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Session 2006 - 07
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mrs. Joan Humble
Bone, Mr. Peter (Wellingborough) (Con)
Butler, Ms Dawn (Brent, South) (Lab)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Dunne, Mr. Philip (Ludlow) (Con)
Etherington, Bill (Sunderland, North) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Hall, Mr. Mike (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Henderson, Mr. Doug (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
McGrady, Mr. Eddie (South Down) (SDLP)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Mudie, Mr. George (Leeds, East) (Lab)
Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
Raynsford, Mr. Nick (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Robinson, Mr. Peter (Belfast, East) (DUP)
Walley, Joan (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 21 February 2007

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Draft District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2006

2.30 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2006.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Humble, and hope that we will have a relatively uncontroversial debate today. I wish first to provide some background to the order. In Northern Ireland, the boundaries of local government districts and the number and boundaries of the wards into which each district is dividedare drawn up by the local government boundaries commissioner. The district electoral areas commissioner’s role is to group the wards into multi-member constituencies or district electoral areas for the purposes of local elections in Northern Ireland.
At present, the district electoral areas commissioner can be appointed only after an order giving effectto the local government boundaries commissioner’s recommendations has been made. The purpose of the order is to enable us to appoint the district electoral areas commissioner at an earlier stage in the process, specifically as soon as practicable after the appointment of the local government boundaries commissioner. That is necessary because we hope to have elections to local councils in June 2008: beforethe transfer, on 1 April 2009, of responsibility for the existing functions of district councils and for additional functions that are being transferred from central Government, following the review of public administration.
The order also adds the chief survey officer of ordnance survey for Northern Ireland to the list of assessors to the commissioner and makes minor corrections to the full title of the registrar generalas it appears in the list of assessors. The order is uncontroversial and I hope that the Committee will welcome it.
2.31 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I also welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Humble. I have not had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship before and I regret that it is likely to be brief. I have no objections to the order, so I shall not detain the Committee.
2.32 pm
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I heard it said once that the quality of a Chair is inversely proportional to the length of the debate so, if our sitting is short, that will put you, Mrs. Humble, head and shoulders above anyone under whom I have served recently.
The order is uncontroversial. Lord Trimble asked a question in another place that did not really receive an answer, so I shall ask the same question again today. Why are we preserving the ward structure at all? As Lord Trimble said, the wards do not seem to have had much significance for 40 years. What observation might the Minister make about that?
2.33 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): Like other members of the Committee, Mrs. Humble, I hope to learn by your chairmanship and discipline. If I transgress, I know that I will suffer well for it.
The other speakers so far have been brief, so it obviously behoves me to take up the slack. We have problems with the order, even though the appointment of the DEA commissioner within the terms of the local government boundaries commissioner is not of huge significance. However, my party is dissatisfied with the consultation process. It lasted only eight weeks, from8 November to 5 January, and included the whole Christmas and new year period. We were disgruntled that we did not have adequate time to prepare for it.
There are two aspects to the problem. The Northern Ireland Office’s guideline suggests that a consultation period should last a minimum of 12 weeks, yet we had only two thirds of that time. Moreover, the small amount if information that was issued was completely devoid of a meaningful interpretation of the proposals. No explanation was given of where a line would be drawn or when suggestions would be made, and the street maps provided were not relevant to cities. The Government supplied some stuff later, but by then the process was well under way. All in all, the consultation was too short and too little information was provided.
I am subject to correction by the Minister, but I draw attention to some of the hearings that took place in January or February. All the Northern Ireland parties were in no-action mode during that time, and were distracted by other matters.
Be that as it may, however, there is a fundamental flaw in the order. It is part of a process to create seven super-councils from the 26 existing councils. I want to put it on the record that every party in Northern Ireland except one—Sinn Fein—opposed the concept of seven super-councils. The Northern Ireland Local Government Association, which comprises all the parties, big and small, has turned its face totally against the proposals that the Government are pushing through.
On other issues, the Government say that they want to listen to people in Northern Ireland, but they are not doing so through the elected representatives there. The process of which this order is a part seems to have a political dimension, in that it appears to favour one party at the expense of the others. I want to draw the Committee’s attention to that because it will be too late to do so later.
The reduction of local government representation to seven super-councils will affect local democracy and accountability. The areas suggested for the seven super-councils were set out in previous statutory instruments, but there are gross incompatibilities—politically, socially, economically and every which way. It is amazing how the former commissioner, under the diktat of the Northern Ireland Office, came up with his amalgamations. I represent part of the Down district: the area is about 86 per cent. nationalist, yet the changes mean that it will suddenly be dominated by three Democratic Unionist party councils. I do not expect equality or fair play subsequent to the amalgamation.
The area where I live has a concept of community development and there is a considerable budget for that from local rates. Areas such as Castlereagh, North Down and Ards, which are dominated by the DUP, have virtually no such budget and no concept of community integration and development. I worry about that.
The Chairman: Order. It is with some regret thatI must cut the hon. Gentleman short, but I remindhim that the order is narrowly framed. We are hereto discuss the functions of the district electoral commissioner and the need to appoint a commissioner at an earlier stage. A debate about the councils to be set up is for another time, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to confine his comments to the order.
Mr. McGrady: I stand corrected, Mrs. Humble—humbly corrected. I was coming to the juiciest part of my comments, which I shall now be unable to make. I shall simply say the word “balkanisation”, because that is what the process is about—the balkanisation of Northern Ireland between east and west. The area to the west of the Bann will be under Sinn Fein dominance. We will ghettoise the area and divide communities in perpetuity. I cannot develop that argument, Mrs. Humble, because of your correct instruction, but those who decided that that should be part of the process also decided our future.
The appointment of the district electoral areas commissioner in advance of the local government boundary commission’s conclusions suggests the precipitousness that I hinted at earlier. One can foresee the appointment being made before the Assembly,for which elections will take place in two weeks on7 March, is in place. The Assembly will reject the proposal, so why are the Government pushing ahead against the wishes of the vast majority of people?
The Government say that they hope that we will have a devolved Assembly—I will not be a member—by26 March, and I encourage them to consider reversing the process. There is no logic to it, nor to the haste, methodology or politics involved. I want to put that on record, even though I have no hope that the order will be dismissed. We are in a crazy, crazy situation.
2.40 pm
Three pieces of draft legislation are outstanding.The Local Government (Boundaries) Order, the Local Government Order and the Local Government (Transfer of Functions) Order will be dealt with by the Assembly. I understand that the question of local government reorganisation in Northern Ireland is somewhat controversial, and I accept the strictures of my hon. Friend the Member for South Down. All of those matters will be dealt with by the incoming Assembly, which can reject all of the current Government proposals if it is successful in restoring the Executive.
In the event of the Executive not being restored, the Government have given a clear commitment that they will proceed down the line of seven local councils. That measure, which I again emphasise is non-controversial, simply puts the district electoral areas commissionerin place before the Local Government Boundary Commission makes its recommendations so that there can be some synergy between the two and they can work hand in hand. It is not intended in any way, shape or form to pre-empt the decisions of an Assembly in relation to the seven other councils. Such matters can be dealt with in due course.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Down mentioned consultation. We put in place an eight-week consultation as opposed on that lasts 12 weeks. I made the judgment that the electoral oversight of the wards was an administrative matter and not a key political issue that will divide the parties in Northern Ireland.
We wrote to the parties to consult them on the order. We asked a number of questions, including how many wards should be allowed for each district—a matter mentioned by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. They responded within the eight-week consultation and said that they did not want any changes made to the order. Therefore, it is uncontroversial in the sense that the response from the Northern Ireland parties was fairly clear.
The order needed to be debated in time for the appointment of a district electoral areas commissioner this summer. Whatever the Assembly decides, therewill still be a role for the district electoral areas commissioner and we want to get that person in place by the summer.
No party chose to oppose the retention of the current ward structure in the order. I hope that that goes some way to responding to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who mentioned that Lord Trimble had raised that point in another place. The ward structure exists, and we put its retention out for consultation. No one opposed the current proposals, so the Government did not feel that they needed to change them. The order merely retains the status quo.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am not quite clear why the order is being made now. If the person will not be appointed until the summer, why could it not wait until the Assembly has met? There is some suspicion—among Opposition Members at least—that the Government are trying to rush through certain legislation before the Assembly is put into place.
Mr. Hanson: No legislation affecting the reorganisation of local government will come before the House of Commons before 26 March. If a devolved Assembly is not secured on that date, the relevant legislation will come before the House subsequently.
After 26 March, if the devolved Assembly chooses not to proceed with local government reorganisation, that is entirely within its gift. The House of Commons cannot force it to take the legislation forward against its will, as it is an entirely devolved matter. We are making some preparatory regulations in relation to the organisation of ward boundaries and electoral areas for the purposes of future local council elections.
The district electoral areas commissioner’s role, linked with that of the boundary commissioner, is to determine the size of the electoral ward areas for future local councillors. Today, I am simply putting in place an opportunity to make very small changes so that the appointments can be made during the course of this year, up to the summer. The order means that the district electoral areas commissioner will be in post if the Assembly decides to proceed. If it does not do so, there will still be a role for the district area electoral commission office. The order does not pre-empt the Assembly in any way, shape or form.
Mr. McGrady: The Minister talks about the powers of a possible Assembly after 26 March, but will it have the legislative power to change the dynamic of seven super-councils to 12, 15 or 14?
Mr. Hanson: The Assembly has total competence over the devolved matter of local government reorganisation. At the moment, I and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire—no, Greenock and Port Glasgow—[Laughter.] My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) has represented three different constituencies in the time that I have known him and so I tend to get confused. He has responsibility for these matters because the Assembly is not sitting. In the event of the Assembly sitting on 26 March, it will have responsibility for determining whether to progress with the seven-council model, or to scrap it.
The role of the district electoral areas commissioner is a non-devolved matter. The Secretary of State makes the appointment because it is an election matter relating to an election organisation. We are bringing forward very minor changes to both the terms and operation of that role in order to put those roles in synergy with the boundary commission. We want to ensure that the two bodies—the boundary commission and electoral areas commission—work together for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland in an entirely non-political way. The planning has no relation to local government reorganisation, although a contingency plan exists if the Assembly takes that reorganisation forward—or in the sad event of the direct rule team continuing with that responsibility.
It is a simple, non-controversial matter and I commend it to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2006.
Committee rose at 11 minutes to Three o’clock.

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