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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Bill Olner
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing, West) (Con)
Burt, Alistair (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Chapman, Ben (Wirral, South) (Lab)
Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M. (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
Flynn, Paul (Newport, West) (Lab)
Goggins, Paul (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Goodman, Helen (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
Keen, Alan (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
Mactaggart, Fiona (Slough) (Lab)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Mates, Mr. Michael (East Hampshire) (Con)
Palmer, Dr. Nick (Broxtowe) (Lab)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Southworth, Helen (Warrington, South) (Lab)
Chris Shaw, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 14 January 2009

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2009
2.31 pm
The Chairman: I think that the Commons annunciator monitor is stuck. I will go by the time on my watch and on the Lords annunciator.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2009.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Olner. I am sure that we will all remember the day when time stopped in the House of Commons. Apparently, I have been on my feet for two minutes already.
Hon. Members will notice that the draft order is rather lengthy. I will explain the background to the draft order and why we believe it to be necessary. The Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001 governs the conduct of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It applies the provisions on the conduct of parliamentary elections to Assembly elections, with the necessary modifications. Those provisions are contained in various pieces of legislation, in particular the Representation of the People Act 1983 and the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2008. Both pieces of legislation have been amended recently. The 1983 Act was amended by the Electoral Administration Act 2006, following which changes were made to the regulations in 2008.
The main purpose of the draft order is to update the 2001 order, which applies both the key pieces of legislation, to ensure that the framework for administering elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly is consistent with recent legislative changes to parliamentary elections. I hope that outline explanation provides some reassurance that although the order is sizeable, most of its provisions are technical and will update the law.
This legislation provided an opportunity to make other changes. In July 2008, I launched a full public consultation entitled, “Improving the Administration of Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly”. The consultation paper outlined a number of areas where legislative reform might be considered worthwhile. Responses to the consultation were received from, among others, the four largest Northern Ireland parties, the chief electoral officer and the Electoral Commission. The responses greatly assisted policy formulation and I am grateful to all the respondents.
Although that system has been effective in reducing the need for by-elections, a number of practical problems have been identified. For example, those designated as substitutes at the time of the election may be unable or unwilling to fill a vacant seat at the time the vacancy actually arises. They may have assumed other responsibilities during the course of the Assembly term; other factors may have emerged that were not present at the time the person was listed as a substitute, such as illness or family commitments; or they may have subsequently changed or withdrawn their membership of a political party.
Although all of us like to think at election time that we have a strong personal following, the truth is that when electors vote for the representative of a particular political party, they do so generally because they support that party’s policies and manifesto. The consultation paper therefore proposed an alternative process for filling vacancies, which is set out in article 6 of the draft order.
Under the new system, if a seat becomes vacant, the nominating officer of the party to which the member belonged at the time he or she was elected will be asked to nominate a replacement Member of the Legislative Assembly to fill that seat. For independent MLAs, a slight variation of the current system will continue; however, rather than provide a list of substitutes at the time they are nominated as a candidate, they may do so only once they are elected. An independent MLA may modify this list during the Assembly’s term provided that proper notice is given to the chief electoral officer.
The consultation revealed that there was strong support for the proposed new method from most respondents, including the four largest Northern Ireland political parties. The draft order also includes other provisions that received widespread support from respondents to the consultation, which may be of interest to the Committee. Schedule 1 to the draft order substitutes a new schedule 1 to the 2001 order and amends, among other things, the application of rule 44B of the parliamentary election rules, which relates to the suspension of the count.
Currently, at an Assembly election, the returning officer may suspend the count between 7 pm and 9 am, but only if the counting agents agree. Assembly election counts rarely finish before 7 pm, owing to the use of the single transferable vote system. Although it is normal practice for the counting agents and the returning officer to agree to suspend the count if it appears unlikely that the count will be concluded that evening, in a number of constituencies during the 2007 Assembly election, agreement to suspend could not be reached. This resulted in the counts continuing well into the night, with the last constituency declaring in the early hours of the following day.
Counting in an STV system is a complex exercise. It is important to both the welfare of counting staff and the integrity of the count itself for the count to be suspended, if necessary, at a reasonable time. For this reason, the draft order provides for the count to be suspended at 11 pm unless the counting agents and the returning officer agree otherwise. That is the practice in local government elections in Northern Ireland, which are also held under the STV system.
The draft order also contains minor changes to the 2001 order, which received widespread support during the consultation. They include extending the period in which nominations may be made, in the light of the increased number of candidates at Assembly elections compared with parliamentary elections. The draft order also provides for a party’s emblem to be included on a ballot paper at the request of a party nominating officer rather than of the candidate, as is currently the case. It is hoped that those administrative changes will greatly assist the chief electoral officer and party officials at what is usually a very busy period for all concerned.
In summary, I hope that the Committee will agree that the order is essential to ensure that the legislative framework for administering elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly is consistent and up to date with developments in electoral law across the UK. I hope the Committee will also appreciate that the current system for filling vacancies in the Assembly requires reform and that the proposed new method is the most suitable under the circumstances and is also widely supported by the political parties in Northern Ireland.
2.39 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Committee, Mr. Olner. I think the times on the annunciators are now synchronised. Interestingly, I paid a visit up the Clock Tower yesterday to see how Big Ben and the clock there works; obviously everything has gone wrong since.
I thank the Minister for his explanation of the order and for his, as usual, allowing me access to the civil servants, for which I am always very grateful. I have a slight problem with the draft order, which I briefly mentioned to him. Although I am persuadable, I am not yet persuaded of the need for the order. What is the problem that we are seeking to solve?
The Minister has effectively and concisely outlined what takes place when an Assembly Member has to leave or dies. He or she is replaced by one of the six substitutes nominated at the time of the election. That is the crucial point. If that replacement cannot happen—if that list is exhausted for some reason—there is a by-election. The Minister explained why a by-election might not be a good idea if it upset the carefully prepared balance in the Assembly.
I will come on to discuss democracy, but first let me say that my research indicates that we have not yet had a by-election to the Assembly. The Minister is looking quizzically at me, so I might have got that wrong. If so, I would appreciate his correction. However, I do not know whether we have had a by-election because the list of substitutes has been exhausted.
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I am happy to provide clarification. By-elections to the Assembly are rare—in fact, there has not been a by-election during the life of the Assembly created by the Northern Ireland Act 1998, precisely because the list system is available and a by-election is the last resort. A by-election is held only if a vacancy cannot be filled by resorting to the names on the list prepared and submitted by the candidate at the time of the election. To date, vacancies have been filled by reference to the list system. However, there have been problems during the filling of vacancies which have given rise to the need for the order.
Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for explaining the situation. He confirmed that we have not reached the point where a by-election—if one followed the Government line—might distort the balance in the Assembly. I would like to hear more about the problems in filling vacancies. As I say, I am open to persuasion, but so far I am not persuaded of the need for this order. We have not run into the buffers: we have not got to the point where vacancies could not be filled or where a by-election was needed. I will make the case for by-elections in a few moments. Addressing the Government’s point, we have not got to that situation.
If for a moment we accept that it does have to be changed, I have looked at the situation in Scotland and Wales, where there are two levels of representatives. If a Member elected on the constituency base dies or resigns, they are replaced in a by-election. Those elected by proportional representation are replaced by the next person on the list put forward at the time of the election, and if that list is exhausted, the seat remains vacant until the next election. I am not suggesting that that system is perfect, but it is different from the proposal before us today. We are not getting the same system across the United Kingdom in the devolved assemblies. There may be a stronger argument for doing that, but we are not moving towards that position.
Under the new system, whereby a political party would nominate enough candidates to fill the number of seats and not put submit a list of substitutes, the person who would replace a Member who had died or left would never have had his name before the electorate. Is not that an affront to democracy? Turning my own argument on its head, we have not actually had a by-election to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Surely, though, if we believe in democracy that should be the way? I am not campaigning at the moment to remove the substitutes list, but if the list is exhausted should not we turn back to democracy? It would seem the sensible thing to do.
Today’s debate highlights one of the problems caused by proportional representation and one of the many weaknesses of the STV system. My view is that we are talking about replacing one bad system with a slightly worse one. The Conservative party want to encourage a move in Northern Ireland back to at least some semblance of normal politics. I see the draft order as a move in slightly the wrong direction. Although I do not make too much of that, as things stand, I shall divide the Committee on the motion. However, I am willing to listen to the debate and make up my mind later.
2.45 pm
Mr. Donaldson: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. My party supports the order, not only because it brings electoral law in Northern Ireland, with respect to Assembly elections, into line with that of the United Kingdom as a whole, but because it deals with the complex matter of filling vacancies in the event of the death or resignation of Assembly Members.
My experience of the electoral system for the Assembly—and I declare an interest as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and a Minister in the Executive—is that the electorate have very little knowledge of the existence of the lists. Indeed, there is not a requirement to publicise the lists widely during an election. Were a survey to be done in the streets of Lisburn in my constituency, asking the average voter which individuals I had nominated to replace me in the event of my demise or resignation, I do not think that a single person would be found who could name anyone on the list.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Including you?
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Prepared 15 January 2009