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NORTHERN IRELAND (ELECTIONS) BILL [MONEY]

Queen's recommendation having been signified--

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a),


Question agreed to.

22 Apr 1998 : Column 890

Northern Ireland (Elections) Bill

Considered in Committee, pursuant to Order [this day].

[Mr. Michael Lordm in the Chair]

Clause 1

The Assembly

8.11 pm

Mr. William Ross: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 13, leave out '108' and insert '90'.

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord): With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 24, in page 1, line 13, leave out '108' and insert '54'.

No. 25, in page 1, leave out line 18 and insert--


'(5) Northern Ireland shall be divided into nine constituencies created by amalgamating two joining parliamentary constituencies and each of these nine constituencies shall return six members.'.

No. 4, in page 1, line 18, leave out 'six' and insert 'five'.

Mr. Ross: The amendments bring to the attention of the Committee the number of Members that should comprise the assembly. The amendments fall into two groups and I hope that it will be understood that amendments Nos. 3 and 4 go together, as do Nos. 24 and 25. I hope, Mr. Lord, that you will permit two separate Divisions when we come to the end of the debate on the amendments. They set out alternative ways of creating what I think would be more reasonable numbers for the Northern Ireland assembly.

Amendment No. 3 would reduce to 90 the total number of Members, and the means of doing that is set out in amendment No. 4, which provides that instead of having six Members per parliamentary constituency we should have only five, which would give a total of 90.

Over many years--since the single transferable vote system of elections was introduced in Northern Ireland--five has been about the representation in every constituency. It is argued that if representation is less than five, we do not have a fair spread. If there is very much more than five, we end up with such a wide variety of representatives that folk with less than one seventh of the vote will be elected. The elected body could find itself at the mercy of a tiny minority of people who were elected late in the counts in the proportional STV system. Four or five have therefore been the preferred numbers for each constituency.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) is able to catch your eye, Mr. Lord, he will detail the consequences of my analysis in the context of Scotland and Wales. It is obvious that representation in Northern Ireland is far higher per head of population than it is in Scotland or Wales. Given that Scotland has a full-blown legislative majority rule system, if it can handle that system with a relatively small number of Members, there is no good reason--the same goes for Wales--for having 108 Members in Northern Ireland.

I have grave concerns about having 90 Members. For an efficient and sensible assembly in Northern Ireland, 90 Members is far too many.

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Amendments Nos. 24 and 25 would reduce representation from 108 to 54. To achieve a fairer spread across the community, the amendments would tie each two adjoining parliamentary constituencies together, thereby creating nine electoral areas with six Members per area, giving a total of 54. I would be happy with only five per area, but others have said that there should be six. That would be closer to the number of Members who sat in the old Stormont parliamentary system. I think that 52 Members were elected to Stormont. They were able to operate in a perfectly satisfactory fashion, given the powers that they had, which were much more extensive than those that the new assembly will ever have.

No one has told us what sort of salaries and allowances will be paid to the proposed 108 Members. I see no good reason for expending moneys on 108 when we could have half that number being paid more than would be paid to 108, with better back-up and secretarial allowances so that they could operate properly within the Northern Ireland context.

I have set out the reasoning behind the two sets of amendments. If the Minister says that the Government will be happy with 90 Members, I shall be reasonably content. If the Minister says that 54 would be a much better number, I shall be very happy. I think that 54 Members would be reasonable representation. Wales, with a much larger electorate, has 60 Members. Scotland, with a vastly larger electorate, has 129. Why should Northern Ireland have so many Members? There is no good reason for it.

I have great pleasure in proposing the amendments. I express the sincere hope that the Government will accept reason on this issue, if on no other, so that we might arrive at a far more sensible and better arrangement for the government of Northern Ireland and for the operation of the elected body within it.

Mr. Paul Murphy: I fear that I must recommend that the Committee reject the amendments.

I understand what the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) is saying about Wales and Scotland--Wales with 60 Members and Scotland with 129 although they both have larger populations. The Government did not decide that there should be 108 Members. It was the agreement that resulted in that number. During the strand 1 negotiations and talks, which I had the privilege of chairing, and which continued for many months, numbers was a matter of considerable concern. Other parties in the talks wanted a different system of election altogether. Some wanted the additional member system while others wanted a list system. In the end, the talks came to the conclusion that the best system to use was the single transferable vote, because it had been tried and tested in Northern Ireland.

In addition, the participants in the talks believed that by having six instead of five Members there was an opportunity for greater inclusivity in the assembly when it was elected. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that the leader of his party, with the leaders of the Social Democratic and Labour party and other parties in the talks, were in agreement with that. For that reason, I fear that I must ask the Committee to reject the amendments.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I understand the Minister's point but I share the views of our friend the hon. Member for

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Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) when he spoke earlier about federalism. I happen to believe in federalism and I have argued for it for a good many years.

This is one of the opportunities that we have as a Parliament to come to a decision. Surely one of the duties of Parliament is to vote supply, which involves the public purse.

I have listened to the arguments. I understand why people had to accept some provisions in the agreement, but something is out of kilter. If we go for 108 Members, there would be one for every 10,900 of the electorate. In Scotland, the ratio is one to 30,613 and in Wales it is one to 36,717. Until the English regions start to develop, England has, on average, one hon. Member for every 69,000 people. In the early days, we debated what would be necessary for committee responsibility and proper coverage throughout the Province, and it was decided that 90 would be sufficient.

I understand the reasoning for 54 Members. I was involved in many discussions over the years that resulted in our going for a unicameral system rather than for one with a Commons and a Senate. If my memory is correct, the old Northern Ireland Parliament had 52 Members in the Commons and 26 in the Senate. To deal with the changing political pattern it was decided to go for a membership of 90, but I am not convinced that broadening the scope will help good governance. It will certainly add pressure to public finances, so in future I do not want to hear any hon. Member complaining about subventions to Northern Ireland.

Mr. Beggs: Does my hon. Friend agree that the large figure of 108 Members is giving rise in local government in Northern Ireland to the feeling that meaningful powers may not be transferred to it?

Rev. Martin Smyth: I understand my hon. Friend's point. I picked up some vibrations from not being invited to the assembly or to engage in the forum talks, but, being the party's Chief Whip and representing its interests here. I remained in touch with what was going on. The Minister was correct when he said that discussions were taking place. To the best of my knowledge, most of the later discussions resulted in a compromise from 118 to 108 Members. There is some speculation about whether that is to keep people happy or whether a journalist is producing figures to entice other journalists to stand. Media reports suggest that each Member of the Assembly will receive a salary of £32,000 to £38,000. We have not had official figures. If those figures are correct, councils will think that the Government's commitment to giving powers to them will be set aside.

The Second Deputy Chairman: Before I call the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), I should point out that it is not normal for one hon. Member to move two amendments that are entirely different. I propose to put the Question on amendment No. 3 and it will be up to the hon. Gentleman to decide whether he wants to press it to a vote.


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