First Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Monday 3 November 2003
[David Taylor in the Chair]
Draft Northern Ireland Assembly
(Elections) (Amendment) Order 2003
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2003.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003 (Consequential Modifications) Order 2003 and the Northern Ireland (Date of Next Assembly Poll) Order 2003.
Mr. Spellar: I shall work from my three scripts to encompass what the Committee has to decide on. All three orders are compatible with the European convention on human rights and have been made in exercise of the powers conferred by section 31(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and by other relevant legislation. The orders concern the forthcoming Northern Ireland Assembly election and create the means by which it can happen. One of the orders moves the date of publication of the new electoral register from 1 December 2003 to 1 January 2004; another allows the Electoral Commission access to polling places.
The order that sets 26 November as the election date was made on 22 October by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Hon. Members will know that he made a statement to the House on that day, setting out the progress that had been made over the previous days and weeks towards the restoration of devolved government on a stable and inclusive basis.
Lady Hermon (North Down): It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr. Taylor. It is also a pleasure to see the Minister again, after the sad and unexpected death of his wife.
I apologise for interrupting the Minister just as he is getting into his speech, but it would help if he could clarify two points. First, why was the election called for an hour earlier—at 7 am rather than 8 am—on 21 October? Secondly, the Government have acknowledged that events did not unfold as anticipated on 21 October, so why on earth did the Secretary of State make the order on that evening?
Mr. Spellar: Quite simply, we were running tight on time for ordering an election and the electoral officer was running out of time to make his arrangements. The legislation lays down a timetable and, as the hon. Lady knows, we had hoped to achieve agreement the week before. We were also mindful of representations made from across Northern Ireland that we should not have an election in December—the obvious reasons being the approaching festive season and the ever-darkening nights, with the possibility of inclement weather.
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After the election, the British and Irish Governments will work with the parties to resolve the issue as quickly as possible so as to enable devolved government to be restored to the people of Northern Ireland. The question has been raised as to why the election is being held on a Wednesday. The election has been called at short notice and we sought to minimise the disruption to Electoral Office staff that would be caused by continuing counting into the weekend, because of the system used for elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. This has the advantage that the results should be known by the weekend, as the two-day count will take place on the Thursday and Friday.
For political and practical reasons, as I previously outlined, the week in question is the most realistic in which to hold an election. The hon. Lady will be aware of the 11-plus exams also being held in Northern Ireland, and there would be obvious weather implications if the date were set any later.
We hope that the election campaign will be positive and constructive, and that after the elections we can build on the good working relationships between all the parties in Northern Ireland that have developed from their working together in the Executive and in the negotiations that have taken place since suspension.
Lady Hermon: I greatly appreciate the Minister taking a second intervention. Just before he dispatches one of the orders and moves smoothly on to the next, will he clarify an issue for the better understanding of the Committee? When the Assembly election was postponed, earlier in the year, from 29 May, the very good reason given by the Secretary of State was that we needed acts of completion—that was clarified by the Prime Minister in Belfast in October 2002. What acts of completion have taken place to permit, encourage and provide a foundation for the calling of the Assembly election on 26 November?
Mr. Spellar: On the basis of the report from the monitoring commission, we believe that there have been considerable acts of completion. We accept that the transparency of those acts of completion was not, unfortunately, enough to satisfy some of the parties to the discussions. As I said earlier, we therefore hope that discussions instigated by the British and Irish Governments after the election will enable the Assembly to move towards establishing an effective working Executive.
The Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2003 amends rule 32 of the parliamentary elections rules set out in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 as it is applied by schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001 for the purposes of an election to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The effect is simply to add Electoral Commissioners, members of staff of the Electoral Commission and persons appointed by the Electoral Commission, for the purpose of attending at polling stations on behalf of the commission. The order is being introduced now to be in use for the Northern Ireland Assembly election, and will apply to all elections to the Assembly unless it is amended or revoked. A similar
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order is due to be introduced for the whole United Kingdom next year in time for the European parliamentary elections.
The Government believe that allowing the Electoral Commission access to polling stations would be beneficial. It would allow the commission to report fully on the conduct of the election and help to provide clear evidence as to how staff of the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland implement key aspects of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, such as checking photographic identification. Furthermore, a number of Northern Ireland politicians have told us that they are unhappy about inconsistencies in polling stations. The commission will be able to judge whether those complaints have any substance, and report accordingly.
The Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003 (Consequential Modifications) Order 2003 relates to the electoral register. It, too, was made on 22 October, and it changes the date by which the revised version of the electoral register should be published, following the annual canvass, from 1 December 2003 to 1 February 2004. It also provides that no notices of alteration need to be published during the four months prior to February 2004.
It may be helpful if I explain some of the background to the change. The new electoral register was due to be published on the usual date of 1 December. However, because the Assembly election has been called, the chief electoral officer and his staff will, understandably, be involved fully in election preparations. That means that, for administrative reasons, the chief electoral officer will be unable to publish a new register on 1 December. The order puts back the publication deadline to 1 February 2004.
The order also modifies legislation to stop a resettlement allowance being payable to former Members of the Legislative Assembly who have given a termination notice under a determination made by the Secretary of State. Members who had given such a notice would already have received payment equivalent to a resettlement allowance by virtue of the termination notice. I have no reason to believe that any MLA would have claimed the second payment, but we are advised that it is sensible to insert the provision, because it ensures that no one would be able to claim or receive a double payment. That is to their benefit as well as to ours.
I hope that the Committee can agree the measures, which will enable the election on 26 November. We believe that they will have a positive effect, and I commend them to the Committee.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Normally, on such occasions, I apply what I call the Taylor tests. However, as you are presiding over us, Mr. Taylor, you might think that a slight impertinence. I shall merely say that my approach is to ask myself whether the people of Northern Ireland want the events that we are considering to come to pass—I think that they do; my party certainly does—whether there will be a
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further proliferation of ombudsmen or commissions, which I do not favour, and whether the measure tends to make the law of Northern Ireland closer to that of the rest of the United Kingdom or, more particularly, to the law of England and Wales.
Those points do not stand in the road this afternoon, Mr. Taylor. It is not my party's intention to delay the Committee, nor am I going to dwell on acts of completion, although there is still a lot of unfinished business. Many people would say that the terrorist prisoners were released prematurely. However, we have an Opposition day on Wednesday, and we shall use the opportunity of that debate to develop our arguments on acts of completion and on what the decommissioning commission and senior Ministers have had to say.
I have little to say beyond the fact that my party was not in favour of suspension when it happened, but it did happen. We want the elections to take place and the Assembly to be brought into existence, and we have all our fingers crossed that a viable Executive will emerge from the Assembly.
Lady Hermon: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's taking an intervention. Do he and his colleagues accept that this is simply a date that has been set for an election? The suspension has not been lifted from the Assembly. Does his party still insist that there should be transparent acts of completion before the suspension of the Assembly is lifted and an Executive and an Administration commence in Northern Ireland?