Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for her presentation of the order. However, in doing so I share the misgivings of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, in relation to the condensed schedule with which we have been presented throughout the Act, of which this order is now the necessary consequence. It is quite right that you cannot will the ends of an election without willing the means; namely, the order that we are discussing. However, given that the electoral system was effectively determined 10 days before Easter, the whole process has been unnecessarily condensed. The department should look to its procedures so that Parliament is not treated in this way.

As the noble Baroness knows, I remain critical of the choice of electoral system. She was right to say that minimum modification to parliamentary procedure should be sought in order to minimise the strangeness of this election. That would not have been necessary had the single transferable vote been used. However, having expressed criticism, may I say how glad I am--as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, surmised I would be; I share his pleasure in the fact that the Government are to use radio and television to promote this election. It is vitally important that people participate and that they see the connection between their vote and the peace process; otherwise, these elections will have been for nothing. I also think that it is wise of the Government to release the corsets of the broadcasters in order to make it possible for them, in their own way, to arrive at a balanced and fair coverage between the enormously long list of parties fighting the election.

2 May 1996 : Column 1805

In that regard, will the Minister tell the House (the noble Lord, Lord Williams, also asked this) how the limit will apply to parties across the whole of Northern Ireland? Is she satisfied in regard to the smaller parties? I instance merely the parties connected with the former loyalist paramilitaries. Can we really be sure that parties are getting enough help in kind, so that those relatively indigent parties can still fight a decent campaign?

What provision is being made for election addresses? For instance, will some sort of government-sponsored newsletter be distributed in which parties can put their case? Having said that, and in supporting the order, I hope that the Government will take a hands-on attitude to the election. Voters will make their own choice; but nobody should be left in any doubt that this is an important election and it matters a great deal in Northern Ireland.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Monson: My Lords, I had not intended to intervene, and do so only because of a remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn. He suggested that it was unfair that Mr. Robert McCartney's name should appear on the ballot paper whereas Dr. Paisley's does not. I have to say, I disagree with him. The DUP has been in existence for a very long time. Most people throughout Northern Ireland are well aware of that party, what it represents and who leads it; namely, Dr. Paisley. In contrast, Mr. McCartney's party has been in existence only a very short time. He is now quite well known in the constituency of North Down, but not elsewhere. It seems not unreasonable that his name should be attached to his party label so as to avoid confusion, above all with the official Unionist Party.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contribution to the debate. I understand their concern at the speed with which this legislation has been brought before them.

I stress the special circumstances in Northern Ireland at the moment. Once we have been able to bring about a commitment to elections, I fear that the necessary speed of the process is not something that we would want any more than, as noble Lords made very plain, they would. The Government are more usually criticised for their slowness, and have often been criticised for such during this process of trying to build a peaceful future in Northern Ireland.

I am very fortunate in this House in that those who participate in these debates have knowledge of the situation in Northern Ireland. I am well aware and very conscious of the quality of the lawyer who sits opposite me. Therefore I have some confidence in the scrutiny that applies even in a short time. I thank noble Lords for their courtesy in indicating where their concerns lie.

The issue of names has been a major point in bringing forward this election legislation. I stress again that there was much discussion and consultation in another place as to what would be fair and appropriate. Having had that discussion and consultation and having voted on the

2 May 1996 : Column 1806

matter, we are now saying in this order that it is important that that is abided by for the benefit of ensuring that all the votes cast in Northern Ireland are valid and represent the wishes of the people.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, raised the issue of what would happen under the Petition. That matter also concerned the honourable Member for South Down in another place. I should like to clear up the fact that it is not the intention of the legislation that all a party's candidates in a constituency would be declared void as a result of the activities of one of its candidates. It is only in the calculation of the regional delegates, which Section 144(2C) makes clear is carried out under paragraph 14 of Schedule 1 to the main Act, that the relevant party's vote in the constituency concerned is disregarded. Votes for constituency delegates are calculated under paragraphs 8 to 11 of the Act. The remaining candidates on that party's list for that constituency are therefore unaffected in so far as they keep their seats. But their votes, while they are being elected, will not contribute to the overall vote of the party. We believe that to be in keeping with the principles of the party list system, punishing, as it does, both the individual wrongdoer and the party on a regional basis.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, also expressed concern as to the position on overseas voters. The elections that are to take place on 30th May are regional elections, taking place in Northern Ireland only. They are being held to elect delegates to a forum convened to discuss Northern Ireland matters. It was therefore decided that it would be more appropriate to use a local government franchise and thereby retain the local nature of the elections. The local government franchise excludes overseas voters, to which Article 3(6)(c) of the order refers. However, it includes Peers and European Union citizens resident in Northern Ireland. I am sure that my colleagues in the House will be grateful that they can not only voice their concerns in words but also in practice. That is something about which we are very pleased. In terms of numbers, there is little difference. The parliamentary franchise produces around 70 more voters.

The question of election expenses and the position of the small parties in this situation was raised by both the noble Lords, Lord Williams and Lord Holme of Cheltenham. The amount of media coverage of the elections is already helping people to register who are newcomers to the election process. Election expenses will be calculated for each party in Northern Ireland as a whole. The limit depends on the number of constituencies a party contests.

There will be no special financial aid for parties in the system, no matter what their size. But we have taken that into account and endeavoured to assist small parties on this occasion by providing for unaddressed labels for election campaign material, which is much cheaper, and by doing away with the usual Post Office requirement for a constituency name to head election materials, thereby saving on printing costs. We have tried to recognise that there are people for whom the process will be entirely new; this may be their first entry into a system on which they can build in future years. The allocation of equal time on party political broadcasts will be a matter for agreement between the parties and the broadcasters.

2 May 1996 : Column 1807

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked about the position of alternative action plans for decommissioning. I can assure him that those are under considerable scrutiny and discussion at the moment. His earlier concerns in that area came through loud and clear.

I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, is now participating in these debates. I thank him for his contribution on the question of names.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. I sensed that she was approaching the end of what she had to say and I wish to clarify something before she sits down. I am not sure that I heard correctly. I believe she said that allocation of time for party election broadcasts would be a matter for agreement between the parties and the broadcasters. Perhaps I can remind her that difficulty is already experienced among the relatively few parties at Westminster when they have to sort out that question. The prospect of that alphabet soup of parties sitting amicably round a table and agreeing with each other and the broadcasters on the allocation of time seems a little improbable.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I suppose I could reply that we are a deregulatory government. But that would not be very satisfactory. I did not guarantee "amicable" but the discussions around the table must be between the parties and the broadcasters. It is recognised both in the broadcasting situation and the media coverage that these elections are unique. It is a first; we hope that they work successfully. The broadcasters have taken a responsible attitude. The commitment to the Province from everyone involved that the elections should be made to work will allow for better discussions on this occasion. I hope that I prove to be right and not the noble Lord, although I understand his concerns.

Again, with the understanding that we have asked that this legislation be considered speedily, I commend the order to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page