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Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections And Periods Of Suspension) Bill


 

These notes refer to the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections And Periods Of Suspension) Bill
as brought from the House of Commons on 12th May 2003 [HL Bill 64]

NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY (ELECTIONS AND PERIODS OF SUSPENSION) BILL


EXPLANATORY NOTES

INTRODUCTION

1.     These explanatory notes refer to the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Bill as brought from the House of Commons on 12th May 2003. They have been prepared by the Northern Ireland Office in order to assist the reader of the Bill and to help inform debate on it. They do not form part of the Bill and have not been endorsed by Parliament.

2.     The notes need to be read in conjunction with the Bill. They are not, and are not meant to be, a comprehensive description of the Bill. So where a clause or part of a clause does not seem to require any explanation or comment, none is given.

SUMMARY AND BACKGROUND

3.     The purpose of the Bill is to postpone the date of the poll for the election of the next Northern Ireland Assembly from 29th May 2003, and to provide a mechanism for setting the date of the next poll. The Bill also contains consequential provision to deal with the effects of the postponement taking place after the commencement of the statutory electoral timetable, including the effects on former members of the devolved Assembly; and certain matters relating to the lengthening of the period of dissolution.

4.     The Bill follows intensive negotiations between the UK and Irish Governments and Northern Ireland political parties. These negotiations were aimed at restoring power to the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, which are currently suspended under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 2000, and the full implementation of the Belfast Agreement. The Government's judgement is that, in the absence of clarity on an end to paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, there is not sufficient trust and confidence among the Northern Ireland parties to permit the restoration of functioning devolved institutions immediately following a 29th May election. The postponement is intended to allow the two Governments to continue efforts to rebuild the trust and confidence necessary for the restoration of effective devolved institutions.

COMMENTARY ON CLAUSES

5.     The Bill has seven clauses.

Clause 1: Election of next Assembly

6.     This clause amends the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and postpones the date of the poll for next Assembly election from 29th May 2003 to a date to be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State.

7.     Subsection (2) substitutes a new section 31(2) in the 1998 Act and provides that the date of the poll for the next election of the Assembly shall be a date specified in an order made by the Secretary of State.

8.     Subsection (3) inserts a new subsection (1A) to section 96 of the 1998 Act. This provides that the order made under the new section 31(2) shall be laid before Parliament after it is made.

9.     Subsection (4) amends, for the purposes of the next election, the timetable set out in the Parliamentary Election Rules in Schedule 1 of the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001. It also provides for what is to be the "relevant period" for the purpose of paragraph 7 of each of the schedules 9 and 10 in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which provide limits on campaign expenditure and controlled expenditure respectively in relation to Assembly elections.

10.     Subsection (5) repeals various subsections of the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Act 2003, which are now spent.

Clause 2: May Election: supplementary provisions

11.     Clause 2 makes supplementary provision in respect of the election which was to have taken place on 29th May 2003.

12.     Subsection (1) states that any action undertaken in preparation for the election on 29th May 2003 pursuant to the Election Rules, as defined in subsection (4), ceases to have effect and will not have effect for any subsequent election.

13.     Subsection (2) provides that this applies for example to any nominations which were made for the 29th May 2003 election. Subsection (3) provides that any deposits which were made by candidates must be returned to them.

Clause 3: Payments relating to May Elections.

14.     Clause 3 makes provision for the Secretary of State to make payments to registered parties and candidates in accordance with a scheme in respect of expenditure which they incurred preparing for the election which was to have taken place on 29th May 2003.

15.     Subsection (1) confers a power on the Secretary of State to make payments in line with a scheme made under this section.

16.     Subsection (2) requires that the scheme must cover payments which are to be made to registered parties in connection with their campaign expenditure and to candidates in connection with their election expenses. Campaign expenditure and election expenses will be defined in the scheme.

17.     Subsection (3) stipulates that the scheme must include provision for the matters listed in the subsections.

18.     Subsection (4) enables the scheme to provide that campaign expenditure which was incurred for the election scheduled to take place on 1st May 2003 is to count for the purpose of payments under the scheme.

15.     Subsections (5) to (7) require the Electoral Commission to make recommendations to the Secretary of State on the terms of the scheme, and require the Secretary of State to make and publish the scheme, after giving effect to the recommendations or making appropriate modifications.

Clause 4: Remuneration of members of the Assembly

19.     This clause authorises the payment of salaries and allowances to former Members of the dissolved Assembly.

20.     Subsection (1) enables provisions to be made for former Members to receive salaries and allowances up to the last nomination day for the next election, and, if nominated, up to the end of the day of the poll for that election.

21.     Subsection (2) safeguards existing entitlements up to the date of Royal Assent.

22.     Subsection (3) clarifies that these modifications apply during suspension of the Assembly when the relevant powers of the Assembly are exercised by the Secretary of State. Under this power the amounts of salaries and allowances will be determined by the Secretary of State.

Clause 5: Supplementary provisions

23.     This clause amends the Schedule to the Northern Ireland Act 2000 and contains additional modifications to various enactments which will apply during the suspension of the Assembly.

24.     In particular, the amendments take account of the extended dissolution of the Assembly brought about by this Bill. They modify references in legislation to procedures, a Committee and Members of the Assembly.

Clause 6: Modification of enactments

25.     This clause enables the Secretary of State to make consequential and connected modifications to legislation where necessary as a result of this Bill or any provision made under it.

26.     Subsection (2) makes clear that an order under subsection (1) may provide for any duties of the Chief Electoral Officer of Northern Ireland to be modified.

27.     Subsection (4) defines the types of legislation that the Secretary of State can modify under subsection (1).

28.     Subsections (5) to (9) provide that an order under subsection (1) must be approved by both Houses of Parliament unless the Secretary of State declares in the order that it is not expedient to do so. An order containing such a declaration is to be laid before Parliament after being made and will cease to have effect if it is not approved by each House within 40 days, without prejudice to anything done in the interim.

FINANCIAL EFFECTS OF THE BILL

29.     Payments to registered parties and candidates to reimburse expenditure which may have been incurred in connection with the election which was to have taken place on 29th May could total up to £4 million. The cost to the Electoral Commission of administering this scheme will cost up to £50,000. The Electoral Office estimates that they have incurred costs of £67,000 as a result of the postponement of the election. All these costs will be met from the UK Consolidated Fund. The Bill makes provision for the Secretary of State to pay salaries and allowances to former Members, as well as to make some payments to political parties by amendment to Financial Assistance to Political Parties (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. The precise level of these payment and therefore the cost is yet to be determined. The amount is not likely to exceed £800,000 per month while these provisions are in force.

EFFECTS OF THE BILL ON PUBLIC SERVICE MANPOWER

30.     There is nothing in the Bill that will have an impact on public service manpower.

REGULATORY APPRAISAL

31.     The Bill will have negligible effects on business, and accordingly no regulatory impact assessment has been produced. The Regulatory Impact Unit in the Cabinet Office has been consulted.

EUROPEAN CONVENTION ON HUMAN RIGHTS

32. Section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998 requires the Minister in charge of a Bill in either House of Parliament to make a statement, before second reading, about the compatibility of the provisions of the Bill with the Convention rights (as defined by section 1 of that Act).

33. The postponement by clause 1 of the Bill of the election which was due to have been held on 29th May 2003 may be considered to raise an issue under Article 3 of the First Protocol to the Convention, which requires the holding of free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.

34. There is some doubt whether elections of the Assembly are within the scope of this Article. Even on the assumption that they are, however, the Government's view is that postponement in the present circumstances, while section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 2000 is in force, does not infringe the undertaking State Parties give under Article 3.

35.     The Lord Williams of Mostyn has therefore made the following statement:

    "In my view the provisions of the Northern Ireland (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Bill are compatible with the Convention rights."

COMMENCEMENT DATE

36.     All the provisions of the Bill will come into force on Royal Assent.

 
 
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Prepared: 13 May 2003