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Mr. William Ross: I concur with everything that the hon. Gentleman is saying. At one time, the deputy

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electoral officers handled such applications. Because they were closer to the ground, they did a much better job than is done now that the system is centralised. If the experience of the previous general election is anything to go by, centralisation has not been a startling success, to put it mildly.

Mr. Mallon: I agree. It is a matter of common sense, a virtue which not everyone in the chief electoral officer's offices shares. I know that there is great concern about the issue in the various offices. Who knows the local areas better than the local deputy electoral officers? Who knows a scam when they see one better than they? Who can recognise a fiddle better than those operating in the relevant area?

I would welcome a modicum of common sense being instilled in the way in which the chief electoral officer deals not only with his staff but with the population at large and the political parties. We could end up spending thousands of pounds in an effort to get people to exercise their right to vote in the referendum and the election that will follow, while the chief electoral officer's nonsensical approach could in effect disfranchise people making genuine applications.

I shall conclude my remarks by relating an anecdote. Some years ago, when the postal votes were being vetted by the chief electoral officer, the late Harold McCusker, who then represented Upper Bann, and I heard that the officer had turned down an application from a 104-year-old woman on the ground that the application did not specify physical disability. We both knew the lady concerned--she would have been voting for Mr. McCusker, so the application was of no benefit to me. We argued that, irrespective of how the form had been filled in, she should get a postal vote. However, that old lady was not allowed to vote because of the nonsensical system.

Mr. Paul Murphy: I shall attempt to answer the points raised by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). The Bill refers to the Secretary of State's power to provide for an election by order. That order will be introduced soon and will make provision for matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised, including electoral fraud, a list of absent voters, payment to the returning officer, a candidate's right to send free mail, the secrecy of the ballot and deposits.

The specific provisions in subsection (6) are entirely standard and reflect practice in all electoral legislation. As the hon. Gentleman and others will know, in Northern Ireland an extensive exercise is carried out every year to establish the electoral register. It includes house-to-house canvassing and regular publicised hearings at various points throughout the year at which people who are not on the register can seek to be included on it. They are reasonable provisions and have been in force for some time. Of course when an election is called, a line has to be drawn. The chief electoral officer and his staff cannot be expected to deal with all the work surrounding an election and, at the same time, consider appeals from people who want to be included on the register at the last minute.

I take the points that the hon. Gentleman and others made about electoral fraud. It is particularly important for us to address it in Northern Ireland. As I said earlier,

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the Select Committee and the committee of the forum have reported on it. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will consider various proposals in those reports, some of which might be included in the order, depending on their practicality. In respect of deposits, if hon. Members wish to write to me or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State with their views on what the level of the deposit should be, I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend takes their suggestions into account when she presents the order to the House later in the parliamentary year.

Mr. William Ross: Although the Minister did not answer all the points that I raised, in the light of what he has said and as it is standard procedure, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3


Mr. Mackinlay: I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, leave out lines 21 to 23 and insert--

'(2) An order under subsection (1) above may--
(a) require a seat last filled by a member of a registered party to be filled by another member nominated by that party (without a by-election);
(b) provide for a by-election to be held;
(c) prescribe such other method of filling vacancies as the Secretary of State thinks fit; and different provision (including provision that a vacancy shall not be filled) may be made for different circumstances.
(3) In this section "registered party" means any party registered under any enactment providing for the registration of political parties.'.

The Second Deputy Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 11, in page 2, line 21, leave out from 'by' to end of line 23 and insert

'the appointment of a substitute chosen by the party to whom the previous occupant of that vacant seat belonged, or was elected as a representative of that party, and where the former representative was an independent the seat shall remain vacant until the following assembly elections.'.

No. 1, in page 2, line 21, leave out 'by-elections or'.

Mr. Mackinlay: Before I advance my arguments for adopting the amendment, which I consider to be superior to what is in the Bill, I should like to make one point that is germane to our detailed examination of legislation. I voted with some reluctance for the guillotine, so I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to explain why the Bill will not be considered by the House of Lords until Monday or Tuesday week. I find that quite breathtaking and worrying. We were told that there is a degree of urgency in our consideration of the legislation in Committee, so we need a good explanation on why it is not moving expeditiously to another place.

Having scuppered my chances of a job in the next reshuffle--I hope--let me explain why the structure of clause 3 is so important. We need to address the way in which vacancies in the assembly are filled, as that matter needs to be handled delicately.

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The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) gave us a good illustration which referred to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume). Had the hon. Member for Foyle been elected President of the Irish Republic, as was contemplated at one time, he would have had to vacate his seat in the European Parliament. There would have been a by-election, but it would have been impossible for the SDLP to replace him. Clearly, he would have been replaced by someone of the Unionist persuasion. That problem is writ large if by-elections to the new assembly are held under the proposed electoral system. Whichever tradition commands a majority in a particular constituency would be bound to win, regardless of whether the vacant seat had been held by the Alliance, Sinn Fein, the SDLP, or the DUP. In all probability, the official Unionists would win the seat.

As there will be multi-Member constituencies, I believe that that would be undemocratic. It could also knock the fragile balance of committee seats in the assembly and the distribution of portfolios or number of seats on the Executive; that would be a source of great frustration.

After the assembly has been elected--I shall not take all hon. Members with me on this point--there will, unhappily, be a time of fragility in which it has to build up its procedures and form an Executive. As it prepares to move in that incubation period from being a shadow body to a fully functioning assembly, a by-election could be wholly disruptive.

9 pm

I invite hon. Members to consider a scenario in which the Executive has been set up and--as is in the nature of politics--there are bad times. There could be extreme and, I hope, extraordinary terrorist activity, or some natural disaster, for example. Some people would exploit the opportunity offered by a by-election to create difficulties.

I use as an analogy the Westminster general election of February 1974, which destabilised, and contributed to the demise of, the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, which at that stage had had only a few months' life. If the election had not occurred, the Executive and Northern Ireland Assembly might have had a longer run, and the problems that arose--the Ulster workers' strike and so on--might have been avoided. Lord Merlyn-Rees and others who were involved, including the late Brian Faulkner, said that the election came at a bad time, and I believe that by-elections to the New Northern Ireland Assembly could give rise to similarly great problems.

Unlike the Bill, amendment No. 2 would make it clear that there was a presumption that, when a vacancy arose, it would be filled by a member of the political party that previously held the seat. That would help the Secretary of State by removing any ambiguity, so that those people who wanted the political opportunity to fight a by-election for their own selfish reasons would not have any grounds for complaint against her or any future Secretary of State.

The amendment is similar to one tabled by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), in that it would cover cases in which independents, who might have no natural successor, lost their seat or their seat was declared void. It would then allow the Secretary of State--in the nature of things, this would be rare--to call a by-election or to hold the seat vacant.

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I do not like the latter option, but, like the hon. Member for Belfast, South, I recognise that a vacancy could occur relating to a seat hitherto held by an independent and we must explore that possibility. The seat could also be held in abeyance until a Westminster general election or a Northern Ireland local government election, for example--those options should also be explored. However, the overwhelming majority of vacancies that will occur will relate to people who were elected on a party ticket--the provisions that deal with other circumstances are highly unlikely to be used.

In the past 24 hours, I have been referring to my library of Hansards--I was also studying the Hansard reports of the 1973 Northern Ireland Assembly. They should be compulsory reading, as they buttress the argument--I say this in parenthesis--that Standing Orders should be handed down by the Secretary of State rather than formulated by the assembly. The former assembly wasted much time on that.

Tragically, on the eve of the first sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a Unionist Member, Mr. McCarthy, was killed in a car crash and the by-election was never held because, as far as I can ascertain, it was such a short-lived assembly.

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