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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: John Bercow
Burden, Richard (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie (Blyth Valley) (Lab)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M. (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
Fraser, Christopher (South-West Norfolk) (Con)
Goggins, Paul (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Goodman, Helen (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
Horam, Mr. John (Orpington) (Con)
Iddon, Dr. Brian (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Plaskitt, Mr. James (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Stuart, Ms Gisela (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab)
Thornberry, Emily (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab)
Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Twelfth Delegated Legislation Committee

Thursday 22 January 2009

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Draft Postponement of Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 2009
8.55 am
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Postponement of Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 2009.
May I welcome you, Mr. Bercow, to the Chair to oversee the early shift? I am sure you will keep us in good order.
The order will postpone local government elections that are due to be held in Northern Ireland in May. The Government would not decide to postpone elections without very good reason. I hope the Committee will find it helpful if I set out the background to the proposal and why it is needed.
In 2002, following the formation of the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive launched a review of public administration in Northern Ireland. It was a comprehensive examination of the arrangements for the administration and delivery of public services and covered almost 150 bodies, including the 26 district councils. The review group reported on district councils in 2006 and recommended a move from 26 to seven district councils. That was accepted by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who had taken on responsibility for such matters as the Assembly and the Executive had been suspended.
On resuming responsibility for the review following restoration in 2007, the Northern Ireland Executive opted for an 11-council model. In 2008, legislation was introduced in the Assembly to implement that. During the passage of the legislation, the then Minister of Environment in Northern Ireland received a number of questions from Assembly Members about whether the scheduled local elections in 2009 would still take place, in light of the proposed restructuring.
Elections are an excepted matter under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 so responsibility for policy on elections rests with the Secretary of State. In April 2008, the Minister of Environment wrote to the Secretary of State requesting the postponement of the elections until the 11-council model was fully implemented. The Secretary of State agreed that it would make sense for the next elections to be held using the new model, rather than hold elections to 26 councils that would shortly not exist.
However, we recognised that a number of steps had to be taken before the 11-council model could be implemented. In particular, new council wards and districts had to be drawn up and district electoral areas needed to be grouped for the purposes of proportional representation, which is used in all local government elections in Northern Ireland. Following discussions between the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland, it was estimated that the implementation process would take approximately two years. For that reason, on 25 April 2008, the Secretary of State announced publicly that he would seek to postpone the elections until 2011. The announcement was generally well received as an exceptional but justifiable step. There were no objections from Northern Ireland political parties and the Electoral Commission expressed its support.
Article 2(2) will amend section 11(1) of the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 so that the next local government elections in Northern Ireland will be held in 2011. Subsequent elections will take place every four years thereafter. Article 2(3) will disapply section 11(1A) of the 1962 Act, which requires local elections to be held on the first Thursday in May. There are two reasons for that change. First, although we expect implementation of the 11-council model to take about two years, we cannot be certain of the completion date. It is difficult to be precise about how long boundary setting and electoral area grouping will take, particularly as inquiries may be required and recommendations may be challenged.
Secondly, as the Committee is aware, Assembly elections are also scheduled to take place in 2011. Assembly elections and local government elections in Northern Ireland are held under the single transferable vote form of proportional representation. Counting in PR-STV elections is complex and we wish to have detailed discussions with the chief electoral officer and the Electoral Commission on the practicality of a combined poll before setting an exact date in legislation.
For those reasons, we will introduce a further order to set the date of the next election, when we have a clearer idea of how the implementation of the move to 11 councils is progressing, and when we have had detailed discussions with the chief electoral officer and Electoral Commission on the possibility of a combined poll. However, it is important to signal that the local elections will not be postponed indefinitely and that they will take place at some point during 2011. For that reason, article 2 sets out explicitly that the next local election year in Northern Ireland will be 2011.
Article 3 makes the necessary consequential amendments to ensure that existing members’ terms of office are extended, and that any vacancies arising between now and 2011 are filled in the usual way. Before the draft order was laid, the Northern Ireland Office consulted the Northern Ireland Departments to ensure that postponing the date would not result in any adverse and unintended consequences for it. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development informed us of the need to make consequential provision relating to appointments to the Drainage Council, which are linked to local election dates. Article 4 provides for appointments to the council also to be extended to 2011.
I reiterate that any decision to postpone an election for any length of time is not taken lightly. I am confident, however, that the proposed postponement is an exceptional but justifiable step under the circumstances, and I hope the Committee will support the order before us today.
9.1 am
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow? We do not have a huge problem with the order for the reasons that the Minister has given, but there are one or two questions that I should like to ask, as I am sure the Committee expects.
It must be a good thing to reduce the number of councils. Nevertheless, we objected to an earlier proposal—also in a statutory instrument—to reduce them to seven, because we did not believe that seven was an appropriate number. I am pleased, however, that we have ended up with 11. I recognise the amount of work that will have to be carried out in redrawing not only the overall boundary of each council, but the inner ward boundaries. I also understand that certain functions, such as planning and roads, will be transferred to councils. That is a good thing as it will speed up decision making and make the whole process more democratic. There is a large backlog of planning applications so, hopefully, transferring the responsibility to councils should help. Sadly, there may well be staff redundancies because of the reduction in the number of councils, but some new appointments will be made. A great deal of work has to go on.
It is interesting that the Secretary of State was alerted to the fact that the next local government elections had to be delayed. He made a statement on 25 April 2008, which was three years before the intended new date of the elections. It will therefore be three years from that time before the councils are functioning. That is quite a delay, but the delay that we are talking about, from election to election, will be possibly two years. I say “possibly” because, as the Minister said, a date has not been specified for the local government elections.
Although we are discussing a delay of two years, it could be longer than that. I do not expect that the Minister will hold local council elections in, say, December 2011, but he said that he could not be sure about the progress of the necessary work, so we cannot say when those elections will be in 2011. That gives me slight cause for concern. If the date is open-ended, does that not allow for slippage to take place? In other words, if the date were set now for, say, May 2011, would that not have the effect of concentrating the minds of those who are trying to implement the changes? Would it not be better to do it that way?
I understand what the Minister says about the Assembly elections, which are due to take place in May 2011. I understand that the Government should consider whether it is wise to hold both elections on the same day, although in England we are holding the European elections and the county council elections on the same day next year. Who knows? I do not know what is in the Prime Minister’s mind—he himself may not even know—but we could even end up with a general election on that day too. That is not impossible.
So, although some consideration would need to be given to the ability of the Electoral Commission to ensure that both elections could be run fairly and efficiently on the same day, I do not see why they should not be run on the same day. It would probably be best if the order had stated the date in 2011 when the elections will take place. The Minister rightly said that the Government would not delay elections without good reason. I accept that. However, to delay them without setting a new date for those election causes me a little concern, but not so much that I will seek to divide the Committee. I simply place my concern on the record.
We understand the need to change the number of councils and the work involved in that, so we understand the need to delay the elections. When I first saw the order, I thought that a two-year delay sounded a little long. Hopefully, the delay will be no longer than two years. However, when I began to look into the issue further, I saw that the date was not specified in the order. I have made clear my concern. Perhaps the Minister will address that when he winds up.
9.8 am
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I welcome you, Mr. Bercow, to the Chair this morning.
I am opposed in principle to the concept of postponing elections. The councillors were elected four years ago for a four-year term. They have no mandate for that to be extended to a six-year term, or possibly even a term of six years and seven months, because under the terms of the order the next set of elections could be as late as December 2011.
The Minister said that this decision was exceptional and had not been taken lightly. I think the decision should not have been taken. I remind him that in Scotland in the 1990s, when the then Conservative Government were reorganising local government, the original Bill had said that the 1994 regional elections should be cancelled. However, the Labour party and all other Opposition parties in Scotland opposed that proposal and the then Conservative Government yielded and changed the legislation, so that the regional council elections went ahead in 1994. Those elections were to elect councillors for a two-year term, exactly the same term as would have applied if these elections had not been cancelled. They should have gone ahead.
However, I will not seek to divide the Committee today, because I accept that it is far too late to do so and that all the political parties and electoral administrators in Northern Ireland are working under the assumption that the elections will not go ahead. Nevertheless, I want to ask the Minister why it is only now, in January 2009, that the order is before us. As he said, the Minister of Environment in Northern Ireland wrote to the Department about the issue in April 2008. If the order had appeared in, say, June or July 2008, there would have been plenty of time for us to debate it and decide whether we wanted the elections postponed.
As I said, although I am opposed to the order in principle, I will not seek to divide the Committee because it is far too late in the day, but the Minister needs to explain why it is only now, nine months after he became aware of the request from the Minister of Environment, that the order has come before us.
Will the Minister clarify one aspect of the order? Under article 3(3) existing councillors, or those elected in by-elections, will serve until four days after the 2011 elections. It looks to me as though there will only be a four-day transition period, yet throughout Great Britain, when local government is reorganised, there is usually a period of a year, or just under a year, during which the existing council continues to operate and the new council operates as a shadow authority.
That period has always been considered necessary for the new council to elect committees, appoint senior officers, decide on its headquarters and its structure, and deal with other matters to enable the council to function properly on the day on which it comes into office. A four-day shadow period does not seem long enough for the new councils to organise themselves, appoint committees and senior officers, and decide on headquarters and structures. I would be grateful for the Minister’s response.
9.11 am
Paul Goggins: May I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury for his general support and for the questions he asked, some of which raise important issues I hope to be able to offer him some reassurance? He began by remarking the public administration review, which is an important process. Before devolution, I was the Health Minister in Northern Ireland. There are many health bodies in Northern Ireland, which have been reduced in number as part of this process. Generally, that is a good move that will give capacity to larger organisations to take on more responsibility, as the hon. Gentleman says, so that more decisions can be taken locally. That is entirely right.
The process is taking time—this relates, too, to the comments made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute—and it will take considerable time from now. The local government boundaries commissioner, who has begun his work, has the task of setting the district and ward boundaries. That is complicated enough in itself, but the district electoral area commissioner has to group the wards for the purposes of proportional representation. Again, that is a complex area of work that is open to challenge, so all of that will take considerable time. There is added complexity in that the district and ward boundaries are a matter for the Assembly, but the grouping of wards is a matter for Westminster, because that is to do with electoral law. There are further complications, and there will be further legislation on setting those groupings, let alone on setting the date.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury is right to raise this issue, which I have looked at carefully. In an ideal world, I would name the date of the election today, in the order, which would give the hon. Gentleman the comfort that he is looking for. However, that proved impossible to do with any degree of certainty. If I named a date in the order, I may well have had to return and ask the Committee to consider it again and revise it. I have made it clear in the order that the elections have to be held in 2011.
There are three options. It could be that we hold the local council elections—the first under the new system—on the same day as the Assembly election. There is nothing in principle to stop that happening; it is simply a question of practicality. If we have STV counting for Assembly elections and STV counting for council elections on the same day, with literally hundreds of candidates, that might be too complex a system to run. It is not a first-past-the-post system that the hon. Gentleman and I are more used to, in which the counting would be more straightforward. We will look at the practicalities. I hold out the hope that it may be possible to have a date for the council elections in advance of the May date, if it is not possible to hold both elections on the same day. If that is not possible, I would expect it to be held soon thereafter.
I am keeping pressure on officials. My officials work closely with their counterparts in the Department of the Environment. Indeed, I am in regular contact with the Minister responsible, who is well known to us as the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). I met him earlier this week to discuss related matters. The general view is that nobody wants undue delay, but we must have the delay that we are asking the Committee to endorse to allow for all the practicalities of the work that has to be done.
Mr. Robertson: The order moves the local elections to 2011, but if the work is not completed in 2011, what happens then? Will we have to consider a further order to put it back, say, another year, to 2012? There is no reason why the Minister could not introduce another order to delay the measure again, which would mean a three-year delay. We have a habit of missing deadlines in Northern Ireland, and we must get out of that habit. I return to my point: would setting a date now not concentrate minds on that date and make the work happen? Otherwise, if there is a possibility of slippage, it might not take place.
Paul Goggins: I understand the urgency with which the hon. Gentleman asks the question. He said that I could come back and say, “Let’s change the date of the election to 2012,” but, equally, if I named a date in 2011, I could come back and ask the Committee to change the date. I am being open and honest with the Committee and saying that it is impossible to set the date, but I am also being clear with politicians in Northern Ireland that the date is 2011. They must ensure that everything is done to meet that deadline. I shall say in the strongest terms that it would be wholly unacceptable for democracy if the date were pushed beyond 2011. My officials, the Department of the Environment and the Minister responsible in that Department understand that, and every effort will be made to ensure that everything is done in a timely fashion and the task is completed.
Mr. Robertson: I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way and for his determination that the deadlines will be met. Out of innocence, I wonder whether the failure of the Executive to sit for five months delayed this process. Can we make it clear that such delays are totally unacceptable?
Paul Goggins: I strongly agree that it is important for the Executive to get back into their regular cycle of meetings. They are now doing so, because Ministers in the Executive and the Assembly need to address many urgent issues. That is now happening and it is welcome. The process under discussion was not delayed at all by the failure to sit but, to refer to the remarks that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute made, there was, following the Secretary of State’s announcement last April, a considerable amount of work to do to prepare for today. We had to consult the Northern Ireland Departments, and if we had not done so, we would not have identified the problem with the Drainage Council, about which I know Committee members were very exercised. We had to consult the parties and the Electoral Commission, which has given its full support to the process, and that is worth underlining. A lot of preparatory work has had to take place to bring us to today’s order, but it is important that we have the discussion, debate and decision today, because people would otherwise expect an election in May. If we cancel it, it is important that people know as soon as possible.
That is the reason for the delay. In the next two-year period, a lot of preparation will go into building momentum towards, and making way for, the new council structure; and there will be a lot of training for council members and staff. They will not start that work on day one of the new system; they need to prepare for it, so a lot of work will take place in advance, alongside the practical work of setting boundaries, and the other matters to which I have already referred.
Finally, I shall deal with the issue of extending the term of office to four days beyond the poll. It is in no way a transition period for the body; it is simply a matter of practicality. Owing to the STV system of voting, it is sometimes not just the day after the poll, but the day after that before the result becomes known. If the poll were on a Thursday, for example, the result would become known only over the weekend. All the measure means is that the existing council’s term of office lasts until the Monday, four days after the poll, then the newly elected councillors will come into office. It is a matter of practicality, so that the baton is passed from the old councillors to the new.
Mr. Reid: Am I right in assuming that, unlike in Great Britain, there will be no shadow period of several months, following the new councillors’ election, for training and staff appointments? Does the measure mean that if new councillors who are not on existing councils are elected in 2011, none of the training will take place and the whole structure of the new council will have to be set up almost immediately?
Paul Goggins: There is no shadow period for the new council structure. However, the new council structure will be known well in advance of the 2011 election. It will therefore be possible to undertake training in advance and build the new structure’s capacity to deliver council services once the reorganisation has taken place and new elections have been held. There is no formal shadow period; there will be, I hope, a smooth transition from one structure to the next. The four days, however, simply allow for a period after the poll, so that at no point are there no elected councillors in Northern Ireland. I hope that that provides the clarity that the Committee seeks, and that it supports the order.
Question put and agreed to.
9.21 am
Committee rose.

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