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Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): Will the Minister assist the parties in Northern Ireland by stating what the total would be if a party decided to run five candidates in each constituency?

Mr. Ancram: If I have the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate. It may be that I can give the hon. Gentleman the figures that will apply per party per constituency at that stage, and then allow him to arrive at the aggregate. His arithmetic may be every bit as good as mine.

We have tried to respond to some of the concerns that have been expressed by the parties. One example is the listing of the individual candidates who compose the constituency and regional lists. It would have been

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impracticable to include those names on the ballot paper, not least because it would have made it too large to fit on the shelf of a polling booth.

Instead, we have made provision, as I said during the passage of what became the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996, for lists of the names on the parties' constituency and regional lists to be displayed in every polling booth in every polling station in Northern Ireland.

The House may be interested to hear what provisions have been applied for the count. Hon. Members will be only too familiar from their own experience of the rules that allow us and our partners, together with all other candidates and their partners, to attend a count. The rules will be no different in this election. Of course, there could be a far greater number of candidates wishing to attend the count at this election than is usual, given that a maximum of 155 candidates could, in theory, contest one constituency alone.

We gave serious thought to the practical problems that admitting such numbers may pose. We concluded, however, that it would not be realistic to seek to exclude candidates from such a key process. They will therefore be admitted to the count proceedings, with party agents or sub-agents. We shall leave it to the parties to respond responsibly.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford): Does that mean that all 2,000 candidates will be allowed to attend the count?

Mr. Ancram: The counts will take place on a constituency basis, where the allocation of delegates from the constituency lists will be made. As I have said, in our view that gives a maximum at worst of 155 candidates in one constituency alone. We are leaving matters to the responsibility of those concerned to ensure that attendance at the counts is conducted responsibly.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): When will the votes be counted? Will the count be conducted the next day, or on the evening of the election?

Mr. Ancram: In due course, I shall give the hon. Gentleman the reference in the order. They will be counted the next day. The count will start the following morning. It is right, in the circumstances, that it should be done in that way.

To return to the question of the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), if a party stands in five constituencies, the limit will depend on the constituencies in question. The amount that would normally go to each candidate in a parliamentary election will be allowable for each party standing in any constituency. The important feature is that that money does not have to be spent in any one constituency by the party. The party might decide to have a more regionally based campaign, and use the resources in that way. That degree of flexibility is an important part of the process.

Mr. William Ross: If a party is standing in all 18 constituencies, it seems that the total expenditure could be well over £100,000.

Mr. Ancram: I shall give the hon. Gentleman the relevant amount, and he can make his own calculation.

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It is a similar amount to that which would be available to any candidate at an election. I think that the calculation was last made in 1994. Any party could receive only that amount times 18 if it stood in every constituency in Northern Ireland.

It is important that we proceed in this way. For example, the hon. Gentleman's party might decide that it wished to spend not the full allowance within each constituency but less in one constituency and more in another. It seems right that that flexibility should be allowed. For that reason--to create what we hope is a flexible system on behalf of the parties--we decided to operate in the way that I have outlined.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): Paragraph 76(2A)(a) and (b) give the block figures--£4,642 for a county constituency or a borough constituency, with an additional 5.2p for a county constituency and 3.9p for a borough constituency. We are not asking the Minister to engage in any mathematics. Do these figures apply per candidate or per party per constituency?

Mr. Ancram: They apply per party per constituency. What is entered in each constituency is a party list. The hon. Member for East Londonderry, who is an accountant, could make the calculations in his head far more quickly than myself. It is right that we allow flexibility, to ensure that the money can be spent regionally as opposed to merely locally. We have tried to allow parties the maximum flexibility in conducting their campaigns.

I have presented the scheme and some of the detail of the draft order. Much of the order recreates existing legislation. There are some technical terminological changes to address the particulars of the elections that we shall see take place on 30 May.

Dr. Norman Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow): The Minister mentioned the role to be played by both television and radio. What of newspapers?

Mr. Ancram: Obviously newspapers have an important role to play, but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, there were no restrictions on the way in which newspapers conduct themselves during election campaigns. I was referring to the removal of the provision which is normally applied in elections, because of the nature of this election. We look to the broadcasters to operate responsibly in the interests of fair coverage during the election.

The order represents the most reasonable approach to adopt, in the complex and technical body of electoral law, to the requirements of the forthcoming election. I commend it to the House.

8.58 pm

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): I am grateful to the Minister for his introduction. I judge from the way in which we have started that the debate will liven up as people get into their mathematics. I was confused immediately, but, as people become clearer on the issue, there will be more coherent questions.

Let us not pretend that we will give the order the scrutiny it deserves, or that the way we are dealing with it is in any way satisfactory. I started considering the order at the earliest possible moment late on Monday afternoon.

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I know that many other hon. Members will have had considerably less time to consider it and will not have been able to scrutinise it adequately, as I have not been able to do.

The order is important, because we hope that, against all the odds, successful all-party talks will take place following the election. If those talks are successful, the lives of all people in Northern Ireland will be transformed, but if some of the order is wrong, the only people who will be benefit from it are those who are not trying hard for a full peace and a broad constitutional settlement.

I raise those points because it is better to anticipate them now than for them to be used to upset or to cause controversy at the election--although I realise that we cannot amend the order, so the choice is whether to vote for or against it. We know that, were we successfully to vote against it, we would derail the elections, so it is not much of a choice.

This is a difficult order, because it is a mongrel election--it is unlike any others. In some respects, it is like a local election--the electorate is a local government electorate. In relation to the rules that are being followed, such as, for example, those on free post, it is like a general election. It also attempts something for the first time in Northern Ireland: a party list system, with a party rather than an individual as the candidate.

The Government said that they went about this in the simplest possible way: by not attempting to bring in major, new and substantive legislation. It is an incredibly difficult order, because it is possible to make sense of it only by reference to large parts of other legislation that are not in the Bill. It is impossible to make sense of the order without looking up 1983 and 1985 Acts. Whatever the outcome, however, we should congratulate the parliamentary draftsmen, who have had to struggle with a beast not of their own making. If, having produced the order, they are now brain-dead, I would sympathise with them.

Mr. Ancram: They have been stimulated.

Mr. Worthington: They have been stimulated by the production of the order, but it has had less than a stimulating effect on me. I suspect that some of the parliamentary draftsmen may be sleeping for several weeks after producing it.

Let me go through some of the points that have occurred to me in reading the legislation. On page 2, paragraph (6), will the Minister explain why he has taken his decision on overseas electors, and what is meant by "overseas electors" in this context? Is it simply people from Northern who are temporarily away from home, or is it long-gone expatriates? In the case of some interpretations of overseas electors, it would not be too serious, but if it is genuine Northern Ireland residents, members of the forces or others, it is an unfortunate decision, if I have read that correctly.

We have talked about election expenses. Again, I am by no means certain that I have read this correctly, but the point is important. The parties that are represented here will want to understand it, and to have it explained clearly by the Minister.

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As the Minister will know, in a general election, there are tight restrictions on what candidates can spend in their constituencies, but no restriction on what is spent nationally--whatever "nationally" means in this context--by the parties. In the Bill, we see the familiar restrictions on constituency expenditure, but this election is different, because the candidate is the party, not an individual. Is it real to impose those limits in relation to constituencies, because the literature and propaganda for the whole of Northern Ireland are likely to be the same as for a part? The issue is the same in every constituency.

I know that that is an academic question for most parties, because they simply do not have enough money, but there may be parties with a lot of money to spend. Is it the case that there is no limit on the amount that can be spent on the election by those who have the money? There seems to be no restriction on expenses. A large amount can be spent Provincewide or UKwide, and the only limit on expenditure is the amount that people can raise. Perhaps the Minister will explain that.

The order contains no reference to rules about broadcasting. It is unfortunate that it was only in his speech and not before it that the Minister referred to the suspension of section 93, which deals with the rules that broadcasters have to follow.

I understand that their public service role, which places an obligation upon them in elections to give even-handed coverage to all parties, has been suspended. I suspect that public service broadcasters may still want to fulfil that role, but did the Minister means that there is no duty upon broadcasters to be even-handed to all parties, as happens in other elections? I should welcome some clarification.

I hesitate to return to the subject of party names, on which the Government made such a mess.

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