I beg to move,
That the draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 14th February, be approved.
The main and immediate purpose of this draft order is to apply to local government elections in Northern Ireland provisions corresponding to sections 1 to 3 of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985. Sections 1 and 2 of that Act provide for voters at parliamentary elections in the Province to produce a specified document in order to receive a ballot paper, and list the documents which are acceptable for that purpose. Section 3 of the Act creates a new electoral offence in respect of unlawful possession of specified documents and confers appropriate powers on the police to deal with this and related offences.
As hon. Members are aware, the Government have also decided to take this legislative opportunity to revise the existing body of local elections rules for Northern Ireland. These are set out in schedule 5 to the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962, as substituted by schedule 2 to the Northern Ireland (Local Elections) Order 1977. The new rules, which form the bulk of the draft order before us tonight, have the general effect of aligning the procedures at local elections more closely with those prescribed for parliamentary elections in the Representation of the People Act 1983.
In addition, the draft order provides for the establishment, for the first time, of a standing list for absent voters in local elections in Northern Ireland. This course of action has for some time been advocated by those who take a close interest in electoral matters in the Province, and in particular by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights.
It may assist the House if I now describe the main provisions of the draft order in slightly greater detail. A number of hon. Members will of course be familiar with some of the issues from our debates last year on the Bill which became the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985. I have also written to the leaders of the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland setting out the main features of the draft order.
Article 3 disapplies the substance of the Northern Ireland (Local Elections) Order 1977, which this order replaces. The remaining provisions of the 1977 order—article 3 and schedule 1 — deal with district electoral areas and have been superseded by the District Electoral Areas (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which the House debated in January and which comes into force on 15 May this year, when the 1977 order will be revoked.
Article 4 of the draft order, together with schedule 1 to the order, substitutes the new election rules in the schedule for those in schedule 5 to the 1962 Act. Many of the rules, as might be expected, replicate their predecessors in terms of their purpose and practical effect, though not necessarily in their precise drafting or arrangement within the schedule. The significant changes are as follows.
Rule 1 of schedule 1 extends polling hours at local elections, which will now be from seven in the morning until 10 o'clock at night. Previously, as hon. Members from Northern Ireland are aware, polling was from 8 am to 8 pm. The additional time will on all occasions be valuable and should prove particularly useful at the forthcoming district council elections in May, when voters and electoral staff will be familiarising themselves with the new voting procedures designed to curb personation. Those who took part in the debates on the previous order will remember the representations made by, in particular, the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) urging us to extend the polling hours at elections in the Province.
Rule 3 provides that in these rules the term "returning officer" means the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, or a deputy returning officer authorised to act under the Chief Electoral Officer's supervision. The purpose of this rule, and of its application throughout the schedule, is to make it clear that the Chief Electoral Officer has sole responsibility for the proper and efficient conduct of all aspects of local elections, as he does for all other elections in Northern Ireland.
Rule 25 provides that the roll card shall be in the form shown on the appendix in form 6—in other words, that the back of the card shall list the specified documents and make clear the requirement to produce one such document in order to obtain a ballot paper. I should perhaps add that this modification of the poll card is intended largely as an aide memoire for electors. The Government's major publicity campaign to emphasise the need for voters to possess a specified document — and to obtain one quickly if they need to do so—is planned to begin some two months before polling day. Indeed, the delivery of leaflets to households in Northern Ireland has already begun. I understand that the Chief Electoral Officer proposes to reinforce the Government's own publicity campaign with his own public information programme in the run-up to the election. I echo the hope that I expressed in the debate on the earlier order, that political parties, in their own campaigns, will reinforce the work both of the Government and of the Chief Electoral Officer.
Rule 34 is the rule which applies to local government elections the provisions of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985 concerning the production of specified documents. The House rightly devoted considerable time and thought during the passage of the elections Bill to both the principle of seeking to defeat organised electoral malpractice by means of this voting requirement, and to the composition of the list of documents. I am only too aware that some right hon. and hon. Members may remain critical or sceptical of the conclusions of Parliament as embodied in the resulting Act, but, having endorsed the measures in relation to parliamentary elections, I believe that the House should support their application to local elections. As I made clear during our debates on the principal Bill, it has always been the Government's aim to have the anti-personation provisions in force for the district council elections in May, and that is what this order, if approved, will achieve.
Finally, as regards the significant changes to the rules, I draw the attention of the House to the effect of rule 41 and the hours of polling set out in rule 1. They follow the Representation of the People Act 1983 in prohibiting the issue of ballot papers after the close of poll. This contrasts with rule 46 in schedule 5 to the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 which allowed people present in the polling station at that time to remain there to apply for a ballot paper and cast their vote. It was, in a sense, a sort of electoral drinking-up time, which encouraged last-minute crowding of the polling station, some of which at least was deliberate and designed to facilitate electoral abuse.
Inside the polling station as defined, which would normally be within the school. However, if the building were divided in any way between different polling stations, it would be within the boundary of that particular polling station.
I am sorry to rise again, but my experience is that whenever the 10 o'clock or 8 o'clock deadline came, the policeman, on the instructions of the presiding officer within that room, closed and locked the door. Those who were inside the door of that room were then allowed to vote. Is the Minister now saying that unless those people have their polling paper in their hand they will not be allowed to cast a vote, although they are inside the locked room?
If the hon. Gentleman is seeking to clarify what will happen if Parliament approves the order and it becomes law, I should tell him that at 10 o'clock, at the close of poll, the shutters will come down and no other ballot papers will be issued, whatever the physical situation of someone claiming to vote.
Is the Minister aware of the repercussions of that decision? The Government may have felt it possible that disorder would break out if the doors were closed at 10 o'clock and people outside felt that they were disfranchised, but if they were in the polling station and refused a vote, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, if not a riot, there would be considerable upheaval in the polling station by people being refused a vote.
In the first place, we have extended the polling hours by some three hours, so there should be no difficulty for genuine electors to get to the poll in good time. Secondly, I am concerned more with the possibility of disorder being used for electoral abuse, which will not happen, because no further ballot papers will be issued, than with the possibility of disorder for its own sake, with which I am sure the Royal Ulster Constabulary will be able to cope.
I should like to return to the main body of the order—
To bring it into line—which members of the right hon. Gentleman's party frequently urge upon me — with arrangements on this side of the water, in the first place, and, secondly, to counter the possibility that the flooding into the polling station just before the close of poll can be used as a cover for electoral malpractice of one sort or another. On both those grounds, the change is justifiable. It is an important part of the order, particularly against the background of having extended the polling hours by some three hours for this and subsequent elections.
I should like to refer to other provisions of the order beyond those which, in the view of the Government at least, are the most significant. Article 5 provides that local elections shall take place on the basis of district electoral areas, as designated by an Order in Council under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. As I said earlier, the relevant order comes into force on 15 May.
The right hon. Gentleman is correct in that assumption.
Article 6 makes fresh provision for absent voting at local government elections, to which the grounds for entitlement are similar to those for local electors in Great Britain under the Representation of the People Act 1983. In particular, under paragraph (2) of part I of schedule 2, all local electors who are also on the standing list for absent voters at parliamentary elections will now be entitled to apply for absent voting facilities for an indefinite period at local elections.
I would like at this point to clarify the practical relationship between those two lists—the one for party election, and the other for local elections. The draft order does not provide for the automatic transfer of a voter's name from the existing parliamentary list to the local list, because if it did some voters who have in the past voted in person in local elections might find themselves unexpectedly required to vote by post or by proxy at local elections. On the other hand, it is clear as a matter of common sense that most people entitled to an indefinite absent vote will wish to exercise that right in both local and parliamentary elections. The best solution therefore seems to be an administrative one. Once the order is made, the Chief Electoral Officer will write to all those who are on the standing list for parliamentary elections to ask them if they wish to be entered on the equivalent list for local elections. He also intends to provide future applicants with a form under both this order and the Representation of the People Act, so that in practice they will be entered on both standing lists.
Perhaps I can cover that point in my winding-up speech, after other points have been raised.
Paragraph (4) of part I of schedule 2 provides that applications for absent voting rights at a particular local election shall be made to the Chief Electoral Officer. Under schedule 5 to the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 such applications were made to clerks of district councils in their capacity as deputy returning officers. I want to emphasise to the House that the new arrangements imply no criticism whatsoever of the way in which clerks of the council have discharged that function in the past, or could be expected to do in the future. The reason for the change is simply that we believe it makes good organisational sense to vest responsibility for all electoral matters in one clearly designated office. That argument gains added force with the introduction of a standing list of absent voters at local elections. It would be ineffective and confusing for voters to have to apply to one authority if they required an absent vote for a particular election only, and to a separate authority if they sought the facility on a continuing basis.
Article 7 reaffirms the existing legal requirement that polling in an election year shall be held on the third Wednesday in May. Article 8 extends from three to six months the time within which the Chief Electoral Officer must submit an account of electoral expenses to district councils, and also increases from 21 to 42 days the period in which claims can be made against the returning officer. Article 9 increases the limit on candidates' expenses to £135 plus an additional 2·8p for every elector on the register. The new rates reflect the change in the value of money since they were last raised in February 1981.
Article 10 deals with costs which may be charged for inspection of certain election documents, and article 11 retains the existing right of candidates in Northern Ireland to send their election addresses post-free — not a privilege which exists on this side of the water, but one which is highly valued in the Province.
Article 12 abolishes the candidates' deposit for local elections, which has long been an anomaly between Northern Ireland practice and that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Article 13 disapplies for the purposes of local elections a provision which applied only in Northern Ireland whereby a person wrongly charged with personation could claim compensation not exceeding £10. In future any claim can be pursued in the ordinary way through the civil courts as at parliamentary elections.
Article 14 extends certain voting offences in the 1962 Act. More importantly, article 15 replicates the provisions of section 3 of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985. These create an offence relating to the possession of specified documents either on polling day or the day preceding it, and a related offence of obstruction or concealment. The powers conferred on the Royal Ulster Constabulary by this article, taken in conjunction with the specified document requirement itself, constitute in our view the most effective available strategy for safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process. The remaining three articles make consequential amendments to earlier legislation.
I apologise for the fact that this has necessarily been a rather lengthy and technical description of a draft order which exhibits both these characteristics in abundance. As I said earlier, however, the order seeks to do only two things; first, to bring to bear at local government elections in the Province the measures which Parliament has already agreed should apply at elections to this House; and, secondly, to bring the generality of local elections rules more closely into line with those governing parliamentary elections. I believe that these are both desirable objectives and that this draft order, if approved, will achieve them, in good time for the district council elections on 15 May. I comment the order to the House.
The Minister has just said that the order does only two things. He would be mistaken if he supposed that the attitude of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the order derives from either of those two things or classes of things with which his speech was entirely concerned. We were, of course, opposed, as he well knows and remembers, to the Northern Ireland electoral measure of the current Session, but it would not be reasonable to argue that the law for local elections should be in that respect any more than avoidably in other respects different from the electoral law applying to parliamentary elections. Nor—he will not be surprised by this—are we averse to any steps which continue to approximate the local government electoral procedure to the parliamentary, or to eliminate unjustified differentiation between the operation of electoral law at local elections in Northern Ireland and on this side of the water. Although they will be increased further when the Representation of the People Act 1985 comes into force, the extension of the facilities for absent voting and the application of a standard list of absent voters are features in the order which we welcome.
The Minister was not entirely accurate in suggesting that those are the only two things which the order does. It does something else which is of great importance and which is unacceptable to my right hon. and hon. Friends and to myself, for it is this order which perpetuates the application to local government elections of a system of proportional representation. Proportional representation was foisted upon the Province in 1972 by an order under the misrule of Lord Whitelaw. That being a year in which there was a plethora of orders relating to Northern Ireland, it was not seriously debated or considered by the House. In consequence, the House never had a proper, separate and specific debate upon the principle of proportional representation, to the application of which to one part of the United Kingdom it was assenting by accepting the order at that time.
When proportional representation was introduced, it was described as experimental. If it was experimental, there is no doubt what the result of the experiment was. It was a result which was predicted and understood by those, hitherto in the large majority in the House, who have resisted the application of proportional representation to the rest of the kingdom.
The Government, with the general approval of the House, have recently placed much emphasis upon the importance of the integrity of the electoral process in Northern Ireland. That integrity is severely damaged by the principle of proportional representation itself. One of the outstanding consequences of proportional representation is that it disjoins the elected person from the specific body of electors by whom he was elected. There can be no part of the United Kingdom where that disjunction is more undesirable than it is in Northern Ireland. Nowhere else in the kingdom is it more desirable that electors should look to one representative as the person, whatever his politics or religion, who is responsible to them as their representative. That is, of course, of overwhelming importance parliamentarily and would be lost if ever we introduced this pernicious system into parliamentary government, but it is of no small importance in local government which is based upon the paradigm of parliamentary representation.
In local government it is of great importance that those who live in a ward should know to what person they should look, irrespective of party or other affiliation, to deal with grievances which they may have in respect of the operation of the administration of that local authority. Under proportional representation, there can be no such identification of an elected person with electors and no such congruence of responsibility.
Indeed, the proportional system does more than that, because it creates of necessity, in order to be operated, electoral areas in which the natural and local interests of the electorate differ from one part of the district electoral area to the other, so that the whole significance of a ward in local government as an area small enough to share common interests which will be represented by the elected representative is destroyed by proportional representation.
In the creation of district electoral areas in parts of my constituency, for example, one lumps together towns, parts of towns and suburbs with deep rural areas whose interests and concerns may well be sharply differentiated. All the people in that district electoral area will have a menu card of representatives from whom to choose. They will not choose among those representatives on the ground that any one of them is identified with that area; they will choose on the ground of politics, which is exactly the ground on which our electoral system otherwise dissuades electors and those elected from viewing their mutual responsibilities.
If the object is to build up confidence in the integrity of the electoral process — words and phrases used frequently during the earlier debate — we could not go further in the opposite direction than by the process, which was experimented with in the 1973 elections, of proportional representation. That process was reaffirmed by the 1977 order, which the present order replaces.
I expect that in preparing himself for this debate, the Minister will have read again the debate that took place on 23 February 1977, when the earlier order was before the House. It was not a very long debate, but it is good reading. It was made clear that the question of proportional representation, as applied to local government elections in Northern Ireland, was at issue in that order. The Minister in charge at the time was the then hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield, Mr. Ray Carter, who, in common with all those who have served in the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment—I mention that Department, because it was the one with which he was particularly concerned — paid great attention to, and showed great alacrity in dealing with, the duties of his office. All those who have so served have adapted their interests and administration to the needs, as they perceive them, of those for whom they are responsible.
In the course of that debate, the then Minister realised that the acceptability or otherwise of the order was bound to turn upon the acceptability or otherwise of the principle of proportional representation. In that debate I made a reference that is pertinent to this debate. I said:
I give warning that my right hon. Friends and I will not cease to complain of this system, which we are unhappily perpetuating tonight, until it is removed by a further order".
Tonight we are presented with a further order that not only does not remove that system but repeats and reinforces the offence. Therefore, the Government cannot say that they are taken by surprise when I point out that we will not approve the order and thereby assent to the imposition of an abominable system upon the people of Northern Ireland which would not be acceptable for local government, or for other purposes, to the electorate in the remaining part of the United Kingdom.
In that distant year of 1977, the Minister's predecessor referred to my remarks and said:
The right hon. Member for Down, South concluded with a wide-ranging criticism of the PR system and suggested that we might come back at some time in the future with a Bill,
presumably in another stage of the decompression procedure, bringing Northern Ireland back into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.
He continued in prophetic mood:
I am afraid I cannot give the right hon. Member a time, place or date for such an event, but with his persistence and that of his colleagues, perhaps such a Bill may one day come about." —[0fficial Report. 23 February 1977; Vol. 926 c. 1581, 1586.]
During this Session, we have witnessed progress in that direction. Not so many days ago, we witnessed the Government's acceptance, in the teeth of the wishes of the Northern Ireland Office, of the principle put forward so firmly by the Opposition, that the electors of Northern Ireland are entitled to be governed under the same electoral laws as those in the rest of the United Kingdom. It has been an important Session in that respect, in that all sides of the House have joined together in establishing that as a principle. Thus, whatever contradictions a Government may be guilty of in future—as they are in this order the principle has at any rate been accepted by the House as a whole.
As my eye falls upon the date of February 1977 and upon the column heads for that debate, I recall that within a few weeks of those prescient remarks by Ray Carter, the House and all elements of it agreed that Northern Ireland should be equally represented together with the rest of the kingdom, and on the same scale in the House. Lo and behold, after a lapse of years, that came about. Tonight, I reaffirm what I said in 1977 with a conviction that is strengthened by the preceding debates on the Representation of the People Bill in this Session, that the day will come when the House will concede to Northern Ireland in electoral law that parity with the rest of the United Kingdom which it is now denied.
Meanwhile, it remains for those who represent Northern Ireland constituencies to repudiate the breach of the general principle, and to draw a lesson, which should be an instructive warning to those representing constituencies in other parts of the United Kingdom, against the folly of imagining that, by superseding our onefor-one electoral system and our unambiguous identification with the constituency of the elected person, we would do anything but damage to the electoral integrity of the process upon which the esteem and power of the House depends.
We shall endeavour to defeat the order tonight, not for the aspects to which the Minister referred but for what it does, and for the error that it repeats.
The backcloth to the order is that the people of Northern Ireland will be involved in elections that are very different from other elections in which candidates have stood. They will find themselves with new ward boundaries, with district electoral areas that have been regrouped, and with changes in the identification that is required before a vote can be given to any elector. In addition, I know that, certainly around the Belfast area, there are some extra and different polling stations. Thus, there will be considerable confusion.
Against that backcloth, I welcome the fact that the Minister has agreed that the hours should be lengthened. I suspect that my election workers will not be so grateful, but such a lengthening of hours is necessary because of the obvious delay that will arise.
As the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) said, the order carries on the process of proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-Member constituencies. I should make it clear from the outset that I do not oppose proportional representation for the sake of it. I believe that representation should be as near as possible proportional to the votes that are cast. Bur I do not believe in a system of STV in multi-Member constituencies.
One of the most essential ingredients of representation is that the elected representative should be clearly identified with, and clearly identifiable by, his constituents. Once one has a number of representatives —especially if they are from different parties—as one esteemed hon. Member has pointed out:
politics is riven by a parochialism made essential by the fact that each one of five Members is vying to persuade the same set of constituents that he alone holds the key to their interest and that he is capable of being even more parochial than the next Member.
Those words were uttered on 14 February 1985. The same hon. Member referred to
the manifest failures and inadequacies of proportional representation in so many countries
in truth it is a negation of democracy."—[Official Report, 14 February 1985; Vol. 73, c. 581–83.]
The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department made that accurate assessment of proportional representation by the single transferable vote in multi-Member constitutiencies.
Having been present in the House on that occasion—the Secretary of State will be pleased to hear—I heard the Minister utter those words, and I left the Chamber with great hope that when the local elections order was printed, I should find that a new system of voting was to be introduced for Northern Ireland district council elections.
I was shocked to discover that the Government had a double standard, one for the people of Northern Ireland and another for those on this side of the Irish sea. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate, he will at least attempt to justify the double standard of bringing to Northern Ireland what his colleague, speaking from the same Dispatch box, called a negation of democracy.
When dealing with that, he might care to explain why he did not do what many in Northern Ireland, especially in local government, advised him to do, and introduce in the order a provision dealing with the nomination of candidates to require any candidate standing in the 1985 local government elections to sign a pledge that he was opposed to violence.
Had the Minister been prepared to do that, he could to some extent have avoided many of the horrific consequences that we shall witness in local government after May of this year. It is important for him to be aware that, on the best evidence that the psephologists can present, we are likely to have about 60 IRA men in council chambers. It is likely that no fewer than three, and probably five or six, councils will be held on the controlling votes of IRA members. In one or two, or even more, of those councils it is likely that there will be an IRA front man as the mayor or chairman of the council.
The Minster has allowed Northern Ireland to drift into that situation by refusing to follow the logic of Government decisions in the past, when they have rightly refused to meet dlegations containing Sinn Fein members.
It was logical for the Government to have taken that decision. It was logical for us to expect that steps would be taken to ensure that we in Northern Ireland who must sit in local government would not have to do that which he and his colleagues refused to do, and sit down with Sinn Fein members.
The difficulties that are likely to occur must have come home to the Government when, after the tragic events of Newry, as Belfast local authority members stood for one minute in silence in memory of the gallant members of the RUC and UDR who had been killed, the Sinn Fein member sat throughout and refused to get to his feet. That was a passive action on the part of Sinn Fein, whereas in the coming months the activities of Sinn Fein in local government are likely to increase as their numbers are replenished in district councils.
This order presented the Minister with an excellent opportunity to insert a requirement that, when signing a nomination paper, a candidate must state his opposition to violence. It is clear that Sinn Fein believes in violence. Indeed, its members have publicly stated that they support it. They would have been seen, had they been prepared to sign such a paper, to be dishonest. I do not believe that they would have stood under those circumstances.
The Minister refused to accept the logic of banning Sinn Fein. Having failed to do that, this order presented him with an opportunity at least to make an effort to stop Sinn Fein from getting into the councils, so allowing those representatives of the Nationalist community who abhor violence to take their places in district councils and speak for their electorates in Northern Ireland.
I believe that violent acts will be seen in district councils after May. Local government will never be the same again because of the presence of Sinn Fein. There will be a degree of intolerance that even the most hardened council in Northern Ireland has not seen before. It is unlikely that the coming term of office will expire without there being violence in council chambers, especially at emotive times such as when deaths occur in the community.
I wish to consider the procedures in the order flowing directly from the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985. I do not intend to rehearse the opposition that I and other hon. Members expressed when that measure was going through the House. It is on the statute book and I must accept it.
However, I now have an opportunity to speak again on that subject. I shall do so only to the extent of asking the Minister to underline the reason that he gave for allowing the presiding officer or clerk in a polling station to assess for himself—if he had personal knowledge of the person appearing before him, even if the document which that person produced did not clearly identify the person—whether to allow the vote.
Paragraph 34(3) of the order states that the presiding officer or clerk
shall deliver a ballot paper … unless the … document raises a reasonable doubt as to whether the voter is the elector … he represents himself to be.
That, at first sight, appears to mean that if the document presented to the presiding officer or clerk contains a different name or address from that on the electoral register, a doubt will have been raised and the vote will not be permitted.
However, when the 1985 Act was going through Parliament, the Minister gave us to understand that if the presiding officer or clerk knew the person appearing before him to be the person on the electoral register—despite the fact that the document did not verify that—he could, acting on his own knowledge, hand over a ballot paper.
I urge that the degree of flexibility that that permits be impressed on presiding officers and their clerks at polling stations so that not only can delay be avoided but people are not unjustly disfranchised, especially when the presiding officer or clerk knows the person to be the person on the electoral register.
The Minister referred to the 10 pm deadline and said that would it bring us into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Some people will accept that as sufficient reason for the deadline. The fact that almost everything else in the order makes us different from the rest of the United Kingdom did not seem to trouble him. From my experience of polling stations—having stood in five or six elections— I believe that it is rare, in the closing moments of an election, not to have people rushing in to cast their votes.
I have often seen queues at polling stations as polling closes, whether at 8 o'clock or 10 o'clock at night, because people often leave voting to the last moment. On one occasion the queues were both inside and outside the polling station. I can imagine what would happen if a presiding officer put his hand over the ballot box and said, "Nobody else can vote." The least that he could expect would be verbal abuse from a room full of potential voters. More likely, disorder would occur. Certainly it would in west Belfast.
The Minister said that existing legislation was sufficient to deal positively with personation. That should be enough without suggesting that not only should we stop people outside the polling station from voting, but people inside who have already been handed a ballot paper.
I have reservations about deposit levels at any election. I do not like a person who cannot afford a large deposit being stopped from standing. He might be a worthy candidate, but might not have the support of a wealthy political party. However, at local level, when there is free postage, it would be unwise to remove the meagre deposit required at present. I remember a candidate in Northern Ireland standing for election when he knew that he had not the slightest chance of winning and that he would lose his deposit. He stood simply to advertise his business.
I fear that candidates will put their names forward in local elections merely to advertise their business. It will cost them nothing. The business will be drawn to the attention of every elector who goes to the ballot box. Everyone who reads the local newspaper will read about the election and the business will be advertised for nothing. The £15 deposit would at least dissuade some prople from standing as candidates. Advertising should not be permitted, but it has been permitted because it is hard for an electoral officer to prove that a person's name is put forward to enable him to advertise.
Unfortunately, the order cannot be amended, but I ask the Minister to consider my comments so that in future we do not allow free advertising by local candidates in Northern Ireland elections. If people want to advertise they must pay for it. If they want to stand for election and have some chance of success they should not worry about a meagre £15 deposit.
I interrupted the Minister and asked him about the standing list for EEC elections. He promised to make inquiries. Will he also inquire about the standing list for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections to see whether we can group them together so that we do not have the hassle experienced in the past?
The Minister spoke about closing the doors of polling stations. I am not sure what he means by a polling station. Article 22 makes it clear that he was talking about individual polling boxes. The article says:
One or more polling stations may be provided in the same room.
That is not what the ordinary man or woman regards as a polling station. The ordinary party workers in Northern Ireland, including myself, regard the polling station as the school where polling takes place.
The rooms in the school are locked when the deadline falls and the people inside the rooms are allowed to vote. If a person arrives one second after the key turns in the lock, he has had it. If the Minister is saying that those already inside will be prevented from voting, that is a different kettle of fish. I believe that he was telling the House and the people in Northern Ireland that even if a person is inside the locked room he will not be able to vote.
I appreciate the difficulty, and I understand the fear that large numbers might crowd in at the last minute, but I believe that that fear is ill-founded. If there is to be any misappropriation of votes, it will be in the middle of the big rush, which in Northern Ireland usually occurs in the evening between 5.30 and 8. That is when most people in Northern Ireland, particularly in the towns and villages, go to vote.
I make my comments in the knowledge that not one jot or tittle of the Order will be altered. I have several questions to ask before I deal with my views about proportional representation.
An extension of time is provided, from three months to six months, and from 21 days to 42 days. The Minister mentioned that, but he did not give the reasons for the extension. Will he explain why the times are being extended? I am aware of past problems.
The time limits were set down in the 1962 order, when the returning officer was the local district clerk. Since 1972 the returning officer has been the Chief Electoral Officer. The time limits in the 1962 order for a more local operation are not adequate for the Chief Electoral Officer to carry out his duties, and we are therefore extending the limits.
I thank the Minister for that explanation. Will the local council clerks act as the local electoral officers as they always have, or will the duties be carried out by the deputy electoral officers? That should be cleared up.
Article 27(2) mentions 5 pm in relation to the appointment of agents by candidates. The article suggests that it is possible to make a change if an agent is unable to be present. If an agent becomes ill, will the 5 pm deadline stand or will it be possible to appoint someone after that time? This is a matter that should be examined. We want to be up to date when dealing with the technicalities of getting the elections off the ground.
Article 30(2)(b) states that a person may be removed from a polling station
by the presiding officer's order … by a constable … or by any other person authorised in writing by the returning officer to remove him".
Whom does the Minister have in mind? Is he suggesting that other members of the security forces who are present at the polling station can take that action if it is desirable or necessary? The provision is so loosely written that one has no idea who would have such authority.
Article 48(3) sets out in essence the first-past-the-post principle, which will be used when only one vacancy is to be filled. I raised that matter during previous debates and said that in effect that meant that we would have a first-past-the-post system at by-elections where only one seat was to be filled. The Minister disagreed with me. Although he was correct because of the way in which I put it, it is accurate to say that it is a first-past-the-post election by the exhaustive voting system because one of the candidates must gain more than 50 per cent. of the votes. Exactly the same result would probably be reached if the individuals were fighting on a simple majority electoral system. The Minister shakes his head, but I should like to know on how many occasions it has not worked out in that way. It usually comes down to the first-past-the-post result in the end.
Hon. Members have already commented on the use of the single transferable vote system in Northern Ireland. I recall the arguments about that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when some folk were shouting for it. One of the reasons given then was that it would be good because it would break the mould in Northern Ireland politics. If those who were happy at that prospect in 1970 could return to the House, they might not be so pleased in 1985 with the consequences of breaking the mould of politics in Northern Ireland.
In some quarters there is anxiety about proportional represention only because of a fear of Sinn Fein electoral success under the process. However, the intention of the STV system is to help minorities, regardless of who they are. The system tends to turn minority votes into quotas and, therefore, into seats on a council. Anyone who does not understand that is shutting his eyes to the realities of the system that has been introduced and is used in Northern Ireland.
The way to stop abuse is to produce a proper identity card—we shall not stop it with this order or with the previous legislation. However, the Government have steadfastly turned their back on that. Instead, they chose a complex system of preventing personation and persist in using an electoral system which negates all their efforts hitherto. The use of the STV system is a main reason why Northern Ireland political life has been in turmoil for the past 12 years. The system, more than any other, makes personation worth while, because personation can be spread over a considerable number of polling stations—perhaps nine or 10—and a relatively small number of people can go through a polling station, be lumped together and make up a quota. Even with the restrictions, Sinn Fein will undoubtedly do that. It will be sufficient to put Sinn Fein members on to councils in many parts of Northern Ireland, and many of the evils already mentioned will flow from that.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) gave his reasons for wanting a first-past-the-post system, not least of which was the rapport which grows between an elected member of a ward or constituency and his electors. The objection has been voiced in many quarters, and has been echoed in the House today, that even relatively large minority votes under the first-past-the-post system are not represented by their party. Time and again hon. Members have said that that is a source of division and resentment in the community. The truth is that the real strength of the simple majority system is that the representative who is responsible must meet and deal with all sections of the population, some of whom are unfriendly to him at first. In doing so, he finds out that they do not all have horns and cloven feet.
There are two important differences. First, it was a multi-member ward. In multimember wards where several representatives are elected on the first-past-the-post system, most of them are members of the same political party. The Minister was working in a system with which we in Northern Ireland are familiar. It is different in its outcome from the proportional representation system. I am sorry that the Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and defends PR, when he has no understanding of the practicalities on the ground. If he had, he could not have uttered those words.
The truth is that a single-member consituency or ward does more to create cohesion and respect for the various elements in society than any other, and that the PR system is inherently divisive. That is a fact of STV systems which I am sorry is not understood. If the Minister understood it, we would be discussing, not this order, but a straightforward simple majority system.
In 1977 my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down said that PR was an aching tooth that had to be taken away.
It is a rotten tooth that aches. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will forgive my mistake. I listened to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department make his attack on PR a few days ago from the very same Dispatch Box. I am curious to know who is speaking for the Government on this matter. Was it the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, when he took part in the debate on the Representation of the People Bill, or was it the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? Is he speaking for the Government, the Northern Ireland Office or the Foreign Office? The Government should have only one voice—
The Government cannot have two views on this subject. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If proportional representation is so good at producing the marvellous results that are claimed for it, why do we not have it in local government elections in Great Britain? On every occasion it is rejected, often with the same arguments that are used by my hon. Friends against proportional representation in Northern Ireland.
If we wanted to ensure representation for the small minority groups, it would be better to introduce smaller wards, but that would not be cohesive. In Limavady the wards are more attuned to the communities than they used to be when we had to try to join differing groups across ward boundaries. We seemed to get away from that in the last redrawing of local government boundaries, but not as far as one would have wished.
In the Benbraddagh electoral area, in which I live, five wards stretch from the top of Glershare mountain down to and including part of the urban district of Limavady 17 miles away. I wonder how any Minister or Government can try to defend this mad system, which has done Ulster, Ulster politics and the Government no good, but which has done a great deal of good to organisations such as Sinn Fein, whose members are the front men of the IRA. For all we know, they may be active members of the IRA when the notion takes them. It is only because of this system that those violent, evil minorities have managed to gain a toehold in councils and in the Assembly. Perhaps eventually, should it ever be used here, they will get into the House. I know that a Sinn Fein Member has been elected to the House, although he was elected on a minority vote. In time, that aberration will disappear, but to continue using a system which guarantees that the most evil, wicked and violent elements in society can obtain representation in places where they can cause problems for law-abiding citizens and for the Government is mad. The sooner we are rid of the system, the better. If the Government had any wit, they would take away this nonsense tonight and introduce an order which does not contain the STV system.
This is very much a trial-and-error order, because it introduces new procedures that will be put to the test in the local elections in May this year. I trust that the Minister will watch what happens at those elections and will be prepared to change the legislation if he discovers that the present proposals are wanting. Some of the recommendations in the order will not, in practice, be suitable for local government in the Province.
The first matter that I raise is allowable expenses for candidates fighting the local elections. It is understandable in a United Kingdom general election to have standard guidelines for expenses incurred by parliamentary candidates throughout the United Kingdom, because they are contesting constituencies which, in general, have the same number of electors. The usual figure is between 60,000 and 70,000. However, the weird system that the Northern Ireland Office imposes upon us in local government elections, means that there is a great variance in the size of the electoral areas. In some areas, the electorate is 10 times the size of that in other areas, which means that under the present recommendations in the order, some candidates will be able to spend 10 times as much as other candidates, perhaps in adjoining electoral areas. For example, the electoral areas in the Moyne division have extremely small populations, whereas in Belfast city the electorates are much larger. Yet the allowances are on a per capita basis. I believe that for local government elections in Northern Ireland, allowable expenses should not be on a per capita basis, although I understand why they are for United Kingdom parliamentary elections.
I support what hon. Members have said about the fact that no deposits will be required in the forthcoming local government elections. Once again, we must take into account the special and weird system that the Northern Ireland Office continues to impose on us—the multi-Member constituency and the multi-member electoral ward. The system means that many candidates' names are on the ballot paper. Often, there is not simply one candidate for each of the main political parties in the Province, but several. There is already a fairly lengthy ballot paper, but in addition, the order will encourage a free-for-all, with any Tom, Dick or Harry being able to put down his name and have it added to the ballot paper for the purposes of self-advertisement or as a publicity stunt. There must be some control over those who can contest elections. Returning officers will be worried that no provision has been made for a small deposit to be paid by those who wish legitimately to pursue the democratic process in local government elections.
I do not approve of the extension of polling hours in local government elections. The times used to be from 8 am until 8 pm, but the new recommendation is that polling should start at 7 am and finish at 10 pm. I understand why the Minister was encouraged to change the hours. He introduced the new system whereby those intending to vote must produce identification such as passports or driving licences. Therefore, it may take much longer for people to vote than heretofore. I hope that, under the new procedure, more staff will be provided to make the system of polling more efficient, so that it will not be a prolonged affair. If the system were made more efficient, it might be possible to retain the old polling hours.
If Parliament approves the Representation of the People Bill, the hours of 7 am to 10 pm will apply to all elections. The idea of having different times for local elections in Northern Ireland does not have much merit. It would only confuse people, who may turn up between 8 pm and 10 pm expecting to be able to vote and discover that they cannot do so. Some consistency is desirable.
Practice on the ground is different, as the Minister would begin to learn if he was in Northern Ireland more often. The polling stations are almost empty after 8 pm. We must remember that we are talking about local government elections, which we have had in Northern Ireland since 1921. During the past 15 years, my experience has been that, after 8 pm, hardly a soul turns up to vote. The staff sit there for the last two hours with very little to do.
The right hon. Gentleman cannot have toured many polling stations during the EC election. Some people were turned away at 10 o'clock and could not vote.
That is the point that I am trying to make. We are talking about local government elections. My experience in British parliamentary elections and European elections is entirely different, but we should remember that the turnout at local government elections is considerably lower than the turnout for United Kingdom general elections. We are lucky to get a 50 per cent. turnout in some local government elections. I assure the House that, after 8 pm, the number of those wishing to vote is extremely small. Will the Minister conduct a survey at the local elections in May to discover what percentage of the electorate votes between 8 pm and 10 pm?
Would it not be correct to say that the reason why we saw nobody after 8 pm at the polling stations during the last local government elections was that 8 pm was the closing time? People would have been unable to vote after 8 o'clock. Does the hon. Member appreciate that in areas such as West Strabane 90 per cent. of the electorate vote, not 50 per cent?
The percentages certainly vary. I am asking the Minister to allow the point to be tested. I see that the Minister is shaking his head as if to say that he will not allow it to be tested. However, I believe that it would be helpful if during the local government elections next May we discovered what percentage of the electorate voted between 8 pm and 10 pm. We should learn something from those figures. More staff must be made available next May at the polling stations because of the special procedures which will be used for the first time.
I disagree with the recommendation that people should be prohibited from voting even if they are at the pulling station before 10 pm. If an individual is there before 10 pm, he is to be denied the right to vote if somebody ahead of him in the queue takes a long time to produce his passport or driving licence for checking by the returning officer. It will cause great resentment among those who have made every effort to be at the polling station between 8 am and 10 pm. I do not understand why such people are to be denied the right to vote.
Computers are being introduced throughout the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, to assist the political parties. We heard earlier that the Government have provided Sinn Fein, free of cost, with telex machines. I hope that Sinn Fein is paying the monthly rental for those machines. Computers are also being introduced. Certain electoral officers in Great Britain are making available to the political parties print-outs of the electoral roll in their wards or constituencies. In certain constituencies the printouts are made available free of charge while in others a charge is made. The political parties in Northern Ireland should also be able to take advantage of the new technology. I welcome the fact that local government candidates in Northern Ireland are to enjoy free postal services.
In conclusion, I refer to proportional representation, which has already been debated at length this afternoon. This is a burning issue throughout Northern Ireland. Therefore, it is astounding that the Minister did not refer to it in his opening speech. He seems to be out of touch with the real political issues in the Province. I hope that in his closing speech he will take the opportunity to defend the introduction and maintenance of proportional representation in local government elections there. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department gave his opinion of proportional representation. The practice in Northern Ireland is contrary to that followed in the rest of the United Kingdom. Why do we have to be different? The Minister must say why. If he does not give an adequate explanation we shall oppose the order.
It is important for local government representatives to be local people. The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) referred to an electoral area that was about 80 miles long. How can councillors living at one end of that area be described as "local" if they represent people who live at the other end of the area? That applies in my constituency of Strangford. A housing estate in Newtownards is linked to Killinchey, which is at the other end of Strangford Lough. Killinchey is rural and is a nice boating area. There is no common link between Newtownards and Killinchey. Nevertheless, all the councillors could live in Killinchey. There would be no common link with the housing estate at Newtownards. That is the cruel situation that is being created in Northern Ireland at local government level by the maintenance of the proportional representation system.
There is another problem. The Northern Ireland Office may have intended when it introduced proportional representation to divide the Ulster Unionists from the other main Loyalist parties in Northern Ireland. With the single transferable vote and multi-member areas, several candidates from the same party can contest an election in the same area. Therefore they fight not only their political opponents, but their party colleagues. That is no good for the political life of our community. All the parties suffer from the system. The proportional representation, single transferable vote system would work if there were only one candidate from each party, but experience, especially in the Republic of Ireland, has shown that STV candidates spend their time not fighting their political opponents but stabbing their party colleagues in the back. That is why the Fianna Fail party committed itself to the abolition of STV.
The only reason why Northern Ireland still has STV, despite its weaknesses, is that the system is used in the Republic. The Northern Ireland Office wants Northern Ireland to use the same system as is used in the Republic, not the system that is believed to be right for the rest of the United Kingdom. Because the order is yet another occasion when the Northern Ireland Office is not giving the people of Northern Ireland the same rights as are enjoyed in the rest of the United Kingdom, and because it will not strengthen and integrate the union, we shall oppose it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) has once again put his finger on an ambiguity. When we look at that ambiguity, we realise that there are problems which we had not expected. I refer to the definition of "polling station". I had always believed "polling station" to mean the school or other public building that is used at elections. However, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, it is defined in the order as the exact location where the presiding officer is sitting and where the ballot box is placed. It does not even include the booth where the ballot paper is marked.
Paragraph (4) of article 22 states:
The returning officer shall provide each polling station with such number of compartments as may be necessary in which the voters can mark their votes screened from observation.
Therefore, the actual compartments are not part of the polling station. As I understand the order, the polling station is defined as the precise location of the ballot box, the presiding officer and his agent. That is confirmed in paragraph (3) of article 22, which states:
The polling station allotted to electors from any polling district shall be in the polling place for that district.
Therefore, the school or other building which was formerly believed to be the polling station is now defined as "the polling place". The precise location of the polling station will be the ballot box.
What will be the ramifications for agents and other party workers? In the past I have always been able to ensure the removal of posters from the fences, gates and doors of polling stations. I was able to do so because "polling station" was defined as the area within the curtilage of the building. That included walls, fences or gates, for example. If that is no longer the definition of a polling station, and if we are now to talk about the polling place, it will not be possible to object to the placing of posters in the areas that I have described. That is a ramification of major significance.
In a number of elections I have been able to have evicted from the polling station active members of Sinn Fein who were prominently displaying their Sinn Fein favours and who were in a position to intimidate those entering the polling station to vote. Will I now be unable to object to members of Sinn Fein being in the polling station? Will these people be able to festoon the building with posters depicting black flags, as they have done in the recent past? On that occasion I was able to have the posters removed. Will they be able to patrol the corridors leading to and from the various rooms where the polling places are now to be located? These are significant matters, and I hope that the Minister will respond to them.
There will be problems for the Chief Electoral Officer. Article 25(3)(c) states that the Chief Electoral Officer will have to set out on the official poll card
the date and hours of the poll and the situation of the elector's polling station.
He will no longer be able to refer to King's Park school, for example. Will he have to refer to the gymnasium of King's Park school? Will he have to specify the bottom right corner of the gymnasium of King's Park school, or the number of the classroom? If there are two polling places in a particular classroom, will he have to define where the polling place is in that room?
There are further problems. Articles 29 and 30 deal with admission to polling stations. Is admission to the polling station admission to the narrowly defined area of the location of the ballot box? If someone is creating a problem that causes difficulty for those responsible for keeping order in the polling station, article 30 provides that if that person
fails to obey the presiding officer's lawful orders he may immediately, by the presiding officer's order, be removed from the polling station".
Does that mean that he is ejected into the corridor? This is important, because he will be able to continue to cause problems in the corridor. The same applies to ejection into the playground. Article 30 states:
the person so removed shall not, without the presiding officer's permission, again enter the polling station during the day.
Does that mean that he can patrol the polling place or wander around the rest of the polling place as much as he wants as long as he does not enter the vicinity of the polling place?
There are polling stations in County Armagh where it is necessary to know precisely what is meant by this legislation. It is necessary to be able to enforce what is meant and to insist that the presiding officer does so. I hope that we shall have some clarification. It seems that "polling station" means different things in different places in the order.
Article 22(3) states:
The polling station allotted to electors from any polling district shall be in the polling place for that district.
Surely that is not to suggest that there will be only one polling place for each district electoral area. Surely that cannot be right, especially if the district electoral area stretches for about 15 miles and, for example, has a river running through it. If I am interpreting the provision correctly, there will be severe geographical and security problems.
Only yesterday I lodged an objection with the Chief Electoral Officer of Northern Ireland about the draft polling scheme. It is possible that he has acted in the light of article 22(3). He is insisting, or appears to be, that all the electors in a particular ward in Lurgan must go to one polling station. The polling station that he has chosen is situated on one side of a line which has been designated as a flashpoint area since 1969. This will create enormous problems for the security forces as well as for party workers and electors. The electors will have to cross the flashpoint area before they vote, and there will be enormous potential for trouble. I believe that the Chief Electoral Officer has been deterred from splitting the ward to allow the two segments of the ward to vote in safer polling stations. He may well feel that he is inhibited by article 22(3).
My hon. Friend may be interested to know that the Feeny ward is split in three, with polling stations in three different schools. It is the ward in which I happen to live.
Does my hon. Friend agree that much of the difficulty arises from the high-handed attitude of the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland? It has maintained the tradition of ignoring the advice of political parties which have been fighting elections for many years and whose combined experience is far greater than that of any boundary commission. Not so long ago a boundary commissioner in Northern Ireland ignored the advice of a political party because no other political party had bothered to make a submission. He explained that he thought that he and the commission might be biased if he were even to read the submission. It is hardly surprising that the wrong decision was made.
My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear me say that I agree with him. Nothing surprises me any more about the electoral law which applies to Northern Ireland or the election processes applicable to it. The Minister has been asked to comment upon the observations of one of his ministerial colleagues at the Home Office. We shall be told that Northern Ireland is different. Whenever Northern Ireland is segregated from the rest of the United Kingdom — this applies to electoral matters and hundreds of others — we are told that Northern Ireland is different. That is the only explanation that Ministers can offer, and I have no doubt that we shall hear it again this evening.
I am pleased that the Minister has told us that the Chief Electoral Officer of Northern Ireland will take an initiative on the absent voters' list. Once the order is passed, I hope that the Chief Electoral Officer will move quickly. Some party workers are already concerned, and they may already be taking action. If the Chief Electoral Officer is to correspond with those on the existing absent voters' list to ask them whether they wish to he on the same list for local government elections, that will relieve us all, especially those who are qualified as absent voters. We shall be relieved of a great worry over the coming weeks.
Unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South, I am happy about polling stations remaining open until 10 o'clock. I would prefer the stations to be empty from 9 o'clock until 10 o'clock rather than have the prospect in the last half hour of coping with some of the difficulties and problems which have been described. Because it is a local government election, I hope that no one will queue up to 10 pm for a vote only to be denied that vote because the hour has struck. We might find that it is unnecessary to keep polling stations open for 15 hours, but, with the new demand on our electors, I believe that the more time we give people the better.
I agree with what the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said about Sinn Fein. The Government were let off the hook by Sir George Baker, who recommended in his report that the Government should give urgent consideration to other means of dealing with Sinn Fein if they were not prepared to proscribe the organisation. For 18 months the Government have shilly-shallied and delayed holding a debate on this issue to hear what Northern Ireland Members have to say, and they are now confronted with precisely the situation described by the hon. Member for Belfast, East.
Why should the Minister, as an elected representative, think that he is different from any Northern Ireland Local councillor when it comes to dealing with murderers and the apologists for murderers? Why should the Minister say, "I shall not talk to Gerry Adams or his ilk because they support, apologise for and defend killers," but expect my friends in the Craigavon and Banbridge district council areas to co-operate with those people for the well-being of the whole community?
Is it not difficult for the elected representatives on district councils to look across the floor at persons who are the godfathers of the IRA and who planned and plotted the murder of some of our best friends? Yet they are expected, as members of district councils, to carry on a political debate with those godfathers of the IRA. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is disgraceful?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, this will be compounded 30 or 40 times, because there will be many more of those people to whom we must listen. The Government should have faced this before. I hope that in the years ahead the Government will not wring their hands and wish that local government representatives in Northern Ireland would act in a more cooperative fashion for the well-being of those who elected them.
What will be the procedure on election day? It has been suggested to me that, to avoid confusion and congestion at the polling stations, an advance guard will be put on the polling place and people will be admitted only if they have their identification with them. There will be immense organisational problems for the parties as well as for everyone else. I understand why that guard is proposed. If the problem can be kept at arm's length, perhaps there is some merit in it. Perhaps people can be sent away and told to come back when they have the proper identification.
That was my first thought. I am told that if someone was designated as a second presiding officer, or as a senior presiding officer, he could stand in a particular place and vet voters. I believe that there will be many problems in doing that. I presume that the Minister has been consulted on this matter, and I hope that he can give us some assistance. The Northern Ireland people want to know whether voters will go to polling stations, produce their documents in the way that I have described and obtain their vote in the normal way, or whether they will have to go through a two-stage operation before they can cast their vote.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) made a useful comment in opening his speech when he said that, after May, local government in Northern Ireland will never be the same. The House would be deluding itself if it thought that there would be normal local government in Northern Ireland after 15 May. There will be confrontation after confrontation. Belfast city council has shown us what we can expect with one or two Sinn Fein members. Sinn Fein members are bringing their supporters with them to council meetings. A council chairman who is afraid to offend Sinn Fein allows those supporters to sit near the place where councillors take their seats. We know the type of mob rule that will come into local government in Northern Ireland.
The House and the Government should have taken a serious view of this matter but, instead, there is a double standard. A Minister of the Crown in Northern Ireland says to Sinn Fein, "You are political lepers, and we don't talk to you." However, the Government expect their civil servants to talk to Sinn Fein and the elected representatives and people of Northern Ireland to co-operate with Sinn Fein in local government.
There is no difference between a Sinn Fein man and an IRA man. The IRA is the military wing of Sinn Fein. At night they are IRA men and during the day they pose as public representatives. During the day they talk about the ballot box and at night they use the Armalite, the bomb and the mortar to do their murder work. I could not agree more with the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker) when he said that the Government were given an opportunity by an outside source—so they cannot be accused that they thought this up—to say, "Let people who eschew violence be prepared to make that declaration and be nominated." We know perfectly well that Sinn Fein would not and does not eschew violence and therefore should not stand for election.
The Government believe in some way that it is their business to save the SDLP. The leader of the SDLP does not even think it worth his while to sit through the whole of this debate, even though we are discussing this subject because of SDLP representations about Sinn Fein. That is hard to stomach. The gravity of this situation will be seen only when the results of the May elections are known.
For some reason, some hon. Members have wished to change the voting patterns in Northern Ireland. They have thought that that could be done by altering constituencies, gerrymandering boundaries and changing the voting system but, through the years, the Northern Ireland people have demonstrated where their loyalties lie. All the changes have made no difference. At the end of elections, the rock-solid desire of the people of Northern Ireland to remain an integral part of this kingdom and to refuse any arrangements with the Irish Republic has been signalled repeatedly.
I remember what happened during the first election for the Northern Ireland Assembly. The words "On Her Majesty's Service" were actually taken off the envelopes that contained the postal ballots. In fact, the civil servants painted out those words on some envelopes. I brought up that matter with the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). He said that those words offended people and that it was better to take off those words so that the people would vote. The words "On Her Majesty's Service" were struck out. Concessions were made.
The old saying:
Loyalty to the half crown if not to the Crown
is applicable in those circumstances. I did not make any inquiry. We were told that we could not call the Assembly a Parliament; we had to call it an Assembly because at that time the agitators had an assembly at Dungiven. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) was the president of the so-called Assembly of North Irishmen. It was a wonderful institution. The former hon. Member for Belfast, East, the then Mr. Fitt, did not fit in. He attended it once only although he was the leader of the group.
All those interesting things happened. Various changes were made, but every time, the electorate said, "Look, this is where our loyalties lie." All the electoral and boundary changes did not make any difference. The people cast their votes.
Has the hon. Member considered that Dungiven castle, in which the Republican Parliament met, was built for famine relief? Perhaps the Republicans were showing their famine for a united Ireland by meeting there in the first place.
Hon. Members can draw their own conclusions, but it was not an effective place to meet. The Republicans must have been famished for want of intelligence, because it did not do them any good then.
The people cast their votes, but the results of the ballot in Northern Ireland have not been acceptable to successive Governments. They do not like how the people of Northern Ireland vote. That is the root cause of all the trouble. We make all these changes, but the people still vote.
I should prefer to see a uniform system of voting in the whole of the United Kingdom. I prefer having a constituency that I can call my own. However, despite all the agitation and changes when the Unionists were united in the United Ulster Unionist Coalition they put it on record at the convention that if the suggested system was desired and if the minorities felt that it was the only way to bring peace, then they would wear it. They said that they would consider a modified list system. They spelt that out clearly.
The elected representatives of the Unionist people of Northern Ireland were not intransigent. They clearly said that if the suggested electoral system would bring peace, they would vote in that way. After all, the first Parliament in Northern Ireland was elected in that way and it was built in to the old Stormont system for electing the Senate.
We can have the single transferable vote or any other electoral system in Northern Ireland, but the hard Republican core of the people will not concede that it has democracy or liberty. Whichever way the Assembly is elected, the Republicans will still be against it, and seek to root it out and destroy it.
The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) was riding one of his hobby horses when he said that Northern Ireland had equal representation at Westminister, but in paragraph 4 of its findings, the UUUC said that, if it was to have equal representation at Westminister, Northern Ireland should have 24 seats in the House. It wanted
the boundaries and exact number of the constituencies to be determined by judicial commission on a basis and scale similar to comparable parts of the United Kingdom.
The party opposite was in the Assembly and it voted for that. I think that we were done out of proper representation in this House, but that is a matter for argument.
If we are to have an election in Northern Ireland, it should be run in a way to give public representatives some confidence in the electoral law. Many things have been mentioned tonight that the Government must face up to.
I asked that the polling hours be extended, and I believe that I was right to do so. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) has left the Chamber. Many of the things that he said were nonsense because, in the old elections — the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) knew this well — there were many multi-seat councils. Ballymoney town council had 10 seats. The members all stood together. Belfast city council had four seats in a ward — an alderman and four councillors. No points can be made from that. The wards worked in different ways.
We are going to have an election where people will be bamboozled about a document. We have had the first literature about the document through our doors. The confusion has already started. People are asking what document they should take. A lady said to me, "Will it be all right if I take my marriage lines?" I told her that it would not be all right because she did not come into the category of someone needing marriage lines. I told her that she would need another document.
I must give the Minister credit. He took on board the fact that we wanted longer polling hours. I am grateful for that. If there is no one in the polling booth at 9 o'clock after a high poll, I shall be quite happy. An hour's rest will not do anyone any harm at the end of the day.
I know what will happen in the election. It will be another roll call of those who say no to Sinn Fein, no to the Irish forum and no to a united Ireland. The temperature will be hot. There will be a massive vote at the election. People will be voting with their feet. People will come without a document. They will have to be sent away. The parties will have to have transport to take the people home, wait until they have gone through their drawers to discover the document and then return them to the polling station. We will therefore need longer hours. I hope that point will be taken. We will need more workers in the polling stations. That is important.
I am glad that the poll card will carry a reminder about the documents that are required. That will be helpful. The Minister must clarify the points that have been put tonight.
I want to ask the Minister about the national flag being flown at polling stations. There is an argument about it at every election. Sinn Fein objects to the national flag being flown. At some polling stations it is taken down by the presiding officer but at others it still flies. Will the Minister tell us what the law is on that matter? The grievances start in the morning and run all day. The heat and the opposition start early. It is an important matter. Opposition Members who know nothing about Northern Ireland elections might wonder why I am talking about a flag. If they knew how deep the feeling runs they would know what happens. The presiding officer is accused of being a rebel, an IRA man, a Sinn Feiner, and so forth. All sorts of things happen in polling stations. For the sake of peace, let us know what the law is.
The matters that the hon. Member for Upper Bann mentioned must be clarified. One presiding officer will take one view. He will refer to the old rule and say, "This school is a polling station." When I read that I did not understand it. I asked my friends on the way over, "What is a polling station? Is it the place itself—the school or the building—or is it just part of the building?" I hope that the Minister can clarify that point.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker) settled for the interpretation that the polling place is the building in which polling takes place, while the polling station is the ballot box, the presiding officer and the clerk. If that interpretation is incorrect, the order needs to be radically changed. It provides for only one political agent from each political party for the whole polling station. If the polling station is actually the whole polling place, one political agent will not be enough.
The Minister should give a clear definition tonight of the polling place and the polling station. We will then know how many workers we can have in the place and in the station.
An order laid here cannot be amended; the order will go through tonight. I do not know how the Government can amend the order, or clarify the position, without withdrawing it. I know that an interpretation given by the Minister at the Dispatch Box cannot be taken to be the judicial opinion on an Act or an order, but we would like to know what the Government have in mind with regard to this important matter.
I hope and pray that the election period will pass quietly, but I doubt that that is possible. I know that those parties which had hoped for a full turnout of people will have difficulty because of the changes that did not need to be made.
I would be far happier if one identity card had been issued. Everyone would have had a poll card — an identity card — when they cast their vote, and after the election, the Government could have considered other matters.
Good suggestions have been made to the Minister about the possibility of registering in a certain way, requiring a signature, and so on. I know that such suggestions cannot be adopted at this election. We missed the boat, and we now have a cumbersome system and many difficulties to overcome. It will be a difficult time for Northern Ireland. The Sinn Fein vote will come out, but there will be people who will say, "We have had all these difficulties. What is the use?" The measure that the Government thought would help against Sinn Fein may be the very thing that will help it.
In a sense, we are engaged in a two-tier discussion. On one tier, hon. Members have been seeking clarification of many important points which should be cleared up well in advance of the election campaign.
On the second tier, there is the fundamental objection that we nearly all share to the principle — or lack of principle—of the proportional representation system. In recent elections there has been a great deal of confusion over the definition of the polling station. On many occasions, the wrong ruling has been given. The confusion arises, first, from the fact that the Representation of the People Act, supported by that authoritative document, "Parker's Election Guide", defined the polling station for the purposes of a Westminster election as the room in which polling takes place. I have in my files at home a Home Office ruling on that point in regard to a building that still exists in my own constituency. The ruling was given in the 1960s.
The Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962, on the other hand, on which the order is based, gave a different ruling. It defined the polling station as the entire building, and, in some cases, the curtilage of the building. That was a recipe for confusion. As long as the two systems of election in Northern Ireland were kept separate, we got away with it. The confusion did not arise. Stormont elections and local government elections were clearly held under the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962, while Westminster elections were held under the Representation of the People Act.
Once that blessed creature known as the chief electoral officer was introduced—I speak of the office rather than of a particular person — together with all his attendant satellites, assistants and assistant deputies, the confusion became compounded. Those officials took it upon themselves to define the position as it suited them on any particular occasion. They took what they wanted out of whichever electoral Act best suited their purposes. Consequently, they not only gave mistaken rulings but caused confusion in the minds of the unfortunate people who had to operate the system—the presiding officers in the various polling stations. Many decisions were made that were quite wrong in law. Had they ever been contested in an election court, I fear that some times—I will not specify the occasions, because I have a vested interest in some of them — candidates might have been unseated. That is how serious the situation is.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker) has drawn attention to the third element of confusion—rule 22 (2) and (3). Rule 22(3) refers to the polling district. That is a new term. In the old days we knew what a polling district was, but in these enlightened days of wards and electoral areas created for the purpose of holding proportional representation elections, it is doubtful whether anyone understands the term "polling district". That is another matter that needs clarification.
It is very important that all those contradictions should be avoided. That can only be done in an authoritative manner. The rulings must be clearly understood by every one engaged officially in running the elections. The Chief Electoral Officer must be clear in his own mind about the precise directions that he is giving and the possible interpretations of those directions. The unfortunate presiding officers and clerks at the polling station, as well as the party officials there, have a right to obtain clear rulings.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann, I have heard rumours and reports of a filtering device being employed at the entrance of a polling station or polling place. Such ideas are being bandied about, and the Minister has a golden opportunity tonight to put a stop to them.
The Minister who piloted through the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985 — that unwanted piece of legislation—will be well aware that any attempt to filter and vet electors when they present themselves at the entrance to the polling station is illegal under that Act. Section 1(2)(1B) of that Act clearly provides that, when and elector produces one of the prescribed documents, the presiding officer or clerk to whom it is produced must issue that elector with a ballot paper.
If the rumours — they are rather better than wild rumours, as some of us could name those who have been consulted, but would not want to damage their chances of promotion, such as they are—are correct and the weird schemes are put into effect, the filtering officer at the door of the polling station, since he has no discretion, would have to produce the ballot paper on demand. He would also have to have at hand a copy of the register, to check the identity of the elector. I hope that the Minister will be provoked into slapping down such fanciful ideas today, and no later.
The Minister said that the Chief Electoral Officer and his deputies are the proper people to run elections, especially local government elections. We do not dissent. Council clerks used to perform the duties and there were occasionally hiccups. For example, a fairly inexperienced council clerk cheerfully permitted all the candidates to nominate themselves, and he accepted their nominations on the basis of their electoral placing, title and number on the list of electors printed on the blue sheets which came out in November, rather than on the register in February. Fortunately, that slip-up was detected in time. Council clerks have achieved miracles and done what I have never been able to do — make sense of the procedures regarding proportional representation election counts.
My hon. Friend might think so, but I put them in the same category as decimal coinage and metric measurement—I do not want to know at my time of life. If the advocates of proportional representation in the House—thankfully, they are becoming fewer—could see the charade of an election count under proportional representation, I am sure that they would oppose it for the rest of their lives. We have recently been encouraged by the evidence given by, and the common sense of, hon. Members in debates on the Representation of the People Bill. There were few supporters of proportional representation in those debates and they are confined entirely to that element of the House which is absent today.
I am sure that the House shares my disappointment at the failure of my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) to illustrate how proportional representation did what one would have thought impossible — return councillors whom the electorate clearly did not want. The returning officer tells himself that he must establish a quota once he knows how many votes have been cast, and then determines which candidates have reached the quota. He suddenly realises that only six have reached the quota and that there are seven stools to be occupied. He casts his eye over the other candidates who have remained patiently in the place of the count, seizes on the most likely lad among the also-rans and declares him elected, although he has not reached the quota.
Hon. Members have mentioned the consequences of PR elections. Those who believe that electors are advantaged by having a choice of perhaps seven representatives are mistaken. For example, a well-subscribed petition might be given to Councillor A, who takes it to the responsible Minister and asks that the petition be considered carefully. A small group of the signatories then strike on the bright idea of going to Councillor B. Unfortunately, they do not have a copy of the original petition, so they present a garbled version. In some cases, that version differs materially from the original.
The fun does not stop there, as other groups of signatories feel that there is benefit to be derived from approaching all the other councillors, and they all give a different version. It might be simple if it stopped with the Department, as it might be able to make some sense of it all, but the matter is taken up with other authorities in Northern Ireland, thus adding to the confusion. Ministers can justifiably claim that they can sort out such confusion but, in this wicked world, we must acknowledge that the confusion creates a haven to which bureaucrats can retreat and in which they are immune to the probing attacks of Ministers, however diligent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann made a forecast which I believe will prove true. It is that the Minister will, like his predecessors, perpetuate proportional representation on the grounds that Northern Ireland is different. Ministers have consistently been hell-bent on keeping Northern Ireland different, and that is why we end up being regarded as different. The Secretary of State might recall the Prime Minister of the day in 1972 saying, when asked the purpose of abolishing Stormont and introducing some weird legislation, that it was designed to break the mould. Proportional representation was one of the hammers used to break the mould. It failed, as was illustrated dramatically after one of these crazy elections in Northern Ireland — it might have been for the first Northern Ireland Assembly — when the Secretary of State, sitting in the Tea Room with his head in his hands the day after the count said, "Jim, I'm sorry, I have to admit that a majority will remain a majority no matter how you rig the system." It is precisely because the PR system fails on every count that we have to say, "Away with it." We on this Bench are therefore compelled to vote tonight against what in this order has clearly proved to be a failed system.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) I listened with great interest to his arguments and to the various speeches that have been made. I felt rather like the bull fighter in a couple of lines of Spanish poetry which John Kennedy liked very much:
Bull-fight critics ranked in rows fill the arena full.
But only one is there who knows—and he's the one who fights the bull.
I am not entirely sure who it is who has been fighting the bull, whether it is the Minister or the right hon. Members for South Down (Mr. Powell) and for Lagan Valley and the hon. Members for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross), for Strangford (Mr. Taylor), for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker), for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). I do know, however, that I am certainly the critic in what was a solitary row, but I am very glad to be joined by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer).
I want to congratulate the Minister, as I have in the past, on the careful and articulate way in which he has taken the House through the terms of the order. He described it as safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process and said that this obliged him to give a lengthy and technical description of the order. The House and I are grateful to him for that, even though the right hon. Member for South Down differed with the Minister on the aims of the order.
The Minister said that the aims of the order were to bring to bear in local government elections in Northern Ireland measures which Parliament has agreed should govern elections to this House. I would have thought that that would be very welcome to right hon. and hon. Members from Northern Ireland. The second strand of the Minister's thinking was that this order would bring the election rules more closely into line with the rules governing local government elections on this side of the water.
I am grateful for the pat on the back, in metaphorical terms, from the right hon. Member for South Down. He quite rightly told the House that it was pressure from Her Majesty's Opposition that led to the acceptance by the Government of the principle that the electors of Northern Ireland are entitled to be governed by the same electoral law as the rest of the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Member for South Down also gave his view that the order perpetuates the application to local government elections of the system of proportional representation. That theme has been taken up by several hon. Members. The right hon. Member for South Down described it as a disjunction which he thought was unjustifiable. We saw a dichotomy on the part of the Ulster Unionists—on the one hand welcoming and encouraging election laws which are the same as those in this country and on the other hand complaining, justifiably in their view, that they are always treated differently. This is a point of view that came up time and time again in the speeches made.
I nearly intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Londonderry, East when he asked the Minister whether he was speaking on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office or Her Majesty's Government. I would have thought that in the eyes of most Ulster Unionists they were one and indivisible. It shows the difficulty they have in disentangling their thinking in relation to the electoral laws of our country as they relate also to Northern Ireland.
The Opposition welcome this order, as they welcomed the original Bill. The main provisions of the order substitute new election rules for the rules in the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1962 and correspond to sections 1 and 2 of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985 — that is, to prevent personation. The order also makes a number of other changes which should be noted and which we welcome.
One relates to postal voting, and the 10th annual report of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights points out that provisions with regard to postal votes in Northern Ireland differ for general elections, assembly elections and local elections. This is clearly unsatisfactory and confusing. The order brings the provisions for local elections into line with those for general elections. That is to be welcomed. The advisory commission has recommended that there should be a standing list of postal voters for use in all elections. It has also recommended that postal voting on the grounds of change of residence should be reintroduced, pointing out that the numbers involved represent only about 2 per cent. of the total number of applications made. A number of cases have already been brought to the commission's attention involving moves from Derry to Belfast which makes it impracticable to vote at the old address.
We have heard some discussion tonight of the time at which polling booths close. In a democracy it must be in the interest of all those who wish to vote to have as long as possible in which to do so. I have stood in elections and I can recollect taking someone to the polling booth as late as a quarter to ten at night. We rushed him in and he was the last person to vote. When we brought him out my wife asked me if I was thinking what she was thinking, and we agreed that we thought that he had voted Conservative. Nevertheless, the principle remains that, the longer there is for people to vote, the more democratic it must be.
We therefore support the order. I have listened with great interest to the debate. I learn as I go along in this post of mine. I have learned to admire the way in which an order before the House can be widened and deepened to cover proportional representation, Sinn Fein, flags, crowns and half-crowns. It is very democratic. It is also nice to see the depth and the technicality of these debates. I am sure that the House is a better place for them and I am sure that Northern Ireland will be a better place when this order becomes law.
I want to express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) for the welcome that he has given to the order. I agree with most of what he said, and I am grateful to him for giving his support from the Opposition Front Bench to this very important measures.
We have had a long, sometimes technical, often detailed debate on this order and I shall seek to deal as succinctly as I can with as many as possible of the points that have been raised. I shall come at the end of the coverage of the detailed points to the fundamental question first raised by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), and echoed by others, about proportional representation and the Government's decision to continue with that system in this order.
I must at the outset express, in a low-key way, one worry that I have. I direct this particularly to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) and the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). In the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, I get considerably worried when elected representatives seek to question motives or the approach of officials who are responsible for the electoral process. It must be Ministers who stand at this Dispatch Box and take the responsibility for decisions that have to be made, whether in the shape, for example, of an order for electoral districts or anything else. I have already paid a warm tribute to Sir Frank Harrison and his staff for the work that they have done through the various boundary commissions.
I was very worried to read the reports of the debates on the Representation of the People Bill, in which the hon. Member for Antrim, North sought to imply that amendments had been proposed to that piece of legislation were somehow the responsibility of the Chief Electoral Officer. They are not. They are the responsibility of Ministers collectively, who will, of course, take the advice of the Chief Electoral Officer, the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, locally elected politicians and others in coming to these decisions, but we take responsibility for the proposals that come forward.
I should like at the outset of my speech to make clear my appreciation of the work that is done by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland and his staff. Their dedication and integrity in difficult circumstances, with terrorist activity and so on, have enabled the democratic process in Northern Ireland to operate smoothly. I very much hope that, in future, criticisms of proposals that are brought before the House will be directed at Ministers, not at officials who do their best to see that the process operates as smoothly as possible.
Is the Minister implying that he will hold himself responsible, even during an election campaign, for dealing with any matters that may arise, where it is believed, and even seen, by party officials and members that the Chief Electoral Officer or some of his subordinates are acting contrary to the law? Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to put himself in the same position as the Home Secretary, who, although Parliament would be dissolved, would be prepared to give advice on such matters?
Obviously I would be answerable at the Dispatch Box for what happened during elections in Northern Ireland. Responsibility for the detailed operation of the law will rest with the Chief Electoral Officer. The point that I was making was that proposals that we bring before the House for changes in the law are the responsibility of Ministers, not of any official. If criticisms are made, they should be of Ministers, not of officials.
During the debate I was trying to point out that the suggestions and the input were from the Chief Electoral Officer and his staff. They make up those ideas and sell them to the Minister, and then the Minister puts them forward. I was tracing the parentage of this particular embryo. I think that that is how I described it.
I hope that it will not become the custom, particularly in the difficult circumstances of Northern Ireland, for such criticisms to be made.
I should like to refer to some of the detailed points that were raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) referred to what came to be called, during our earlier debates, the discretion of presiding officers. Let me make the position absolutely clear. It is necessary within the law for anyone who presents himself at a polling station and asks for a ballot paper to produce one document from the list set out under the law. However, if someone produces a document in which there is an error or something that does not exactly square up—a different address or something of that sort—and the presiding officer knows who the elector is, such a discrepancy cannot arouse a reasonable doubt in the mind of the presiding officer. Therefore, it is lawful for him to hand over a ballot paper. I have said that before but I reiterate it on this occasion because the point was raised.
The 10 o'clock shutter was mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast, East and others. That system has operated on this side of the water without great difficulty for many years. If one applies to the presiding officer for a ballot paper before 10 o'clock, one gets it. However, if one is just inside the door either of the polling station or within the polling place, and the ballot paper has not been issued, at 10 o'clock the shutter comes down, and that is the end of it. We are bringing Northern Ireland into line with the accepted practice which has been operated with no great difficulty on this side of the water for many years.
Another matter that was raised was the deposit. With a £15 deposit—
I think the House knows that I am always anxious to give way, but I shall deal later with that and several other detailed points as succinctly as possible. If I inadvertently miss any of them, I shall make sure that hon. Members are written to. I promise that I shall not deliberately evade any of the matters that have been raised in the debate.
I do not believe that a £15 deposit is any insurance against candidates who may wish to come forward to gain publicity. The decision that the Government had to take was either substantially to increase the deposit for local government candidates, or to get rid of it. We looked at both possibilities and decided that on balance it was easier to get rid of it and, again, bring Northern Ireland into line with practice in local government elections on this side of the water. I entirely accept that there can be two views about that, but I would not have thought that simply maintaining the deposit at £15 made much sense.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East and many others raised the fundamental question whether there should be a requirement for candidates to sign a declaration of nonviolence before they took part in an election, designed to exclude Sinn Fein candidates from the electoral process. I acknowledge that the proposal, in the view of those who suggested it, was very much a second best. They preferred that the Government should proscribe or ban Sinn Fein, but in the absence of that came up with a second best way of excluding Sinn Fein from the electoral process. Of course, the Government looked at both propositions. The one that has been put forward tonight is the signing of a declaration.
The reason why the Government have turned their back on that proposition is that we believe that in practice it would have no significant beneficial effect on the electoral process. There would be formidable difficulties of definition in any such operation. There would be nothing to stop a candidate from making such a declaration at nomination stage and being lawfully nominated, and subsequently announcing that he had changed his mind. Some hon. Members said that Sinn Fein would then be shown up to be dishonest. I cannot imagine members of Sinn Fein blushing hard at that.
One way round would be to make the advocacy of violence before or after an election ground for disqualification, but there are great difficulties in devising criteria as to what could be regarded as supporting violence, and perhaps even what constituted violence, in this context. I emphasise that powers already exist which prohibit membership of a proscribed organisation and deal with criminal offences such as incitement to violence. Those sanctions apply as much to candidates at any election as to others. In addition, people who have served significant prison sentences in the recent past are debarred from standing at elections. Therefore, although I can understand the reasons that have prompted the hon. Member for Belfast, East and others to make that proposal, I do not believe that it would have a beneficial effect on the electoral process in Northern Ireland.
I presume that the Minister is now giving us the Government's considered response to Sir George Baker's suggestion. However, let us put the matter in perspective, although I acknowledge the comments, that the Minister has made. Some people think that somehow or other Sinn Fein is the controlling body. In fact, it is the creature of the IRA. For whatever reason, the Provisional IRA decided publicly two or three years ago at its annual conference to ensure that it mandated Sinn Fein unambiguously to support its violent campaign. It had some psychological or propaganda reason for doing that. The IRA insisted that its creature should publicly state its support for violence and violent means of overthrowing the state. Is the Minister saying that it is not worth while challenging the IRA on that psychological or propaganda point and at least forcing it and its creature, if necessary, to climb down from that position?
If we were going to do that the answer would be to proscribe Sinn Fein, but that would not be a practical way forward. We shall give a considered response to Sir George Baker's report in due course, but for the purposes of the order we take the view — I do not believe that it will change — that to go down the road of asking for a declaration opposing or renouncing violence would not be a practical possibility.
This is a very important issue, perhaps the most important issue that we have discussed. The Minister says that he does not believe that the IRA is honest, but there are some things about which Republicans are absolutely honest. One could not find any Sinn Fein IRA man who would not identify himself with the campaign of violence. Anyone who says anything different has not studied the mentality of Irish Republicanism. That is why Sinn Fein will say, "We will never make that declaration for a British Government." Therefore, the Government would be effectively weeding them out. Those of us who are involved in elections know that. History proves it. One has only to look at the irregulars, led by de Valera at one time in the South, to know that in those things they are basically, honest. They are dishonest in other things, but on that issue — the quick of the matter — they will stand by their guns, literally.
Obviously we took that into account in coming to our decision, and we came to a different view. Even if we were successful in proscribing Sinn Fein, there would be nothing to stop Republicans, even those who privately support the armed struggle, as they choose to call it, from presenting themselves for election under another banner, such as H-block candidates or whatever, as they have done in the past. My argument against that is based on the practical difficulties of translating anything like that into a law that would bring about the effect that hon. Gentlemen wish to achieve.
There appears to be some confusion about polling stations and polling places. Rule 22(3) of the local elections rules, which have been referred to many times in the debate, is in the same terms as the equivalent provision in the rules for parliamentary elections. The school premises, if we take that as the usual example, are the polling place, and within that polling place there can be one or more polling stations. A polling stations is not, as it were, the ballot box but the area within which there are a number of polling booths, the ballot box, the presiding officer and his assistants. I hope that that will resolve the confusion between polling stations and polling places.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker) referred to order within the polling station itself and asked about the advance guard of people coming in. In regard to maintaining order within the polling station, the power to remove people from a polling station would be vested in anyone who was given written authority by the presiding officer to do that. It would be possible for a member of the security forces other than the Royal Ulster Constabulary to be so authorised.
In regard to the advance guard, I do not envisage anything like the picture that was painted by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley. I hope that the Chief Electoral Officer and the presiding officers under his guidance will be at pains to direct the staff who are available to them in such a way as to minimise any delay or inconvenience that might be caused to electors during polling hours. The presiding officer might station a clerk at the entrance to inquire of electors as they arrived, "Are you sure you have one of the prescribed documents with you—otherwise it will be impossible for the presiding officer to give you a ballot paper when you get in?" That would be sensible. There would be no question of infringing the law if a gentle, oral reminder were to be given to an elector as he arrived at the polling place and before he got to the polling station.
As I indicated, I shall try to deal with as many points as possible.
In regard to the standing list for European Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly elections, which was raised by the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross), by virtue of regulations made under the European Assembly Elections Act 1978, the standing list for parliamentary elections applies also to European elections, but it does not apply to elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. As, in the normal course of events, there will be an election for the Northern Ireland Assembly in October of next year, we shall consider that and see whether we can have a common standing list to apply to all elections in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann asked whether the Chief Electoral Officer would contact all voters on the standing list of postal voters as soon as the order was made. He will be doing that and will ask them whether they wish to be placed on the standing list for local government elections.
Let us be as clear as we can about polling districts. District electoral areas are divided into polling districts. They are conterminous with what is frequently called a ward, but for the purposes of this exercise it is the local polling district which matters. That is the area referred to in the rule to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. Each of those polling districts which have been defined by the Boundary Commission will have one polling place. Within that it will be possible to have more than one polling station.
Does that mean that the Chief Electoral Officer can make a decision which will create immense problems for everyone concerned? I have talked to the local police about this, and it is important.
The Chief Electoral Officer has published a draft scheme dealing with the siting and the number of polling places. Representations have been made about that scheme. The hon. Gentleman may not be surprised to hear that. There will be changes in the final scheme. My impression is that there will be an appreciable increase in the number of polling stations and polling places. I hope that most of his worries will be resolved. I cannot give an off-the-cuff answer about the one that he mentioned in Lurgan.
The Chief Electoral Officer has published a draft scheme. Some people have made objections. Objections had to be in by yesterday. The Chief Electoral Officer will make up his mind about the disposition of polling stations and polling places. We must get that settled as soon as possible.
I wish to cover two more important points, one in rather more depth than the other. In reply to a query by the hon. Member for Antrim, North, I can tell him that there is no law requiring or forbidding the flying of the Union flag at polling stations. It may be flown at discretion, but there is no law which requires or forbids it.
I shall deal with proportional representation briefly, not because there are not detailed arguments to be made on both sides of the coin, but because the Government have for some time made absolutely clear their view that the best means of ensuring the representation of minorities in Northern Ireland is through the vehicle of proportional representation. I do not believe that the House will be surprised to hear that the Government retain their commitment to a belief that for local elections, European elections and Northern Ireland Assembly elections proportional representation is the best way of doing that.
Several hon. Members raised, in a sense, the subsidiary issue of multi-member wards. As I have said, there are plenty of examples on this side of the water where electors find it perfectly easy to cope with multi-member wards.
The right hon. Member for South Down has displayed great patience over proportional representation for the past eight years, since Ray Carter stood at the Dispatch Box and implied that things might change some day. However, I would not wish to hold out that hope to the right hon. Gentleman. If we ever return to devolved government in Northern Ireland, which is this Government's aim, the decision about that in relation to local government elections, at least, would be a matter for the devolved Government of Northern Ireland.
I commend the order to the House.
|Division No. 152]||[8 pm|
|Amess, David||Currie, Mrs Edwina|
|Ancram, Michael||Dunn, Robert|
|Arnold, Tom||Durant, Tony|
|Ashby, David||Dykes, Hugh|
|Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset)||Evennett, David|
|Bellingham, Henry||Eyre, Sir Reginald|
|Benyon, William||Fallon, Michael|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Favell, Anthony|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Fenner, Mrs Peggy|
|Boyson, Dr Rhodes||Fowler, Rt Hon Norman|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Gale, Roger|
|Bright, Graham||Galley, Roy|
|Brinton, Tim||Goodhart, Sir Philip|
|Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)||Gow, Ian|
|Bruinvels, Peter||Gregory, Conal|
|Burt, Alistair||Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'tth N)|
|Butterfill, John||Ground, Patrick|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)|
|Chope, Christopher||Hampson, Dr Keith|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Hargreaves, Kenneth|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)||Harris, David|
|Clegg, Sir Walter||Hawkins, C. (High Peak)|
|Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)||Hawksley, Warren|
|Conway, Derek||Hayward, Robert|
|Coombs, Simon||Heddle, John|
|Couchman, James||Henderson, Barry|
|Hind, Kenneth||Montgomery, Sir Fergus|
|Holt, Richard||Morris, M. (N'hampton, S)|
|Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)||Moynihan, Hon C.|
|Hume, John||Murphy, Christopher|
|Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas||Newton, Tony|
|Jackson, Robert||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Jones, Robert (W Herts)||Norris, Steven|
|Kennedy, Charles||Page, Richard (Herts SW)|
|Kershaw, Sir Anthony||Pawsey, James|
|Key, Robert||Portillo, Michael|
|King, Roger (B'ham N'field)||Powley, John|
|Knight, Gregory (Derby N)||Raffan, Keith|
|Knox, David||Rhodes James, Robert|
|Lang, Ian||Roe, Mrs Marion|
|Lawler, Geoffrey||Rowe, Andrew|
|Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)||Sainsbury, Hon Timothy|
|Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark||Scott, Nicholas|
|Lester, Jim||Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)|
|Lilley, Peter||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)||Sims, Roger|
|Lord, Michael||Steen, Anthony|
|Lyell, Nicholas||Stern, Michael|
|McCurley, Mrs Anna||Stradling Thomas, J.|
|Macfarlane, Neil||Thompson, Donald (Calder V|
|McQuarrie, Albert||Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)|
|Malins, Humfrey||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Malone, Gerald||Wheeler, John|
|Marland, Paul||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Marlow, Antony||Wolfson, Mark|
|Marshall, Michael (Arundel)||Wood, Timothy|
|Mather, Carol||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Maude, Hon Francis|
|Mayhew, Sir Patrick||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Miller, Hal (B'grove)||Mr. John Major and|
|Mills, Iain (Meriden)||Mr. Michael Neubert.|
|Mitchell, David (NW Hants)|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Beggs, Roy||Proctor, K. Harvey|
|Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim)||Robinson, P. (Belfast E)|
|McCrea, Rev William||Skinner, Dennis|
|McCusker, Harold||Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)|
|Molyneaux, Rt Hon James||Walker, Cecil (Belfast N)|
|Nellist, David||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Nicholson, J.||Mr. Ken Maginnis and|
|Paisley, Rev Ian||Mr. William Ross.|
|Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)|