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The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is making an intervention.

Dr. Godman: It was an interesting intervention. I do not know where to start replying to it, Mr. Lord. My hon. Friend offered to give me half a dozen examples in an intervention that could hardly be called brief. He gave the Australian Senate as an example. That convention developed over a number of years, as my hon. Friend will acknowledge. It was not introduced in 1901.

Mr. Willis: What about the European Parliamentary Elections Bill?

Dr. Godman: Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene?

Mr. Willis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I am sorry for interrupting him from a sedentary position, but the most relevant point that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) made was about the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. We would like the hon. Gentleman to deal with that example.

Dr. Godman: I cannot recall offhand, but I may well have voted for such a system in that Bill. A degree of

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inconsistency does no one any harm and I have never had any aspirations to higher office. I have answered three of my hon. Friend's questions from his less than brief intervention. He gives us the Australian Senate, where convention was developed over many years. The European Parliament is an entirely different assembly. It has no legislative powers. It cannot be compared sensibly with what we are discussing this evening, which is, a Northern Ireland assembly that may prove to have some characteristics in common with our Scottish Parliament. I would not want to see the type of measure that my hon. Friend advocates introduced into the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. McGrady: My hon. Friend does not have to go outside Northern Ireland to find an example that supports the argument for replacement by party connotation. In local government in Northern Ireland, by agreement within the chamber, vacancies are not filled by proceeding to an election. People are co-opted by party designation. That happens in the vast majority of councils in Northern Ireland.

Dr. Godman: I do not regret getting up to speak, but I am losing friends by the minute here. I am not too happy with the local government example. I should like to see many more powers given to local government in Northern Ireland. I suspect that councillors might have a different view if they had the powers that local authorities in Scotland and elsewhere have.

To address the amendment directly, I have to say that, despite the remarkably fine characteristics of my democratic socialist Friend the Member for Thurrock, it does not address the concerns of the electorate during the lifetime of a Parliament. Despite the problems facing my hon. Friends from Northern Ireland on a daily basis--I am only an occasional visitor to the Six Counties--my view is that we must take account of the interests, aspirations and concerns of the electors. With sincere respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock, I do not think that his amendment addresses the problem, which is the democratic rights of the electors themselves.

Mr. Peter Robinson: The amendment deals with one of the Bill's many provisions that demonstrate the degree to which the assembly is to be the puppet of the Secretary of State. Throughout this short piece of legislation, it is abundantly clear that the Secretary of State has the assembly on a choke chain: if it moves in one direction, she hauls it back; if it moves in the other, she hauls it back; if it goes too far forward, she hauls it back; if it does not move fast enough, she kicks it forward. The Secretary of State can refer to the assembly even those matters that are outside the scope of the assembly's authority.

The Secretary of State has the power to make provision for the elections and she effectively has the power to decide who comes in on the foot of any vacancy. There is no provision in the Bill that suggests that the Secretary of State is required to do the same thing in one case as in another. In one case, she might find it politic to hold a by-election--perhaps in that way one of her supporters might get elected. In another case, it might be preferable to allow the vacancy to be filled by a member of the same party as the person who is deceased or has retired. In yet another case, she might find some other method--it is

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entirely up to her--of filling that vacancy. That is not remotely a democratic way of dealing with a vacancy, therefore, the amendment fails to address the problem.

Because of the electoral system, there are automatic difficulties and I can well understand the problems mentioned by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). There is bound to be a feeling of injustice if a party manages to get the appropriate quota that allows it one seat out of six, but the person either dies or retires, a vacancy occurs and the party does not get its seat in that area, it is not represented and its voice is not heard.

Mr. Paul Murphy: I ought to intervene on the hon. Gentleman because I think that he has misunderstood the clause. Clause 3 refers to the Secretary of State, by order, laying down the method by which vacancies are to be filled. That would be a general order, which referred to the general principle of how vacancies are to be filled and not to individual vacancies as they occurred. His speech suggests that he is under the impression that the Secretary of State could pick and choose between methods--by-election on one occasion and substitution on another--but that is not the case. When I reply to this debate, I shall explain in more detail what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has in mind on that issue, but I should say now that the clause refers to vacancies in general and to general principles, not to individual cases.

Mr. Robinson: I quite understand that the provision is that the Secretary of State will make an order--but the Secretary of State could make another order. There is nothing in the Bill that suggests that the Secretary of State is not capable of making one order after another, or varying the conditions from one occasion to the next. If it were not so, why does she not put that up front right now? Let her put it on the face of the Bill. The obvious approach would be for her to tell us how a vacancy will be dealt with. I would far rather know right now what the method is to be, even if it was not the method I most preferred, because I would at least know that it would apply in all sets of circumstances.

I can understand the genuine concern that the proportionality in an area will no longer be intact after a vacancy occurs. In the Republic of Ireland, that is dealt with by recognising the fact that opinions can change in a constituency, and that, unless one allows a by-election, in effect one freezes one's electoral body. In this case, one would freeze not only the electoral body, but the form of government within that body. It could never change while the assembly existed. We should remember that the legislation has an indefinite lifespan: it could remain for ever and a day. With the Bill as it stands, Members of the Assembly will be elected without knowing how long their term of office will be; it is not stated.

I believe that it could cause many problems to freeze matters for all time in Northern Ireland by saying that any vacancy should be filled by a member of the party to which the ex-member belonged. Although I believe that the best way of dealing with the problem is by holding a by-election--inadequate though that may be--even if the Government did not go in that direction, I should much prefer that they stated in the Bill how we shall proceed if a vacancy arises.

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9.30 pm

Mr. William Ross: We have had an interesting little debate on this issue. My hon. Friends and I tabled amendment No. 11 partly because this issue is not new in Northern Ireland; it has been around since the proportional representation-single transferable vote system was introduced for council elections and for the Northern Ireland body. In some cases, considerable changes in council strengths were made as a result of one or two deaths in a district electoral area, or even in adjoining ones.

The problem has not been resolved. Although Ministers may be unaware of the fact, it is not the first time that I have drawn attention to the problem of by-elections and the replacement of persons who have died or retired under the PR-STV system.

The hon. Member for Inverclyde--

Dr. Godman: Greenock and Inverclyde.

Mr. Ross: The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) said that, without holding a by-election, one did not address the concerns of the electorate between elections. However, the difficulty is that, between elections, it would be a first-past-the-post election--or rather, on the exhaustive vote system--whereas the general election, to whatever body, is conducted under the single transferable vote system. For a by-election to be fair, the five or six remaining Members must stand down, and the election must be held for the whole constituency.

People do not take kindly to that, either, but that is the only fair way to find out what the electorate of the area think between general elections. We have to say, "Sorry guys; someone's killed, someone's resigned. The whole body of representation in the constituency is wiped out, so you have to have an election."

Let us be clear in our minds about another thing. One does not know when some poor soul in a sensitive area in Northern Ireland will become a target for a killer. Given the passions that have flowed round that place for years, I sometimes wonder how people--perhaps the only representative of the political view that they hold--have managed to survive. The constant danger is that, sooner or later, someone with gunmen will get round to looking at the politics. I strongly believe that we need to consider that issue with great care.


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