive their poll cards in time.
Clearly, it is a serious matter, which must be adjudged by the deputy returning officers. If there is clear evidence that such people are placed in an impossible position, if they received their cards on the 9th, signed them and sent them in, and they simply did not arrive by the 10th, the deputy returning officers would obviously use their discretion. I shall make sure that the remarks made in the House tonight are conveyed to the right quarters, to see that discretion is used in these matters. But one would have to have clear evidence that that position had been reached and that people had been put in an impossible situation. If they have, that will have to be judged accordingly.
I think I have covered most of the points on that side of things. I know that there are many others and I want to come to some of them. A number of people talked about the hours of polling. These are from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in this election. A special concession has been made for the Assembly election by my right hon. Friend—to 8.30 p.m. It is a special concession. It is not possible under these arrangements to extend the hours of polling in the local elections. They remain from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. I realise that that will not satisfy all hon. Members, but I think they will accept that a concession has been made, as has been announced, for the Assembly elections.
The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) spoke about standardised instructions. Yes, the effect of what we are doing will be to produce standardised instructions because they will be issued by the chief electoral officer from a central point and, therefore, will be standardised.
The hon. Member also spoke about the possibility of more congestion in the polling stations because people will be dealing with an unfamiliar and new system. Steps will be taken to see many more screens are available and more spaces available to avoid congestion. We recognise this problem.
On the question of the unfamiliarity of the system, the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. McManus) spoke about the complexity of it. I think it is wise to keep in one's mind a distinction. The actual voting I do not think is complex, and I do not think it can be described as complex. I think the publicity literature about "one, two, three" is merely saying what is so on casting a transferable vote and writing the figures to the number wished on the ballot paper against the number of candidates. I do not think that to be a complex business. It is a relatively straightforward and easy business, and I believe that it will be understood by the vast majority of people.
One is allowed—I make this point to the hon. Member for Antrim, North— certainly to write the figures 1 up to 25 if there are 25 candidates on the list. That is not only possible, but in some cases it might possibly be desirable, since one's choice of the actual number of candidates will affect in the counting the final choice of candidates towards the bottom of the list. That might be the case. People are advised to fill in the number, 1 to 7 or 8, or whatever it might be. There is no problem about it. Those who do not wish to write in so many can write 1 or 2; People can stop at 1, but obviously they would not be exercising fully the opportunities available to them.
If the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone says that the counting is more complicated, that I cannot deny. It is certainly a complex system. Therefore, extensive steps have been taken to see that all those concerned with counting will be thoroughly instructed. If the hon. Member thinks that more instruction is necessary, there will be instruction; there will always be room for more, but plenty of instruction is going on. A large number of people will be involved in the administration and in the count and in all the arrangements for the elections. I am certain that it will be possible to put up an excellent performance, as we have done in the past. So I am confident on that.
As for the question of tally clerks and people milling around the polling stations, there is obviously a need for discussion beforehand with the police and the tally clerks so that sensible arrangements are made. It is a matter of common sense. What is obviously not desirable is that there should be large numbers of people milling around and getting in the way and filling the entrances to and exits from the polling stations. At the same time, candidates and parties may feel that they need tally clerks. Where they should stand and what positions they should take up can be sorted out by common sense with the police. I would advise candidates to discuss this matter with the police well in advance.
Several hon. Members have queried whether deputy returning officers are sufficiently available to advise on electoral procedure and so on. I will make sure that these queries are conveyed to the chief electoral officer. It is up to him to decide exactly where deputy returning officers should be, what advice they should give and how they should dispose of their time. I will draw to his attention the comments made, as clearly they are strongly felt.
It is absolutely vital. It is most upsetting for a candidate not to be able to get in touch with the deputy returning officer. I know of one case where, on attempting to get in touch with the returning officer, one gets to the wages department. One comes to the conclusion that the deputy returning officer is still doing a job connected with wages instead of giving his full time to the election in the pre-election period.
I appreciate the great importance of this matter. I have noted carefully what the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North have said, and I will draw their comments to the attention of the chief electoral officer.
I conclude with the question with which I began. I am not sure that I share the views expressed about there being confusion. I think that the vast majority of people have understood the extensive publicity. I was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North what happens if a person who had a postal vote in the border poll does not apply for a postal vote in the district elections and whether he could then use his right to apply in the Assembly elections. The answer is "Yes", and that is made clear in the newspaper publicity. If a person is taken sick in the way described by hon. Friend and does not involve himself in the local government election and has not had a postal vote in the border poll, he cannot apply for a postal vote in the Assembly elections.
The newspaper publicity has been good. I do not share the strictures of my hon. Friend who said that television advertising was not good. I watched it carefully and thought it very good indeed. The newspaper publicity is as follows:
To get a postal vote in the Assembly elections on 28th June you must have one for the district council elections on 30th May unless you had one in the border poll.
I do not think it can be clearer than that. The postal check list which has been put out is also very clear. It states:
When you get your poll card….
as many did on 5th May—9th May has been mentioned, and I will look into that—
if you want a postal vote and had one in the border poll fill in your poll card and apply for a postal vote by 10th May.
I believe that many thousands have done so.
If you did not have a postal vote in the border poll, apply by 12th May.
I believe that many thousands have done so.
If you did not have a vote in the border poll your application must be lodged with the deputy returning office not later than 17th May.
I believe that many thousands will do so.
Early in June you will receive your poll card for the Assembly elections. If you had a postal vote for the district council elections and wish to vote by post again, sign the card and return it to your returning officer.
These arrangements are not totally foolproof, but I do not believe that the electorate of Northern Ireland are fools. I do not take the dim view that they are asleep. They have recognised and are recognising the relative simplicity of carrying out their democratic rights in these two elections of 30th May and 28th June. I think that this is the right way
for them to proceed. Every effort will be made to see that all people fully understand their rights. As a result I believe that the people of Northern Ireland will find that they have the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights in the elections that lie ahead. I ask the House to approve the order.