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Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The hon. Gentleman referred to applications for postal votes. People throughout Northern Ireland have already received letters about that. Could not the ambiguity that is obviously not apparent in electoral offices--where people have been told that they cannot take copies of the original forms--lead to confusion in the minds of others? If applications are turned down now, a person receiving another application form may wonder what is going on, and perhaps forget to send it back.

Mr. McGrady: The hon. Gentleman has made my point about postal votes rather better than I did. Applications have already been made, and the attitude of the chief electoral officer is that no one can make an application without obtaining an application form from him. According to the legislation, that is entirely incorrect.

Mr. Ancram: This is an important point. The chief electoral officer will accept the information needed for a postal vote application and is not worried about the form.

Mr. McGrady: I thank the Minister for that important clarification, which will be welcome to the activists on the ground in Northern Ireland who are already engaged in the election.

Rev. Martin Smyth: We appreciate the guidance that the Minister has just given, but can he assure us that the officials in the various electoral offices have been given that information, because no later than this morning they were saying something entirely different? It is important that there is consistency among the electoral offices.

Mr. McGrady: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Unfortunately, it is not within my power to reply on the Minister's behalf--as yet. No doubt I shall be glad to do so at some future venue on some future date.

The issue of identification was raised on Third Reading of the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Bill in the small hours of last Wednesday morning. We attached importance to the problem of impersonation, particularly in certain areas. In response to a colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron), the Minister suggested that he would give further consideration to the subject of the eradication of

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impersonation--multiple impersonations. When he winds up, will the Minister address that problem?

We must all admit that this is an unsatisfactory way in which to deal with the situation. But we shall all do our best to run with it because the prize is beyond price. If the negotiating talks take place on 10 June, the prize of peace and stability in Northern Ireland will be worth all the heartbreak, despair and annoyance that we have suffered over the electoral process. My party would like to give it as fair a wind as possible, to enable the people to be represented--in the broadest sense--at that negotiating table.

9.47 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I can certainly follow from where the hon. Member for South Down(Mr. McGrady) left off in terms of saying that the provision is unsatisfactory. The hon. Gentleman considerably understates the case--the measure is a grotesque affront to the democratic process; it is a contempt of the House; it is a most disgraceful way for a Government to behave. If one was looking for an example of bad practice, the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office has provided it with the legislation.

I listened to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), who spoke on behalf of the official Opposition. He suggested that he first laid eyes on the legislation some time on Monday afternoon. He is one of the less favoured ones--some people saw it before then. Would the Minister like to intervene and give us the full list of those he favoured with a draft copy of the legislation last week? Did he send it to the leader of the Provisional IRA-Sinn Fein organisation? Did he send it to the loyalist paramilitary organisations of the Progressive Unionist party and the Ulster Democratic party? Did he send it to other parties that are not represented in the House?

Mr. Ancram: It is important to make it clear that, in light of the short time scale, I thought that it was proper that the party leaders of Northern Ireland parties represented in the House should have an advance copy of what was then an incomplete draft--those who received it know that it contained some hieroglyphics. Copies were sent to the party leaders of all parties from Northern Ireland represented in the House, including the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), who speaks for the Opposition on the subject, and the Liberal spokesman.

Mr. Robinson: The Minister confirms that a draft was available last week and that he was prepared to ignore the existence of hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies in this House by refusing to make it available upon request--even when hon. Members said that they would be leading for their parties in the debate.

We are supposed to have an intelligent debate about a complex measure at short notice. It was made clear to the Minister that, although he had sent a copy to my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. I. Paisley),I would not see my hon. Friend before I left for the United States. Therefore, I sought a copy before I left the country and the Minister refused to allow his staff to fax one to me. I did not receive a copy of the measure before today, so any remarks that I make tonight have the degree of preciseness that one would expect to gain from a cursory glance at 30 pages of legislation.

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The legislation cannot be read in isolation. One must refer to a stack of other legislation, as each part of the schedule refers to a section or a clause from some other legislation. When I sought to obtain the associated legislation from the Vote Office today, I was told that it was not available to hon. Members. I had to go to great lengths to secure it.

The hon. Member for South Down described the election as an unnecessary creation of the Unionist parties. Of course, political parties do not need to hold an election in order to sit down and participate in negotiations. If constitutional parties in Northern Ireland had wanted to engage in negotiations, they could have done so. But that is not what is proposed by this process. The hon. Gentleman hopes that those who are not members of constitutional political parties and those who do not have an electoral mandate will be brought into the process. Clearly, if people have no electoral mandate, there is no justification for their presence, other than allowing them an opportunity to secure such a mandate. At least the election gives people that opportunity.

The scrutiny of the measure is limited not only by the short period that hon. Members may debate it in this House, but by the type of debate that we are having. We are considering it as an Order in Council on a "take it or leave it" basis. Of course, we know that it is the latter as the Government will trundle the measure through the House as they did with the rest of the legislation--without any opportunity to put forward amendments or to test the validity of the many complex issues in this instrument.

I do not share the faith that the Minister and some other hon. Members have in our broadcasting media. I do not believe that the broadcasting media will make valiant efforts to be fair-minded, balanced and even-handed in reporting the election. If they do, it will be the first time without a legislative requirement. Hon. Members know that the media will undoubtedly allow representatives of the IRA to appear on programmes with those of other political parties as though the IRA were a normal political party. While the Government will not sit down with the Provisional IRA, because of the legislation, parties in Northern Ireland will be required either to sit down with the IRA or to opt out of the opportunity of speaking on television programmes.

Mr. William Ross: The mere fact that the Government do not appear to sit down with the IRA does not prevent them from sending other members of their party to do it for them.

Mr. Robinson: No.--particularly when it is someone who has flown kites for the Government on a number of issues. I shall not test your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, by going off at a tangent on that issue; however, many people may consider that the Government had greater knowledge of such contacts than they would like people to believe.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there will be a greater demand for engraved watches in the near future.

Mr. Robinson: Yes--no matter what the inscription may be.

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To be honest with the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, there is no reason why political parties will find it difficult to operate within the limits that are laid down in the order. Indeed, when the system is applied to the whole of Northern Ireland, costs will be reduced considerably as the larger political parties will send out the same literature in South Down, North Down and other constituencies unless, as the Ulster Unionists appear to do, they want to concentrate on local candidates. However, there is absolutely no reason why there should not be considerable savings on printing costs, which are a major expense in an election campaign.

I have no difficulty with the amounts that are specified, but nor will any political party that wants to go beyond those limits. Provided that they hire the right lawyer, they will be able spend whatever they want. The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) has already raced a coach and horses through that legislation. Anyone who feels that the figures are a wee bit tight should not be too concerned. They will simply have to spend an extra few thousand pounds on a proper defence thereafter.

The Minister would be disappointed if I did not raise the matter of party names. As I understand the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations etc.) Act and the list in schedule 1 to that Act, it states that the only parties entitled to stand in an election are those on the list. It contains no requirement--I shall be interested if the Minister can draw my attention to one--for nomination papers to refer to political parties by the names that are listed in the schedule to the Act.

I shall be interested if the Minister tells me that I am wrong, but if I am right, neither the Act nor the elections order specifies how parties should present themselves. It specifies the parties that are on the list, but it does not state that they have to present themselves under those names.

There is precedent for that. I am a member of the Ulster Democratic Unionist party. That is the official title of my party, but I have never stood as an Ulster Democratic Unionist party candidate. I have never put that name on the ballot paper. I have stood as a Democratic Unionist candidate, a DUP candidate, or even as a Democratic Unionist-DUP candidate, but I have never stood as an Ulster Democratic Unionist party candidate.

Under past procedures, there was never a requirement to put alongside my name on the nomination form the official name of my party. Nor do I see in the election order any requirement for me to specify my party in the terms that it is in the schedule to the entries and negotiations measure. Again I look to the Minister for advice, as he may be aware that this matter is likely to be tested.

If parties are not prepared to stand for election under names other than the ones that they present to the chief electoral officer, what powers does he have to change their names or to remove them if they are clearly the parties included in the schedule to the Act? I see no such power given to the chief electoral office in this order. The Minister therefore needs to turn his mind to the problem. He should not assume that what he says in the House becomes the law. The established law allows political parties to describe themselves in whatever form they

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wish--the precedent for that is clear. If the Minister does not sort out this question, there wil be considerable difficulties with the nominating process.

It would seem, moreover, that the tossing of a coin will decide which candidates are selected in some cases. Besides the other farce of the whole system, if there is a tie for votes, the outcome will be decided--what could be fairer?--by the drawing of lots, the tossing of a coin or the drawing of straws. I do not have a clue what the Minister was thinking of, but surely he could have found a more scientifically based system. If he is short of ideas, might I suggest that the party that has contested the smallest number of constituencies should be entitled to the disputed seat? We can presume that a party with a candidate in another area might at least have received one vote--

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