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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Miss Anne Begg
Cooper, Rosie (West Lancashire) (Lab)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M. (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
Goggins, Paul (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay (Chorley) (Lab)
Levitt, Tom (High Peak) (Lab)
McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol, East) (Lab)
McGrady, Mr. Eddie (South Down) (SDLP)
Malins, Mr. Humfrey (Woking) (Con)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Raynsford, Mr. Nick (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Swire, Mr. Hugo (East Devon) (Con)
Truswell, Mr. Paul (Pudsey) (Lab)
Wyatt, Derek (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab)
Mike Clark, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 21 October 2009

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

Draft District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2009
2.30 pm
The Chairman: Is it the wish of the Committee that the instruments be considered together?
Hon. Members: Aye.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): On a point of order, Miss Begg. I have raised this point a number of times before. When we consider statutory instruments, they cannot be amended—we have to agree or disagree with them. When we take two together, however, it could be that we agree with one and disagree with the other, which means that we have to vote against both—
The Chairman: Order. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Committee may vote on the instruments separately. The consideration together is purely to aid debate.
Before I call the Minister, I can assure the hon. Members who have taken their jackets off that that is in order as well.
2.31 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2009.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the draft Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment) Order 2009.
Paul Goggins: Your ruling about jackets is welcome news, Miss Begg, and I welcome you to the Chair. Notwithstanding the comments from the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, I think it is very helpful that the Committee is able to consider the two statutory instruments together.
The two orders make small but important updates that are necessary further to assist the overall restructuring of local government in Northern Ireland. Members of the Committee will be aware that as part of the review of public administration in Northern Ireland, the number of district councils is being reduced from 26 to 11, starting in 2011.
I shall deal first with the District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) Amendment Order 2009. In view of the large-scale reform of local government to which I just referred, the House previously agreed to the postponement of local elections in Northern Ireland until 2011 to allow time for the new local government wards and boundaries to be redrawn. Ordinarily, the elections would have been in 2009, but we delayed them by two years to enable this large reform to go ahead.
The local government boundaries commissioner recently submitted his final recommendations on the new wards and boundaries to the Minister of Environment in the Northern Ireland Executive. The next step in the process requires the district electoral areas commissioner to submit recommendations to the Secretary of State on the grouping of wards in electoral areas for the purpose of holding local government elections under the proportional representation single transferable vote system. The conduct of the DEAC review is governed by the District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) Order 1984. That legislation has not been substantially updated since 1984, and three minor amendments are required to update the DEAC’s procedures, the first of which concerns the period for making representations.
The DEAC is required to publish provisional recommendations and to hold public inquiries in respect of them if representations are received from either 100 electors or a district council. Paragraph 1 of schedule 2 to the 1984 Order provides for representations to be made within one month of the publication of the recommendations. The Committee might share my concern that this will not allow sufficient time for the relevant parties to make objections, particularly considering the widespread changes that will need to be made as part of the current review. The draft order therefore extends this period from four to eight weeks, which is in line with the procedure followed by the local government boundaries commissioner.
Secondly, the 1984 order requires the DEAC to publish a notice setting out his provisional recommendations in local newspapers circulating in the district. As the forthcoming recommendations may be detailed and are likely to involve the production of large-scale maps, publishing them in full in local newspapers would be costly and unwieldy. A number of new methods of communication that were not available in 1984 can now be accessed, including the internet. The draft order therefore provides the commissioner with the option of either publishing a notice setting out his recommendations, or simply providing details of when and where the recommendations may be inspected—or both those things. That, again, is in line with the procedure followed by the local government boundary commissioner.
Finally, as the number of councils and their boundaries are due to change, it is important to clarify the legislation. The third of the proposed changes makes it clear that an inquiry may be compelled by the existing councils, not the new 11 district councils, which do not yet exist and will come into being only after the next local elections. The draft order provides that the objection of any council that will, in whole or in part, incorporate or be incorporated by the successor council will be sufficient to secure a local inquiry.
I turn to the second order: the draft Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment) Order 2009. The draft order will postpone the preparation of the next draft polling station scheme until 2010 to take account of the changes to wards and boundaries to which I referred. The Committee might be aware that the purpose of a polling station scheme is to designate suitable buildings as polling stations in electoral wards. By virtue of section 65 of the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962, the next draft scheme is due to be prepared and published in 2009. I am sure that the Committee agrees that it would make much more sense for the next polling station scheme to be based on the new local government wards that are about to be implemented.
The legislation to implement the new ward boundaries has not yet been approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly. While it is anticipated that the legislation will be enforced by the end of the year, that would leave little or no time for a draft polling station scheme to be prepared and published in 2009, as the legislation currently requires. The draft order will postpone publication of the next draft scheme until 2010, with subsequent schemes to be published every four years thereafter.
In summary, the orders make small but important changes that are essential to ensuring the smooth and successful restructuring of local government in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Committee will support them.
2.37 pm
Mr. Robertson: I welcome you to the Chair, Miss Begg. My earlier point was about our ability to vote on the orders separately, and I am glad that there is such a facility. My point was general, rather than a signal of my intention to vote against the orders because, after looking through them carefully, I am satisfied with what they aim to achieve.
The Minister touched on progress towards the changing of the councils at the end of his speech. Is he confident that the changes will have been made and the necessary legislation passed in advance of 2011, in preparation for the new councils to be up and running by then? Does he anticipate the elections to the new councils taking place at what would be considered the normal time of May that year? Notwithstanding those two questions, I have no objection to the orders.
2.38 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Miss Begg.
We fully support the draft Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment) Order. It is clear that it would be a waste of time to prepare a draft polling station scheme for Northern Ireland before the review of the boundaries for the 11 new councils had been finished, because the polling districts could subsequently change.
I shall turn to the draft District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order. I very much welcome the increase in the period in which representations may be made from one month to eight weeks. However, I want to raise with the Minister a point about the commissioner being given a choice as to whether to publish the provisional recommendations or simply to make them available for inspection. I accept that the recommendations could be very detailed, as well as including maps, and so their publication in local newspapers would be very costly. Can the Minister give assurances that the proposals will be available for inspection in not only council headquarters, but in libraries and other places throughout Northern Ireland, so that people will not have to travel far to inspect them, no matter where they live? Will he also assure us that the commissioner will publish in local newspapers the places where people can inspect the recommendations?
The Minister referred to new methods of communication. Obviously the internet has become available since the last time the rules were changed, so I should have thought it would have made sense for the order to provide that the commissioner has to publish the proposals on the internet, although he will probably do that anyway, given that it seems the ideal place for them to be published.
2.40 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg.
While the draft orders will not increase my blood pressure to a great degree, none the less there are certain fundamental points that I must address. We are now engaged in a reform of local government—the review of public administration, as it is called—that will have a dramatic effect on democratic participation, because the reduction in the number of councils from 26 to 11 will distance local councils from the people. It is therefore important that, as far as possible, the electorate of each area has the opportunity to have a say at each occasion. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury hinted that he was not too certain about the 2011 delivery. I heard rumours from the north this morning suggesting that even the reform will not take place until way beyond that time, but that is another story—I do not want to go into it now.
I welcome the doubling of the consultation period, but I am concerned about the liberty given to the commissioner to decide in what manner and by what means local people should be informed, because this will be a fundamental change to their local authority and the delivery of local services. Distances are being created, and while they might not be vast in terms of GB generally, they are for Northern Ireland.
I would like an assurance from the Minister that the NIO will ensure—I do not know whether it can—that the commissioner takes cognizance of the need to deliver the information down to local newspapers, which are a fundamental source of reference and information for our people. Will he identify “local newspapers” and “local media” a bit? Does he mean regional local papers or urban and rural local papers, of which we have many? There is a vast difference between such newspapers. Reference has been made to new media means of communications, websites and so on, but I cannot envisage a hill farmer in the Mournes saying, “Gosh, I must see what the commissioner has on his website today.” I doubt whether visiting the website will be among his great priorities, so unless he gets a trigger from the local newspaper, he will not do so at all. I would like some reassurance about the situation.
Who exactly—I might not be good at reading intricate and long English literature-type legislation—is entitled to demand a local inquiry? Will it be the council within which changes are being made? Will adjacent councils be able to appeal for a local inquiry? The corollary of that situation—this has happened in my constituency—is some absolutely bizarre groupings that are contrary to the terms of reference of the commissioner being proposed for the formation of the district electoral areas. For instance, the urban, central town of Warrenpoint is now being grouped into a rural area. It will form only 15 per cent. of that area, whereas, as a town, it stood alone. That change will have substantial implications for Newry and Warrenpoint because the town will no longer have the status to attract grants. How much import will such matters have for the commissioner and how much consideration has the NIO given to them?
Perhaps the Minister’s reply will clarify those points and respond to the general dismay about the decrease in local democracy in Northern Ireland, which I would describe as leading to the Balkanisation of local government in Northern Ireland between the greens in the west and the oranges in the east. It is not a great step forward, but we are way past that debate. I would thank the Minister for giving us some details.
2.45 pm
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I welcome the opportunity to participate in this short debate. We welcome the broad thrust of both amendments to the electoral law in Northern Ireland and the extension of the period for consultation for the grouping of wards into district electoral areas from one month to eight weeks. That will certainly enhance the prospect of greater public participation in the process and will allow political parties and councils a little more time to prepare their submissions.
To touch on the issues that have been raised about the publication of proposals, including by the hon. Member for South Down, we have some excellent local newspapers in Northern Ireland. While the circulation of the regional and national papers is falling, local papers are holding up remarkably well because of the tradition of—particularly but not exclusively—rural dwellers purchasing their local papers. The Ulster Star and the Dromore Leader are still widely read among the local population in my constituency.
There is a facility whereby specific proposals will not be advertised in local papers. These days, one can print one’s own insert to go into the local newspapers. That is a much less expensive way of getting one’s information out to the public than advertising, but it still uses the medium of local papers which, as the hon. Member for South Down said, reach a lot of people who do not ordinarily access the internet to read the kind of material that we are discussing. I simply suggest to the Minister that he could encourage the commissioner to consider such a thing. I am all for efficiency and cutting the cost of government, and that approach might be a way of achieving that while using local newspapers to get the information out to people.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending an event at Stormont in Belfast that was hosted by the Royal National Institute for Blind People. The institute made the point that when consultation exercises take place, those with vision impairments are too often forgotten. When preparations are made for the information to be published by the commissioner, I urge the Minister to ensure that sight will not be lost—pardon the pun; I did not intend that—of those who have visual impairments, and that a version of the proposals for district electoral areas that is usable by those with visual impairments—perhaps in Braille or another format—will be prepared. The RNIB has always been helpful and co-operative by assisting with the publication of such things.
I understand that the Minister said that under the amendment to the district electoral areas commissioner order, the existing 26 district councils would have the power to compel a local inquiry. I know that the hon. Member for South Down has raised that query, and I will certainly welcome the Minister’s clarification of that issue. I apologise because I should have declared an interest at the outset: I am a member of Lisburn city council, which is one of the councils that is subject to an amalgamation with Castlereagh borough council.
The draft Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment) Order 2009 addresses a fairly routine matter. The Minister is right to propose postponing the draft polling station scheme for Northern Ireland to allow further progress to be made on implementing the new local government ward boundaries. The commission has completed the job of making its final recommendations for the ward boundaries. They are now with the Minister of Environment, and I understand that the Minister has forwarded his report to the Northern Ireland Executive for consideration, so we are close to seeing the final shape of the ward and district boundaries. That, I hope, will enable things to move forward within the time scales that have been indicated, which should facilitate the publication of the draft polling station scheme in 2010. We are happy to support both orders.
2.50 pm
Paul Goggins: I warmly welcome the support for the measures from both sides of the Committee. I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury for his support, notwithstanding the point that he made at the outset of our sitting. He pressed me on the timing of elections to the new councils, and I was grateful to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley for confirming that the Executive are making progress. The local government boundary commissioner has reported to the Environment Minister, who made it clear in a recent meeting with me that he hoped to have the matter considered by the Assembly and passed into legislation before the end of the year. That would mean that the stage that we are discussing this afternoon—the DEAC being able to group the wards for the purposes of the single transferable vote system—can proceed.
We aim for the DEAC to report back to the Secretary of State in June next year. An order would then need to come back to the House to confirm those groupings in legislation. I hope that when we consider that legislation, or at a similar time, we can set the date firmly for May 2011, which the hon. Member for Tewkesbury indicated he would support. We all want the elections to happen then.
We did not specify a date in the original legislation because we wanted it to be reasonably flexible, but by that we meant a very short time earlier or later. We are all aiming for May 2011, and my recent feedback from the Minister suggests that there are no concerns about that timetable, so I expect that we will be able meet it. Hon. Members will have the opportunity to consider the dates further and to confirm the grouping that the DEAC recommends.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Down for welcoming the extended period in which interested parties can object. He is right to remind the Committee of the size and scale of the reform of local government, and its impact on democracy. It is important to recognise not only that the number of councils will be reduced, but that those new councils’ powers will be increased. Perhaps some functions will move away from the Assembly, although I am pleased to say that that is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive rather than me. As a democrat, I believe that giving power to local communities is a good move, and I am sure that other Committee members share that opinion. It is important that all local communities can identify with the council that represents their interests.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for South Down that newspapers will still provide information, because the commissioner will have to indicate where the information is available. It is not that the newspapers will be bypassed—information will still be available there—but we are not insisting that all the information is published in the local newspaper. It would have been bad news for the newspaper boys and girls of Northern Ireland if they were heaving around great newspapers on the day on which the information was published. There will be huge documents attached to this, so while there will be an indication in the newspaper to create general awareness, the documents will be available in other places.
I can confirm that if 100 electors object, there has to be an inquiry, and that any of the current 26 district councils directly affected by a particular change can also object. We wanted to make it clear that the process is about the current councils rather than those that do not yet exist. A council has to be affected directly by a particular change to object. To emphasise the point that I made a couple of minutes ago, boundaries are a matter for the Executive and the Assembly, while electoral law is a matter for us, and that is why the groupings relevant to that are considered by us as a separate matter.
I welcome the comments of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley. We all heard his comments about the value of local newspapers and, no doubt, we hope that his comments will be captured somewhere in the newspapers that he mentioned. He is right that they play an important role. I am sure that the commissioner understands that it is important to ensure that those newspapers help to advertise that change is afoot and point people in the direction of how they may find out more.
These matters are important, although they might appear modest. We are trying to facilitate the democratic process. While I move orders relating to electoral law in Northern Ireland on behalf of the Government, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley and my hon. Friend the Member for South Down are the experts because they fight elections in Northern Ireland, which I have never done and do not anticipate ever doing.
To conclude on a serious point, it is right that local people, through their politicians, have a direct say over their public services. Today, we have made a significant and important step forward on finalising the final step of devolution—handing policing and justice powers over to locally accountable and elected politicians. That step is on a bigger scale than the orders that we are discussing, but I thought that it was relevant as our debate is taking place on the same day that the Prime Minister’s letter has been published.
I am grateful for hon. Members’ support, and I hope that the Committee will indicate its full support for the orders.
Question put and agreed to.

Draft Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment) Order 2009

That the Committee has considered the draft Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment) Order 2009. —(Paul Goggins.)
2.58 pm
Committee rose.

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