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8.38 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I am inclined to accept the Prime Minister's judgment on delaying the local government elections in England and Wales. That is all the more relevant because--as it had clearly been the right hon. Gentleman's intention to hold on the same day the local government elections and the general election, for which polls showed that he was significantly ahead--such a delay might have been considered something of a sacrifice. However, I oppose the proposition that the local government elections in Northern Ireland should be linked to that delay. Those elections were to be held not on 3 May, but on 16 May.

I was surprised to read the element of the Bill relating to Northern Ireland. When the Prime Minister made his announcement and was interviewed outside No. 10 Downing street, he was immediately asked by Ken Reid of Ulster Television about the possible implications for Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister replied that, because Northern Ireland was in the second category--namely, that there had been an incident of foot and mouth, but no reoccurrence--it was important to return to normality as quickly as possible. One might have concluded, therefore, that normality would involve going ahead with what was normal--an election on 16 May. Having listened during this debate and the previous one, I have heard nothing from those on the Government Front Bench that would support their decision to postpone the election in Northern Ireland until 7 June.

Foot and mouth disease is not the reason for the postponement. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is inaccurate in saying that there is a low level of the disease in Northern Ireland. There is no foot and mouth disease in Northern Ireland. There was one incident of a republican smuggler who tried to make money on the side and caused havoc around the border in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, but there has been no recurrence. Indeed, the Government successfully argued in Europe that there was no foot and mouth disease in Northern Ireland, so let us remove that from the possible reasons why they have taken this decision.

Of course the Government might argue, although they cannot do so publicly, that they want the postponement because they did not want to have two elections on 7 June, given the likelihood of a general election. As the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said, that has happened on several occasions in the past, with higher turnouts than normal in Great Britain, even if the elections were not on the same day. So the Government cannot use that argument.

I was somewhat surprised to hear the right hon. Member for Upper Bann say that he looks forward to elections, because he has been trying to ban the local government elections in Northern Ireland. He has said that they should be put off altogether and that there should be a review of local government for a year or two before holding them. However, he comes to the House and has the audacity to say that he wants to hold elections and is

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looking forward to them. Well, I am looking forward to the elections in Northern Ireland and, irrespective of whether they are held on 16 May or 7 June, the people are looking forward to the opportunity to speak at the ballot box.

On the Minister's response, it is fully clear that the Bill has been introduced for a political purpose. The Government believe--wrongly, I think--that it will be a boost to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and to the Social Democratic and Labour party, but they will, in effect, ensure that the local government elections in Northern Ireland will be overshadowed by the issues relevant to the Westminster election. Therefore, people will come out for the local government election, as well as for the Westminster election, to deal with the key issue in Northern Ireland--the Belfast agreement--and on that argument, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann will undoubtedly lose.

Clearly, we shall have no opportunity to speak in Committee, so let me say that I should have been interested to find out from those on the Government Front Bench why on earth they have included subsections 2(2) and 2(3). Nomination day in Northern Ireland would not have taken place until the end of April or the beginning of May, by which time the Bill will be law, so no one can be nominated and, therefore, subsections 2(2) and 2(3) are superfluous. The matters that concern my colleagues and me greatly are those that relate to the schedule.

Mr. William Ross: Has the hon. Gentleman not noticed that the only possible reason for those provisions is that the Bill will become permanent legislation? It will not die, so it can be applied if a similar situation ever exists in future, and I believe that it will not be very good legislation.

Mr. Robinson: If that is the case it is very sad indeed. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann did not tell the House that the very good reason for not holding a local government election and a Westminster election on the same day in Northern Ireland is that there are two different electoral systems. That will cause untold confusion at the polling stations, especially for elderly people. On one hand, people will have to vote with a cross in the Westminster election and, on the other, they will have to select their first, second or third choice and beyond in the local government elections. There will undoubtedly be significantly more spoiled votes as a result of holding a dual election for Westminster and local government. So I hope that these provisions will not be used in the future, although the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) may well be right about the Government's intention.

I particularly ask the Government to reconsider the leeway that they will give to returning officers under new rule 46A. They want to let the returning officer determine whether to open the ballot boxes in either the local government or Westminster elections and remove the stray ballot papers from the other election. That should not be left to the judgment of returning officers; they should be required to do that. However, under the new rule, they simply "may" do that. That is not good enough, particularly in a local government election under proportional representation when two fifths of a vote have, in the past,

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made the difference between one candidate and another being elected. In addition, a handful of votes could decide a Westminster seat, so such flexibility should not be built into the Bill.

I wish to allow those on the Front Benches the opportunity to wind up but, finally, may I express my concern that the oversight that counting agents should be entitled to have over the opening of ballot boxes is not a requirement under the Bill. Indeed, in a hole in the corner, someone might be able to open up the ballot boxes and tamper with their contents. Oversight should be permitted and counting agents should be allowed--arrangements should be made for this--to see the opening of the ballot boxes. That is essential, and returning officers should be given instructions to ensure that that happens.

Although the inclination of my colleagues and I would have been to vote against the Bill's Second Reading because we are opposed to those elements of it that relate to Northern Ireland, we are prepared to forgo that opportunity rather than take up the further time that such a Division would cause.

8.46 pm

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Because of the ridiculously short time allowed by the guillotine and the fact that we want the Minister to answer some of the important questions that have been raised on Second Reading, I shall be extremely brief. I will not have the opportunity to comment in any detail on a number of the interesting issues that have been raised. However, I repeat something that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said in her opening remarks. When the Prime Minister weighs all the factors in the balance, as he said he would have to do in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) on 21 March, the Government will not be able to offer any certainty that the position on the terrible foot and mouth epidemic will be any better in June than in May.

My right hon. Friends Members for Maidstone and The Weald and for Richmond, Yorks have said that flexibility should be built into the Bill so that the date of local elections can be reconsidered depending on when the disease is genuinely under control. Four objective tests should also be applied.

First, the standard time between the report of a new case of the disease and the slaughter of the animals in question should be 24 hours or less. At present, we know that, sadly, the backlog of animals waiting to be slaughtered and waiting to be buried after slaughter is growing. The second objective test is that the geographical spread of the disease has been reversed. The Government cannot say with confidence that the position will be any better in June than in May. The third objective test is that movement restrictions should have been lifted from most farms, and the final test is that the trend in new cases of the disease is clearly downward, rather than upward as it tragically still is.

There is so much more that Opposition Members could say but, given the limitations on time and the fact that we must have answers from the Minister, I shall incorporate everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald said in my conclusion. Her comments remain just as valid at the end of the debate as they were at the beginning.

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