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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Sixth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

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Sixth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


†John Bercow

†Blackman, Liz (Erewash) (Lab)
†Brown, Mr. Nicholas (Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend) (Lab)
†Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
†Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Fraser, Mr. Christopher (South-West Norfolk) (Con)
†Gove, Michael (Surrey Heath) (Con)
†Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
†Havard, Mr. Dai (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
Lidington, Mr. David (Aylesbury) (Con)
†McFadden, Mr. Pat (Wolverhampton, South-East) (Lab)
†Mallaber, Judy (Amber Valley) (Lab)
†Martlew, Mr. Eric (Carlisle) (Lab)
†Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
†Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Robinson, Mr. Peter (Belfast, East) (DUP)
Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
Colin Lee, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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Tuesday 12 July 2005

[Mr. John Bercow in the Chair]

Draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2005

10.30 am

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2005.

May I again welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow, of a Northern Ireland Committee to examine aspects of legislation in Northern Ireland? I think that it would help the Committee if I gave a brief résumé of the purpose of this fairly simple order. The UK-wide Civil Partnerships Act 2004, from which this order derives, enables same-sex couples to obtain legal recognition by forming a civil partnership—a development that I am sure the whole House welcomes. They may do so by registering as civil partners of each other. The Act also sets out the legal consequences of forming a civil partnership, including the rights and responsibilities of civil partners.

The order brings existing Northern Ireland local election legislation into line with the provisions of the Civil Partnerships Act. It amends Northern Ireland local elections legislation in the light of the provisions made by the Act. The amendments give civil partners the same status as a spouse in matters connected with the conduct of local elections in Northern Ireland. The order also amends the definition of “relative” in the context of local elections to include civil partners.

Turning briefly to the specific articles, article 2 amends local election rules in the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 and article 3 amends the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. In each case the words “civil partner” have been added. The order is in my view compatible with the European convention on human rights. It is being made by Her Majesty, in exercise of the powers conferred by section 84(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I hope and believe that it is an uncontroversial measure which brings local government into line with the provisions of the Civil Partnerships Act. It allows civil partners to have the same rights and responsibilities as spouses do in electoral law. I welcome it and I hope that the Committee does too.

10.32 am

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): May I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow? It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again. I look forward to many more occasions. It is nevertheless regrettable that we are again dealing with legislation for Northern Ireland on this basis. I am sure
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that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) will have something to say on that and he will be far more powerful and eloquent than I can be.

There has been widespread consultation in Northern Ireland, not particularly about this order, unfortunately, but about the Act itself. The Minister says that he is sure that everyone welcomes it, but I doubt that because many, myself included, voted against the Bill, and the feeling in Northern Ireland was strongly against it, too. It is therefore relevant to make the point that it is unfortunate that we are dealing with these issues in Committee on this basis; we cannot amend anything and we have to say yes or no. Indeed, we do not have the benefit of representation from Northern Ireland. It is unfortunate that we are considering an order on 12 July as that might be considered rather insensitive. It is therefore important to take into account the views expressed in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hanson: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the order was discussed with the usual channels, both of which agreed to its being before the Committee today?

Mr. Robertson: I am not aware of the discussions that took place—

Mr. Hanson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robertson: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me get my remarks out before he intervenes. I am not aware of the discussions that took place between the usual channels. My point is that it is important to take account of the views of people in Northern Ireland. I intend to do that today.

Mr. Hanson: Perhaps before the hon. Gentleman expresses that point he should consult his colleagues, because the discussion took place between both usual channels. The Conservative party agreed to the order being taken today. It is one thing to make a point in Committee, but it is another not to make that point outside the Committee when the opportunity arises.

Mr. Robertson: I shall be guided by the Minister on that and I will have words with the Whips Office. Regardless of where those discussions lead me, my point is a fair one.

I understand that there is some concern in Northern Ireland about the order and particularly about the Act. Some might argue that the provision must apply to Northern Ireland because it applies here, but on abortion, for example, which is a very important matter, the law in Northern Ireland is different from that in Great Britain. On the 11-plus, the law in Northern Ireland is different from that in England and Wales, with great benefit for Northern Ireland. So I do not accept that that is a valid argument.

I am concerned about one or two councils that have expressed deep concern about the Act in general. I am concerned that we are attempting to legislate and at the same time ignoring the consultations that took place in Northern Ireland. So although this is free vote material, my preference would be not to extend the law in this case, and I shall vote against the order.

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I am also concerned that the Minister did not explain what each and every bit of the order means. He read out what we have before us already, but that does not illuminate the Committee very much. I took the trouble to look into the order in greater detail—I am sure that every member of the Committee will have done so—but it might have been useful to find out from the Minister exactly what it refers to.

For the reasons that I have given, I am not persuaded that we should extend the law in this respect to Northern Ireland and I shall vote against the order.

10.36 am

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Once again, it is a pleasure to be working with everyone in partnership in the greater interests of the people of Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) correctly predicted that I would make my characteristic criticism that Northern Ireland is being run by statutory instrument. In fairness to the Minister, I have to say that the issue that we are discussing today is the kind of issue that it is appropriate to deal with by statutory instrument, so on this—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order.

Lembit Öpik: So on this specific issue, I can understand why the Minister has introduced the order. I am a reasonable man and I shall not simply get up and shout at Ministers every single time they use statutory instruments, because, on rare occasions, even when it comes to Northern Ireland legislation, it is fair for them to do so.

Having said that—the hon. Member for Tewkesbury can now relax—I find it frustrating that we are dealing with as many as five statutory instruments in a single week. It is simply not reasonable to expect Opposition politicians, who have limited resources, to be able to give the orders that are presented to us the scrutiny that they deserve. Again, although this order is pretty straightforward, Ministers need to start being a little more considerate of the pressures that they are putting on Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Northern Ireland politicians, who, with the best will in the world, cannot necessarily spot potential weaknesses and deficiencies in legislation in these circumstances.

Mr. Robertson: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman got there in the end. He will be aware that, on Thursday, yet another statutory instrument will be introduced, the objective of which is, I understand, to extend the suspension of the Assembly, without there being any proposals on how we might move forward, so this situation is likely to continue beyond the foreseeable future. Does that concern the hon. Gentleman as it concerns me?

Lembit Öpik: I must get on to the subject of the order, Mr. Bercow. I shall simply say that what is happening on Thursday is an outrageous misuse of this procedure. Let the Minister understand that although I shall not be dogmatic about the specific matter in hand today, the Government need to wake up and
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smell the coffee. Few who take an active interest in the politics of the Province can reasonably regard the current procedures as anything more than a sham as far as democracy is concerned.

Turning to the detail of the order, we supported the Bill that became the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 when it went through Parliament and resisted attempts to prevent it from coming into effect in Northern Ireland. We made it fairly clear at the time why we felt that way. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury is right to say that there are differences of view in the Province on the issue. That is legitimate, and we must all respect those differences of view. On this occasion, however, it seems right to ensure parity with the rest of the United Kingdom, which is why we support this technical order today.

I was a little surprised by what the hon. Member for Tewkesbury said about his opposition to the order because Lord Glentoran supported it in the upper House. He said:

    “I argued against the Government and lost. Of course, I accept that decision of the Government. We are where we are, and to bring this order to tidy up local elections is absolutely right, and I support it.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 July 2005, Vol. 673, c. GC84.]

Before the hon. Gentleman divides the Committee, I counsel him to be a little cautious because his party supported the order in another place.

10.42 am

Mr. Hanson: We have had an excellent demonstration from the hon. Member for Tewkesbury that some of the darker forces of the Conservative party are alive and kicking.

Mr. Robertson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hanson: Certainly.

Mr. Robertson: The Minister will recall that I was expressing concern about the consultation that took place in Northern Ireland. Would he call the responses to that consultation dark forces?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman must recognise that the House of Commons has passed the Civil Partnerships Act. That Act received the overwhelming support of both Houses of Parliament and was debated in full. When it comes into force in December 2005 it will be perfectly legal for a civil partner to act as a proxy for their civil partner in the general election and to undertake other matters of election law relating to assistance with disabled voters. The order extends to local government powers that will exist for general and European elections.

The hon. Gentleman is arguing about whether civil partners can be proxy voters in a number of circumstances where a person who is not a spouse or an immediate relative cannot. A spouse is also included in a limited category of persons who can be an assistant to a disabled voter. Also when an elector’s spouse works away from a local area the elector is entitled to apply for an absent vote for an indefinite period on the basis of the spouse’s occupation.

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The hon. Gentleman is arguing that although those provisions will apply to civil partners in a general or European election, civil partners should not be able to exercise the right of spouses for local elections. He said that when he divides the Committee—I suspect I know how all my hon. Friends will be voting—it will be a free vote. Is that official Conservative policy? Is it really a free vote? Is he saying that in Northern Ireland people who are civil partners under the Act can vote at the next general election as a proxy on behalf of their civil partner but not at the next local election? Is that the logic of his argument?

Mr. Robertson: I said that this is a free vote. It is not Conservative party policy. I am sure that the Minister heard that just as the rest of the Committee did. I do not know why he is getting steamed up about it. It is a free vote, and I shall vote against the order. I am not sure how my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) will vote. That is up to him. That is the nature of a free vote.

Mr. Hanson: I am not getting steamed up about the order. I am getting steamed up about the amazing level of bigotry around that says that individuals cannot vote on the basis of their civil partnership. That is the issue before us. I commend the order to the House. I know that it will be welcome. I am sure that my hon. Friends will support it and I look forward to the support of other hon. Members with more enlightened views.

10.43 am

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair of this Committee, Mr. Bercow.

I came to the Committee with no intention of speaking and with an inclination to support the measure, but, prompted by the comments of the Minister, I feel that I have to rise in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury. I do not believe that his comments are actuated by bigotry; they are actuated by respect for the principle of subsidiarity and respect for those who may hold a different view from that held by many of us in this House.

As I am sure most Labour Members will recognise, I support the principle behind the Civil Partnerships Act. I have argued outside the House and I hope to argue inside it for the principle of equality extending to all whatever their gender or sexual orientation. I therefore regard the Act as an enlightened measure which I commend the Government for introducing. However, we need to recognise that we have made arrangements in the past for Northern Ireland which recognise its distinctive political and social culture. We sought to do so through devolution. Thanks to the actions of terrorists and the parties who support them, Northern Ireland currently does not enjoy the devolution that we all would wish it to enjoy in the future. As a consequence, when legislating for Northern Ireland we have to have a care that we respect its distinctive culture.

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My hon. Friend was making the point that in Northern Ireland, for a variety of reasons, many of which we may deprecate and not share, there is a reluctance to move as quickly as the rest of the United Kingdom has towards positions that we share across the Committee. For that reason, my hon. Friend has asked us to ca’ canny, as we say in Scotland, and to respect the distinctive views of people in the Province. That is all he has sought to do. To characterise him as a representative of dark forces seems to me to be a calumny.

Mr. Hanson: If the hon. Gentleman votes against the order today, he will be voting for individuals who are civil partners not to have a proxy vote for a local election, although under the Civil Partnerships Act they can have a proxy vote for a general election. Where is the logic in that?

The Chairman: Order. I think that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath must be asked to withdraw the term “calumny”; it is not a parliamentary term. If the hon. Gentleman, whose versatility is well known, feels able to express his sentiment in other terms, that will be acceptable.

Michael Gove: I am, as ever, grateful for your wisdom and forbearance, Mr. Bercow. I unhesitatingly withdraw the term “calumny”. I merely wished to register my regret that the Minister had chosen to characterise the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury in that way. I would like to support the measure today, but I wished to place on the record my belief that the position taken by my hon. Friend was entirely legitimate, entirely honourable and actuated more by respect for the distinctive culture of Northern Ireland than by any desire to die in the last ditch for any other principle.

Lembit Öpik: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury is in no way a bigot, and it is a bit harsh to say that his position is driven by some kind of prejudice—

Mr. Robertson: Dark forces.

Lembit Öpik: Or by dark forces. What is slightly curious to me is that Lord Glentoran felt able to support the measure. On a point of order, Mr. Bercow. Am I making a speech or an intervention?

The Chairman: I think that the hon. Gentleman is intervening, but if he is, he had better be brief.

Lembit Öpik: Thank you, Mr. Bercow. Will the hon. Member for Surrey Heath explain what seems to me to be a contradiction? Lord Glentoran felt able to support the measure—

Mr. Robertson: It is a free vote.

Lembit Öpik: I accept that, but Lord Glentoran felt able to support the measure in order to tidy up the legislation. Even if one is against the principle of civil partnerships, would it not now be reasonable to tidy things up? It is not clear why the Conservatives are saying different things in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

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Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman asked for clarification and I hope that I can provide it as briefly as possible. I, like Lord Glentoran, support the principle behind the measure and hope to join the Government in supporting it this morning. However, I felt moved to speak because I felt that the Minister’s comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury were unfair and that he did not convey the authority that he normally manages to muster in summarising the sentiments behind what my hon. Friend said. All that my hon. Friend sought to do was emphasise that, in the Province, a number of people from different parties and from none have doubts about the philosophy and consequences of the Civil Partnerships Act. He sought only to ensure that their voice is heard and respected. I respectfully disagree with that position on Northern Ireland and with my hon. Friend, but I commend him for his courage in making it clear that when we are here, legislating for Northern Ireland, we have to respect the distinctive culture of a cherished part of the United Kingdom.

Question put:—

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The Committee divided: Ayes 11, Noes 1.

[Division No. 1]


Blackman, Liz
Brown, Mr. Nicholas
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Gove, Michael
Hanson, Mr. David
Havard, Mr. Dai
McFadden, Mr. Pat
Mallaber, Judy
Martlew, Mr. Eric
Öpik, Lembit


Robertson, Mr. Laurence

Question accordingly agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2005.

Committee rose at ten minutes to Eleven o’clock.


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