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4.48 pm

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): I wish to speak about the Elections Bill, which is particularly significant for Northern Ireland. It is important that procedures that limit the time that the House has to consider any Bill be used sparingly; but when the Bill affects the constitutional rights of electors and may influence their future, such a procedure must be used even more sparingly.

The greater part of the Elections Bill is taken up with matters relating to Northern Ireland. Because of the effects of foot and mouth, it is understandable that there may be a great deal of agreement about the Bill's contents among the parties that are largely concerned with the United Kingdom mainland, but that consideration does not affect Northern Ireland. At present, we are free from foot and mouth, so there is absolutely no objection to local government elections taking place in Northern Ireland in accordance with extant legislation. They could be held on 16 May, with a general election to follow once a date is determined.

We should have a full debate on aspects of the Bill that pertain to Northern Ireland. It should not be time limited. There is a grave suspicion that those provisions are being included for no reason whatsoever. They do not appear to be connected with the general election or foot and mouth. It has been common knowledge for some time that, to further their policies and objectives in relation to the peace process or the Belfast agreement, the Government have made moves to ensure that the Ulster Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party should gain an advantage by a change in electoral arrangements. It was at first suggested that the local government elections in Northern Ireland should be postponed from 16 May 2001 to an indefinite future date, while local government was possibly reorganised. The agreement of the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP could not be obtained for that.

Long before the issue of foot and mouth arose in Great Britain or Northern Ireland, there were rumours in political circles in Northern Ireland that local government elections and the general election would be held on the same day. Fundamental constitutional issues are at stake and should be debated at length, including whether the principles of democracy and electors' rights are best served by having elections which use two systems on the same day. In Northern Ireland, voters will be expected to follow the general election procedure of first past the post, which allows them simply to put an X against the name of the single candidate for whom they want to vote, and the local government election procedure, which is based on proportional representation. Under that system, the voter marks his preference for one, two, three, four, five, six or more candidates on a list. It is not a matter of applying the same electoral principles as obtain for the election on the mainland, which will always use the first past the post system.

The capacity for engendering confusion, difficulty, misunderstanding and protests about the validity of votes is protean in Northern Ireland. Indeed, some of the

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proposals plainly provide for the boxes that contain the votes to be opened at the discretion of the returning officer, without the scrutiny of party representatives, to allow general election votes to be separated like the wheat and the tares from the votes cast in the local government elections. By making provisions that recognise the substantial mistakes that will be made and the mix-ups and confusion that will occur, on which the returning officer will have to decide, the Bill acknowledges my concern, which I hope I have put with some force. It is absolutely ludicrous, in purely electoral terms, to have two elections on the same day for two different sets of candidates that operate under two fundamentally different voting procedures.

Rev. Ian Paisley: I am amazed that the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland dissents from what the hon. and learned Gentleman has been saying--I hope that the Under-Secretary is listening. The schedule to the Elections Bill states:

What are those proceedings? Are they that the boxes should be opened, every vote be taken out, the coloured votes separated into one pile and the white votes into another, all with no public scrutiny? Are those votes then to be wrapped up in a parcel and sent out with an outrider--we realise that local government people have employed outriders to go on motorbike to deliver parcels of votes to other places--without scrutiny? The Under- Secretary needs to face up to that.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): Order. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is going wide of the debate.

Mr. McCartney: I return to my general theme. For reasons that have nothing to do with the emergency in the United Kingdom at large, which has made it necessary for us to consider both Bills, the Government have decided to incorporate in one of them provisions that are not required by any exigency in Northern Ireland, and to import a system of voting that guarantees confusion. Indeed, the Bill recognises and provides for the sorting out of anticipated difficulty.

The Government are imposing a guillotine on a Bill that provides for the exercise of fundamental democratic and constitutional rights that any citizen may enjoy--the right to cast his vote in circumstances in which there is no confusion about the validity of its casting, in which there is no mix-up with any other election, and in which, in confidence and certainty, he can cast a vote for those by whom he wishes to be represented in local government or the House. It seems to me--and, I hope, the House--that the essential falseness and weakness of the proposed legislation, so far as it bears on that part of the United Kingdom known as Northern Ireland, is that it incorporates measures that are in no way induced, caused or generated by the fundamental emergency that has led to the introduction of both Bills. I hope and trust that, even at this late stage, Ministers will consider that, in relation to Northern Ireland, that is such a fundamental, democratic and constitutional issue as to require--nay, demand--a full and comprehensive debate.

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4.58 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I beg to move, as an amendment to the motion, in paragraph 1(1), after "on Second Reading," to leave out

I hope that the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) will forgive me if I do not respond directly to what he said or follow on directly from his arguments. I hope that you will forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I say that he raised issues that disturb people like me, who are not familiar with the background in Northern Ireland. The hon. and learned Gentleman made points that need to be properly addressed by Ministers and which add weight to the general unease that many of us feel about the timetable motion.

My purpose in speaking is, first, to express my opposition to, and deep anxiety about, the timetable motion, and secondly, to speak to the manuscript amendment which Mr. Speaker kindly selected. My manuscript amendment is confined to the Elections Bill, not the Election Publications Bill, and would enable the House to consider all stages of the Elections Bill over two days, rather than one day. We should have Second Reading today, ending at 10 pm, and we should deal with the Committee, Report and Third Reading tomorrow, ending at a fairly late hour--say, 12 midnight. In any event, we should debate the Elections Bill over a two-day period.

The argument that we have heard from all parts of the House is that there is a need for emergency legislation. I make two observations about that. First, the fact that we may need legislation rapidly does not mean that we should pass it without proper scrutiny. Secondly, the phrase "emergency legislation" is probably not properly descriptive of what we are discussing. We are speaking of rapid legislation.

Mr. Forth: Panic legislation.

Mr. Hogg: I am speaking of rapid legislation. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and I approach the matter from different points of view. My right hon. Friend is addressing the motives of those on the Government Front Bench when he uses the phrase "panic legislation". My argument is that the legislation must be passed rapidly. We do not disagree, but I do not want to use the phrase that my right hon. Friend used.

The guillotine motion relates to two Bills. I propose to concentrate exclusively on the Elections Bill, save to say in respect of the Election Publications Bill that the fact that we shall have to consider that Bill under a timetable motion, or at all, arises because the principal legislation amended by the Election Publications Bill was itself not properly discussed. That ought to make us very chary of using the mechanism set out in the timetable motion.

I repeat the point that I made to the Home Secretary. I am a serious believer in the procedure whereby a Standing Committee can take evidence. There is a great deal in what the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) said about a Cabinet Minister deciding as a matter of principle that all legislation introduced by that Department should be the subject of evidence taking, either through a Select Committee, which was the procedure adopted in the context of the Adoption

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and Children Bill, or, as I would suggest--although I do not want to be dogmatic--by the Special Standing Committee procedure, which has been in place for yonks but is rarely used. It should be.

I turn to the Elections Bill and the timetable motion. We need to understand what we are discussing. As I understand the effect of the timetable motion, I think that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) misspoke himself, if he will forgive my saying so. We must finish the Second Reading and Committee stage by 9 pm. In other words, we have about four hours to go through a process which, in the ordinary course of events, would take very many hours.

That is pretty surprising, and it is not implausible to say that there is a strong presumption that it is thoroughly undesirable, too. It is all the more undesirable when one bears in mind that the Elections Bill was published only yesterday. I did not see it at all until 3.45 pm, and my constituents will not have seen it even now.

As I understand it from the Prime Minister's official spokesman, Mr. Campbell, who often seems to be in the dominant position in No. 10, until very recently, probably Monday, no work was being done on the Bill. That, by definition, means--if he was telling the truth, and I am prepared to give him credit for doing so--that no work was done, and there was no pre-drafting consultation. If he was telling the truth--let us assume that he was--it must necessarily follow that there was a lack of consultation. How could pre-drafting consultation have occurred if no work had been done? Thus the Elections Bill was published yesterday and was not the subject of consultation, but we are being asked to bang it through by 10 o'clock. That strikes me as a pretty remarkable state of affairs.

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