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Session 2000-01
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2001

First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 29 January 2001

[Dr. Michael Clark in the Chair]

Draft Local Elections (NI) (Amendment) Order 2001

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2001.

I begin by welcoming you to the Chair, Dr. Clark. I hope this sitting will be brief and uncontroversial. I know that you will chair it in an organised fashion, with fairness and firmness.

The draft instrument, which was laid before the House on 18 January, will bring certain aspects of the local government election rules in Northern Ireland into line with those governing other elections in Northern Ireland and Great Britain by amending the rules in the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1962. The order will apply to Northern Ireland only, and will mirror the provisions introduced for European parliamentary elections by similar subordinate legislation, and for parliamentary elections by schedule 2 to the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998—by happy coincidence, I had a hand in preparing the early stages of that Act when I was a Home Office Minister.

As members of the Committee will remember, the Registration of Political Parties Act provided the opportunity, among other things, for political parties to register their names and, if they so chose, their party emblem. Once registered, a party benefits from protection against the unauthorised use of its registered name.

Under the Act, returning officers have the power to ensure that candidates at elections do not provide for inclusion on the ballot paper a description that might lead voters to associate them with a registered party, unless they can produce the necessary authorisation. That authorisation takes the form of a signed consent form from the nominating officer of the registered political party concerned. The intention is obvious, but it needs to be on the record: it is to reduce any grounds for confusion at the polling station.

The 1998 Act also provides that when a candidate has been authorised by a registered political party to use that party's name on the ballot paper, the candidate may, if he or she so chooses, request that the party's registered emblem be printed next to his or her name on the ballot paper.

The provisions of the Act do not automatically apply to local elections held in Northern Ireland, so the draft order is necessary to amend existing regulations to allow parties registered under the Act to place their registered names and emblems on the ballot paper for elections in Northern Ireland, should they so desire. The schedule to the draft instrument provides a new specimen ballot paper illustrating the changes, which, I emphasise, is illustrative, not prescriptive.

The order also provides for the expenses incurred by a third party in respect of an election to be amended to bring them into line with those of local government elections in Great Britain.

The Representation of the People Act 2000 amended provisions in the parliamentary election rules to make it easier for blind or partially sighted persons to vote without assistance. Those provisions also provide for equivalent changes to be made to the local election rules, and encompasses not only blind people but those suffering from any physical incapacity.

The order also provides for the suspension of the requirement to vacate an elective office following conviction for a corrupt or illegal practice during the period in which an appeal could be made. That reflects changes to the Representation of the People Act 1983, and brings us into line with the procedures followed in parliamentary elections. I commend the order to the Committee.

4.35 pm

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): I endorse the Minister's welcome to you, Dr. Clark, and look forward to serving under your chairmanship. I do not intend to delay the Committee, but conventionally, the Minister and I engage in a brief dialogue to provide clarifications that might be useful.

Will the Minister say on the record that the order will render electoral law in Northern Ireland consistent with that in the rest of the United Kingdom? If he gives that reassurance, my supplementary questions will be unnecessary, because I would otherwise have asked about the way in which electoral law in Northern Ireland differed and why it differed.

I am also interested in the mechanism for avoiding deceptions on ballot papers. There have been two instances of such deceptions within most Committee Members' political experience. I remember an occasion on which a man changed his name to Roy Jenkins and stood against the rather well known politician of that name, so that the electors in the constituency saw two Roy Jenkinses on the ballot paper. [Interruption.] Did the Government Whip say, ``One is quite enough,'' or was it something equally interesting that I did not hear?

There was another case, which would not work in exactly the same way in Northern Ireland, but which certainly worked in the south-west of England. Someone stood in a European election as a ``Literal Democrat'', causing confusion. Will the Minister reassure us that the order will render such deception impossible?

My eye fell with some interest on the bottom of page 7 of the draft order. Paragraph 27, which contains suggested new paragraph 27A of schedule 9 to the 1962 Act, represents an attempt to prohibit the prediction of election results before the polls have closed. If the Minister honestly thinks that he can put a stop to predictions of outcomes in Northern Ireland—or in any other part of the United Kingdom—I must ask him whether he has enough policemen, because he will need at least two in every pub and bar in Northern Ireland.

4.38 pm

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): I simply want to reinforce the point that lies behind the order, rather than its terms, subject to the assurance that was sought, and the assurance given by the Minister in his opening remarks.

From my experience of working in Northern Ireland over many years, it became clear to me, both before the initial peace and when the second peace was secured, that an enormous amount of pent-up demand and good will resided in the minds and hopes of the people who lived in Northern Ireland. In future, that will be reflected in their participation in local elections and democratic processes, which I will fully support.

Someone with lifelong experience in the Province—Lord Glentoran—made that point most forcefully in his maiden speech. I suggest that the Minister reread that speech, simply as part of what I would urge him to consider. The provisions come into force 14 days after the order is passed. People in Northern Ireland should be given real encouragement to participate in local elections in order to build democracy from the ground up, rather than simply considering structures from the top down, as has been necessary over the years. This is a real opportunity, and my noble Friend's speech gives many pointers that would help to cement the peace that we all dearly want to achieve.

4.39 pm

Mr. George Howarth: I welcome both the speeches that have been made. I shall first respond to the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), who asked whether the provisions were the same as in Great Britain. The straight answer is yes. The hon. Gentleman said that it was unnecessary for me to go into detail now on the further questions that he raised, but I can confirm that some of the provisions originate from the 1998 Act. He failed to mention that there was a clear attempt to confuse the voters. The classic example was the Literal Democrat candidate who stood for the south-west region in the European elections. If I remember correctly, he attracted 10,000 votes.

I do not want to speculate about why people vote as they do. If we knew that, we would be wiser politicians. It seems highly unlikely, however, that 10,000 people in the European constituency viewed themselves as supporters of a philosophy known as literal democracy. I do not claim to be one of the world's great political philosophers, but I have not heard of that doctrine. If other members of the Committee have heard of it, they will doubtless regale us with its meaning—but that might test your patience a little, Dr. Clark. The hon. Member for Solihull is right about the importance of this part of the provisions.

I echo what the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) said about the importance of participating in democracy—irrespective of how people vote, although obviously I have my preference. Democracy thrives on high participation not only in elections, but in the substance of politics—although participation in elections is often the only measure that we have. So much is at stake in Northern Ireland now that participation is crucial. The publication of the logo of political parties is intended to make it easier for people with a disability—particularly the visually impaired—to participate.

The hon. Member for Solihull asked about opinion polls, and the prohibition of the publication of exit polls, which is dealt with in article 27. The definition of an exit poll precludes whatever conversations might take place in a saloon bar during the polling process. No one would want to prohibit the easy social intercourse that might take place away from the polling station during an election, but I doubt whether that would constitute an exit poll by any definition.

Mr. John M. Taylor: The Minister will appreciate that that was not my most serious inquiry. Proposed new paragraph 27A(1)(b) of schedule 9 to the 1962 Act, which is set out in paragraph 27 of the order before us, refers to

    any forecast as to the result of the election.

Surely that will not be policed literally. I cannot imagine an election in which people do not retire to the pub after voting and say, ``Our man will be all right,'' or ``It will be close this time.'' Will the Minister confirm that he does not intend to enforce it down to that level?

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman makes the point for me: of course that would not be the intention. The provision refers to properly constituted polls that are published while polling is still continuing. That is the clear target.

The justification for that is fairly obvious: polls that are published while the polling station is still open could affect the outcome. There is usually consensus between us that that is not a happy or desirable prospect. I hope that after those few clarifications, the Committee will agree that the proposals are worthy of support.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2001.

        Committee rose at fourteen minutes to Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Clark, Dr. Michael (Chairman)
Dowd, Mr.
Ellman, Mrs.
Field, Mr.
Howarth, Mr. George
Hurst, Mr.
McCabe, Mr.
McIsaac, Shona
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Sedgemore, Mr.
Taylor, Mr. John M.
Wyatt, Mr. Derek


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Prepared 29 January 2001