§ 3.59 p.m.
§ The Minister of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Channon)
I beg to move,That this House takes note of the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Order 1972.The Electoral Law Order which the House is being asked to discuss this afternoon is very important. Even after the dramatic events of the past few hours, I still think it is important that this House should give some scrutiny to the question of electoral law in Northern Ireland and the conduct of elections for the local councils with which the order deals.
44 As the House knows, under the system of local government proposed originally in the Macroy Report, there is to be a whole new structure of district councils coming into operation next April.
The order falls into two parts. Apart from article 4, with which I will deal in more detail later, the order deals with the general rules relating to local elections. In this it follows very closely the Electoral Law Bill which was before Stormont at the time of prorogation. That Bill had received its Third Reading in the Senate of the Northern Ireland Parliament on 23rd March, 1972, and it only awaited the consideration of Senate Amendments and the Royal Assent before becoming law. Article 4, which is a special new article which has been inserted into the order and is different from what was in the original Bill, deals with the specific arrangements for allowing proportional representation in these local elections.
First, I will deal with the various points in the order not relating to proportional representation and article 4. Those matters may be of less interest in the House this afternoon, but perhaps I had better deal with them briefly as they constitute an important matter. The legislation dealing with electoral law in Northern Ireland is contained in four Acts of Parliament, of which the principal Act is the Electoral Law Act, 1962. This provides for all electoral matters dealing with franchise qualification, registration of electors, and the conduct of elections for both the Stormont Parliament and local government.
The existing electoral law in Northern Ireland is now generally on identical lines to that applicable in Great Britain for both Westminster parliamentary and local government purposes. In Great Britain the relevant legislation is provided in the Representation of the People Acts and various regulations under them. The restrictive franchise qualifications which were applicable to local government franchise in Northern Ireland were removed and, as in Great Britain since the amending Act of 1970, all persons who are entitled to be registered as electors to vote at Northern Ireland parliamentary elections are likewise now entitled to vote at local government elections.
Adopting the reduction in voting age introduced in 1969 in Great Britain, the 45 age of voting was lowered to 18 years, and the additional business qualification franchise, which previously applied to parliamentary elections for the then 48 territorial Stormont constituencies as well, was abolished, as were the four seats comprised in the Queen's University constituency which then existed by provisions contained in the Electoral Law Act, 1968.
Also in 1968 the British practice of having in operation a permanent Parliamentary Boundary Commission for the Northern Ireland parliamentary constituencies was introduced. Such a Commission, on similar lines to the Commissions operating for the Westminster parliamentary constituencies, has been established. Now that the local government boundaries in Northern Ireland have been determined and prescribed, this Commission will be in a position to carry out its review and give its consideration of any recommendations necessary for a revision of the existing Stormont parliamentary constituencies.
As I have already mentioned, the Northern Ireland Government before prorogation had embarked on a complex and detailed major reorganisation of the structure of local government in Northern Ireland based upon parliamentary acceptance and endorsement of the report on local government presented by the Macroy Committee. The existing local authorities, comprising the county councils, county borough councils, borough, urban and rural district councils, will be abolished with effect from 1st April, 1973, and replaced by the establishment of 26 new-type district councils comprising the large Belfast district council with 291,000 electors and 25 provincial councils. These 25 provincial councils are of equitably average size taking into account geographical and other considerations. Legislation for all this was passed before prorogation.
§ Mr. Dick Leonard (Romford)
May I ask, as a matter of information, whether the boundaries of the Belfast district council are the same as the existing Belfast city boundaries?
§ Mr. Channon
I believe that to be right. If I am wrong I will seek an opportunity to correct myself.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)
Is it not a fact that the new district council 46 for Belfast takes in a larger area than is at present administered by the Belfast city council?
§ Mr. Channon
In view of what the hon. Gentleman has said, I had better read to the House at a suitable moment exactly what the Belfast district council takes in. If the hon. Gentleman will give me a few moments, I will give him a detailed answer to the question.
The boundaries of these new districts and their proposed single ward electoral units were drawn by an independent local government boundary commissioner, Mr. F. A. L. Harrison, Q.C., who was appointed for this purpose in 1971 by the Governor of Northern Ireland under the provisions of the Local Government Boundary Commissioner Act, 1971. This Commissioner produced what is generally recognised as very satisfactory delineations of boundaries for the new district council areas, together with the ward units to be contained therein. These ranged from 15 in the smaller district council areas to a maximum of 51 wards in the Belfast district council area. The provisional and then final considerations of the Commissioner were examined in detail by the public, including the political parties, and, where necessary, public revision hearings were held. The Commissioner recently made his final recommendations to my right hon. Friend, and these were promulgated and prescribed by an Order in Council on 30th June. These boundaries are not strictly relevant to the order as they are contained in the regulations under the Local Government (Boundaries) Order, Northern Ireland, 1972. These ward and district council boundaries have generally been well received and accepted in Northern Ireland as being fairly and equitably drawn and suitable to the structure of the district councils.
As a result of this restructuring and reorganisation of local government it is necessary to postpone until this year the holding of local government elections which should, in fact, have been held in the triennial year of 1970. This has been both necessary and logical as it would obviously have been absurd to hold further elections to the existing councils, which were elected in 1967 when the restructuring process was being dealt with, as it was unlikely that candidates 47 would have been willing to stand for councils which had only a very limited life. Therefore, the existing councils have already been in operation for five years, and it is certainly time for new elections as the whole political situation has changed and the structure and powers of local government are to be different.
The restructuring programme for the form of local councils was completed, just prior to the proroguing of the Stormont Parliament, by Northern Ireland legislation contained in the Local Government Act, 1972, providing for the new type of district councils.
As drafted, the present legislation provides for elections to the old type councils. Therefore, the House will see that it is both necessary and urgent to introduce amending legislation so that the electoral and related procedures for these new councils can be prescribed and elections held before the end of this year.
§ Mr. Channon
My right hon. Friend has not come to any firm conclusion on the exact date for the holding of the local elections, and it would therefore be foolish of me to make a prophecy this afternoon. Unless subsequent legislation takes place, they must, by Statute, be held before the end of this year. As soon as my right hon. Friend is in a position to announce a date, I am sure he will wish to do so.
As it is necessary for the existing councils to vacate their offices with effect from 1st April, hon. Members will realise that it is desirable that the new type of councils should be elected in advance of that date so that they may have an opportunity to establish themselves, to appoint staff, and to take over fully the duties and functions of the local authorities which are to be transferred to them. Indeed, the time limit allowed to the new Northern Irish councils is considerably less than it has been in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Perhaps I may now deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard). The new boundary for the proposed Belfast district council takes in some of the areas of County Antrim 48 and County Down adjoining the county borough boundary. The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) is right to point that out. If he wants further exact details, I can let him have them.
At the prorogation of Stormont, a Bill had reached its final stages to provide for the holding of district council elections in 1972, and to establish a centralised new type of electoral machinery under an independent Chief Eelectoral Officer for Northern Ireland, who would be responsible for carrying out his designated functions directly to Parliament through an appropriate Minister.
There are several points of discussion in Northern Irish Parliament. I shall limit myself to the four major points. The first was the appointment of the Chief Electoral Officer. I think that this was generally welcomed in Northern Ireland, and will be generally welcomed in this House. It is my right hon. Friend's intention, subject to the agreement of Parliament to the order, to appoint Mr. James Jones to be the Chief Electoral Officer. He came to Northern Ireland in 1955 from Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, to join the Stationery Office in Belfast, from which he retired as Director in March, 1971. His appointment has been widely welcomed.
The second point raised in the Northern Irish debates on the issue was the limitation of expenses for candidates for the local elections. Under existing law there is no limit on the expenses which a candidate may incur at an election to a local authority in Northern Ireland. Article 13 of the order limits those expenses by applying with modifications the provisions of Sections 39–52 of the principal Act relating to the limitation of expenses of candidates at parliamentary elections.
At parliamentary elections a candidate may incur personal expenses not exceeding £100, and these are not taken into account for the purposes of the overall limit. The article proposes that the personal expenses of a candidate at a local election shall not be limited as such, but shall be taken into account for the purposes of the overall limit. Whereas the limit for a candidate at a parliamentary election is on a per capita basis calculated on the number of "electors in the 49 constituency" the limit for candidates at local elections is fixed by the order at £300 for a candidate at an election to the council of the city of Belfast and at £100 for a candidate at an election to any other district.
In determining what should be the appropriate amounts to be prescribed for maximum expenditure for candidates at local elections, careful and detailed consideration was given to the electorate sizes of the proposed local wards when compared with the electorates contained in the related Northern Ireland parliamentary constituencies, with a weighting being given to the fact that a local candidate will be required to pay his own postage for election material out of any limitation of expenditure prescribed, where as a parliamentary candidate has both free postal facilities and also the right to additional expenditure covered by the £100 personal expenses allowance. On this basis, the figures proposed of £300 maximum in respect of a ward of some 7,000 average electors in Belfast, and £100 maximum in respect of a ward with an approximately 2,000 average electorate in the other district council areas, are considered to be realistic.
These limitation of expenses provisions will not apply to the first local elections in 1972, as they will be held on the basis of proportional representation, with single wards grouped for that purpose into large district electoral areas.
§ Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)
Can the hon. Gentleman explain the reasoning behind the deposit required for local government elections?
§ Mr. Channon
I shall be coming to the question of deposits very shortly.
In the 1972 local elections each candidate will be permitted to expend a maximum of £100 by way of personal expenses, plus a total capitation allowance of 2½p for each elector on the register for the district electoral area.
The third matter of controversy was the question of voting hours.
§ Mr. Dick Douglas (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)
The hon. Gentleman said that the wards would be grouped Has this grouping the approval of Mr. Harrison?
§ Mr. Channon
I shall he dealing with all these points in a few minutes. I am trying now to deal with the whole question of the order, leaving out proportional representation for the moment. I shall come to the specific point in three or four minutes if I am not interrupted further. [Interruption] There is plenty of time, but a number of hon. Members wish to speak. [Interruption.] If the House wishes me to curtail this, I will.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)
We are saying that the debate is about proportional representation, and that we are interested in the details.
§ Mr. Channon
I am grateful. But before coming on to proportional representation I shall deal with the two other matters of substantial controversy in the debates at Stormont.
One was the question of voting hours. Article 14 provides for voting hours to be from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., the hours of poll for Westminster parliamentary elections. It was thought right that in Northern Ireland the local election pattern should follow the hours of voting for the Westminster elections. This was a change from the original intention when the Bill was introduced. It has been done because, with the introduction of proportional representation, and to provide for uniformity of all types of elections in Northern Ireland, it is considered advisable for the polls to be open until 10 p.m. As the law stands, the hours of polling in Northern Ireland for local authority elections are from 8.30 a.m. to 8.30 p.m.
The only other point of substantial controversy at Stormont was the question of deposits, to which the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) referred. Under existing legislation, a candidate for a local election to a council of a county, county borough or borough has to lodge a deposit of £25, and a candidate for an election to urban and rural distrist councils a deposit of £10. Article 10 now provides for a uniform deposit requirement of £15 for candidates to the new district councils.
§ Mr. Channon
I shall try to show why we have come to this conclusion.
When the Bill which the order replaces was first introduced into the Stormont 51 House of Commons, it was intended to abolish the deposit requirement, thus bringing the Northern Ireland law on this matter into line with that in Great Britain, where no deposits at local elections are required. Following strong objections in Parliament and from local authorities, the then Northern Ireland Government introduced in Committee an amending Clause providing for the £15 deposit. This was accepted on a Division. Some hon. Members of this House took another view, but, fortunately, they are not with us at the minute. [Interruption.] They are not far away, I know.
The view taken at the time was that the amount of deposit should in no way deter any candidate from standing for election but that it might act as a deterrent to persons lodging nominations merely for the purpose of disrupting the electoral machinery awl confusing the electorate. It was thought that it would prevent any body or organisation implementing a campaign to prevent elections by making numerous nominations in each electoral area. The decision to maintain a deposit requirement for local elections was welcomed by the majority of Members at Stormont and by the representative bodies of local authority opinion in Northern Ireland.
In view of the decision to conduct these first local elections on a proportional representation basis, thus providing for larger electoral areas than would have been the case if single-member wards had been used, and having regard to the circumstances presently prevailing, my right hon. Friend considered that, at least for these 1972 elections, a strong case exists for this deposit provision to prevent any attempt being easily made to disrupt them by swamping each electoral area with candidates.
Hon. Members need not be alarmed about the deposit provision, because to save his deposit under the new proportional representation system a candidate will have to obtain only a quarter of the quota. Hon. Members will know what that means. A candidate has to receive only a very small proportion of the vote to retain his deposit. I find it inconceivable that, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, any genuine candidate would be likely to lose his deposit in local elections held under 52 proportional representation. The House need not be alarmed about the question of the deposit. There is no genuine fear that any serious candidate in any area will be disadvantaged by the provision of this very small deposit. The question can be reviewed again in future.
§ Mr. Maurice Foley (West Bromwich)
Stormont was discussing local government reform, but there is now no Stormont. In the context of the proposals for local government reform, will the hon. Gentleman deal not just with the nuts and bolts, such as deposits and boundaries, but with the kind of powers and competencies that he sees the local councils fulfilling. Will he indicate the real powers he will give to the new local councils so that they can effectively do a job in the improvement of community relations?
§ Mr. Channon
I should like to answer the hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Foley) fully about that matter. He has made a strong point about the existence of Stormont. However, this debate is related to the electoral law—whether there should be proportional representation and whether the electoral law should be changed.
§ Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South) indicated dissent.
§ Captain Orr
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to make quite certain what we can still debate. Although the debate may be on a Motion to take note of the electoral law order, I hope to be able to deploy quite a few arguments as to why we should not take note of it now—in other words, why we should not proceed with legislation about the nuts and bolts of district council law before we discuss what will be the main structure of local government in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Speaker
I will rule as the speeches are made. However, as I indicated earlier, I think that this should be a fairly wide debate.
§ Mr. Channon
When my right hen. Friend was appointed Secretary of State at the end of March he had to take the big decision whether to go ahead with local government reform. He took a 53 great many soundings from people involved in the matter about whether the procedure should go on. There were three courses of action open to my right hon. Friend: first, to abandon the reforms; secondly, to go on with them; and, thirdly, to postpone them. There was general agreement amongst the people to whom we spoke that the last thing wanted was postponement. That was felt to be the worst solution, leading to widespread uncertainty, with no one, for example, knowing who they were going to work for. We all know the complications of introducing a system of local government, and it was felt undesirable to interrupt it in the middle and postpone it. Therefore, my right hon. Friend decided that postponement would be wrong.
Then came the question of whether to go ahead with the reforms in the situation we were facing or to announce that we were proposing to abandon them. The House would have thought it odd if we had decided, having pressed for years for local government reform in Northern Ireland, to abandon our proposals. The majority of right hon. and hon. Members have taken the view that it is right to have reform in local government in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Government had proposed these reforms and they had received wide acceptance. The House would have thought it extraordinary if at the last minute we had decided not to go ahead with the programme of local government reform.
Local Government reform can stand on its own even in the present situation with Stormont prorogued. If and when a new situation is created, no doubt the whole structure of local government and many other things will have to be considered, but as at present, with Stormont being prorogued, my right hon. Friend thought it was right that we should proceed with local government reform. I shall not outline to the House the whole structure of the district councils. That was dealt with entirely by a Measure passed by Stormont before prorogation took place. If another view were now taken we would have to repeal that Measure.
The order provides for the elections. My right hon. Friend thinks it right to go ahead with the decision to have elections. The last local councils were elec- 54 ted in 1967 for a three-year term. It is now getting on towards the end of 1972. Local government reform is pending. Surely, if it can possibly be done, it is in everyone's interest that there should be local council elections in Northern Ireland in 1972. To achieve that it is necessary to pass this order, which had reached all but its final stage in Stormont before prorogation.
§ Captain Orr
On the question of timing, my hon. Friend will be aware that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said on the 29th June:It should be remembered that after the plebiscite there will be the local government elections."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Thursday, 29th June, 1972; Vol. 839, c. 1688.]As article 4 of the order refers to 1972, can my hon. Friend give us some idea when the referendum will be held?
§ Mr. Channon
I cannot give that answer this afternoon. As my hon. and gallant Friend knows, provision for the plebiscite legislation will have to go through the House. I am not in a position to say when that legislation will be introduced. Obviously, it could not be brought before the House before the summer Recess. The security situation must have the full consideration of my right hon. Friend at the present time. It is our hope that the plebiscite will take place before the local government elections, but I cannot say more than that now. My right hon. Friend will be anxious to take the necessary legislative steps as soon as possible. I can give no undertaking to the House. It would be out of order for me to go further. It will be a matter for consideration when the plebiscite Bill is put before the House.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
Do I understand from what the hon. Gentleman is saying that the plebiscite will take place before the district council elections?
§ Mr. Channon
I can give no undertaking about that matter. As I said, legislation must be introduced before a plebiscite can take place. My right hon. Friend has given a pledge to the people of Northern Ireland that he will introduce a plebiscite. That was made clear, at the time of prorogation, in a statement by my right hon. Friend on 24th March.
§ Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)
Under the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1972, has not the Secretary of State the power to legislate by order for a referendum?
§ Mr. Channon
No. My right hon. Friend has no power to do such a thing. Legislation would have to be passed by Parliament.
§ Captain Orr
My hon. Friend said that he could not give an undertaking, but the Secretary of State has already done so. The Secretary of State has said that local government elections will be after the plebiscite.
§ Mr. Channon
With respect to my hon. and gallant Friend, I, too, have a sheaf of quotations which I could quote back at him. I cannot go further this afternoon than to say that I cannot give any indication of the timing of this matter. It is still my right hon. Friend's intention that an early plebiscite should be held. The necessary legislation will be introduced. I am not in a position to give an undertaking about the exact timing.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)
When my hon. Friend says that he, too, has a sheaf of quotations which he can quote back at my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr), does he mean by that that the Secretary of State has contradicted himself on this matter?
§ Mr. Channon
No. My right hon. Friend has not contradicted himself.
If the House will allow me now to turn to the question of proportional representation, I should be delighted to do so.
When my right hon. Friend arrived in Northern Ireland, he received many representations from several quarters in the Province to the effect that when these local government elections were held it would be right to hold them under a system of proportional representation. A large number of individuals have made representations about this matter and many of the political parties have specifically asked for it. I do not think 56 that any of the political parties have objected to having these local government elections under proportional representation, especially since the system of having both Northern Ireland parliamentary elections and local elections by proportional representation using the single transferable vote system was provided for in the Westminster Acts of 1919 for local government and 1920 for the Stormont Parliament.
The local elections in 1920 were held using the single transferable vote system, as were the Stormont parliamentary elections of 1921 and 1925. Hon. Members may have received that interesting booklet dealing with the local elections in 1920 and the elections to the Belfast city council in 1920. The then Government in 1922 proceeded to introduce a Bill to repeal the provisions of the 1919 Act as to applying the principles of proportional representation to local government elections in Northern Ireland and to provide for the re-drawing of local government boundaries and their ward or district electoral division contents.
I need not go into the history of that Measure. Those who have studied Northern Irish history will know of its complicated passage. The Royal Assent was given to the Bill in late 1922, and the next local government elections were postponed until 1923. Since then they have been conducted on the single vote system. The Government of Ireland Act, 1920, while prescribing a proportional representation system for the Northern Ireland parliamentary elections, provided that neither the system of voting nor the boundaries of the then prescribed constituencies for the Stormont Parliament should be changed for a period of three years after the Act came into force.
So, the Stormont 1921 and 1925 parliamentary elections were conducted on the basis substantially of constituencies laid down in the 1920 Act and by the proportional representation method of voting. In 1928, however, the then Northern Ireland Government decided to revert to the practice of having a single majority vote. In 1929 a Measure was enacted to deal with this. I need not weary the House with all the details of the parliamentary constituencies which where then decided. The House will know that the single transferable vote is not unheard of in this country because the university 57 seats until 1945 also conducted elections where there was more than one member using the single transferable vote system.
Once the Government had come to the conclusion that proportional representation would be desirable, there were many types of proportional representation which could have been picked. The advantages of the single transferable vote are obvious. First of all, this system is the best way of achieving the aims of proportional representation.
§ Mr. Channon
The hon. Member will no doubt advance an alternative system.
Secondly, there is the precedent of the Northern Irish parliamentary and local elections held in the 1920s, and so it is not a new procedure for Northern Ireland. Thirdly, this system also has the advantage of similarity in the United Kingdom because of the university seats.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Bradford, West)
Did the Government take into account the question of precedents being set, because those of us who represent multiracial constituencies like my own, where there are not only many races but many religions, will be aware that this legislation could set a precedent? For example, the Sikhs will say that no Hindu will vote for them and the Muslims will say that a Sikh vote is not possible for them, and some English people will not even vote for the immigrant candidate. Has my hon. Friend considered this?
§ Mr. Channon
The question of proportional representation relates only to the local elections in Northern Ireland in 1972. There is no suggestion in this order that proportional representation should subsequently be used for local government elections in Northern Ireland. Should some future Parliament decide to go on with the experiments, that will be a matter for it. This is purely an experiment, and it is included in article 4, to which I shall come, which deals with local elections to be held in 1972. It is in no way a permanent arrangement for proportional representation, either of parliamentary or of local elections in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Leonard
The hon. Gentleman has given us three reasons why the single 58 transferable vote system is a good idea for the Northern Ireland elections. Will he agree that a fourth reason is that this is the system used in the remainder of Ireland?
§ Mr. Channon
That is rather a weak reason, because that system has not met with universal approbation in the Republic of Ireland where it has been used for some time. I think that that is for different reasons. It is true that it is used in the Republic, too. If hon. Members would like—I have wearied the House for too long already—I can give a detailed description of the single transferable vote and how it operates, and how the elections are conducted.
§ Mr. Foley
Will the hon. Gentleman explain how it came about that in the early Acts establishing the Government of Northern Ireland proportional representation was included? What were the reasons for ignoring it and getting rid of it and what are the Government's reasons for re-introducing it now? Is it not a fact that their reason for re-introducing it is the abject failure of the last Government at Stormont to pay any attention whatever to the rights of the minority in the North?
§ Mr. Channon
I do not think that it would be very fruitful for me to go into the histories and controversies of the past. I know the views of the hon. Member, and no doubt other hon. Members have different views about this. I note what the hon. Member said. [Interruption.] My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South points out that the question of proportional representation was mentioned in the Green Paper put out by the Northern Ireland Government. I have not heard of any substantial objections of any kind to its introduction at present from the political parties.
It entails certain complications which I ought to explain to the House. The first is that the boundaries have already been drawn on the basis of a singleward. They must not be grouped into suitable electoral areas. If the House is agreeable and 59 passes this order and it becomes law in due course—[Interruption.]—on Friday, I hope it will then be put up to the Chief Electoral Officer as soon as he has been appointed to undertake the task of grouping single member wards into suitable electoral areas. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Belfast. West (Mr. Fitt) must not be too alarmed about anything to do with this. The whole purpose of proportional representation is to ensure that basically results will not be very much affected by particular grouping of wards. The hon. Member or any other hon. Member need not be alarmed about this, although I dare say there will be people in Northern Ireland who will show alarm. I hope that no one in the House will voice this, because the whole purpose of proportional representation is to see that no matter how the grouping is done it makes no substantial difference to the outcome.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
My constituency includes the Island of Rathlin. It is an isolated island, cut off from the mainland, and there are only approximately 100 people on it. Will this be taken into consideration when there is this regrouping so that each ward will have equal numbers?
§ Mr. Channon
I will ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who is to wind up the debate to deal with that detailed point.
The Chief Electoral Officer will be required to make public provisional proposals as to the grouping of these wards for each district council area. A period of 28 days will be allowed for consideration of these proposals and for the making of objections. The Chief Electoral Officer will carefully consider any objections and representations and make his final recommendations on the grouping to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Thus I hope that by approximately the end of September my right hon. Friend will be in a position to prescribe the groupings by way of regulations. That will be one of the urgent tasks put by my right hon. Friend to the Chief Electoral Officer.
His second important task will be to issue to every householder in Northern Ireland a comprehensive booklet dealing with the introduction of proportional 60 representation for the 1972 elections. The booklet will explain in lay terms the principle of proportional representation, the manner in which a ballot paper may be marked and, for the information of the electorate, the manner in which the count is to be made. I hope that that will be a readable and useful document which all those interested will study.
Arrangements will be made by the Chief Electoral Officer for comprehensive training in all aspects of conducting a proportional representation type election for the electoral staff of the local authorities who will be responsible under the Chief Electoral Officer for the conduct of the 1972 elections for each of the 26 district councils.
These regulations will be made under article 4 of the order. The House will see that article 4 relates only to having on this one occasion special provisions for the local general elections to be held in 1972 and for having on this one occasion proportional representation by the single transferable vote. I believe that these local elections can play an important part in Northern Ireland.
I think that the introduction of proportional representation for these elections will, under the very special circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland, be of interest and value. They have been pressed upon us from many quarters. A number of hon. Members were anxious to have proportional representation for these local elections. Many people in Northern Ireland have also expressed this view. [Interruption.] We do not have the benefit of the advice of the Liberal Party on this occasion.
This is a once and for all occasion. It cannot be subsequently reintroduced unless specific legislation is brought forward to that effect.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be pleased to answer any detailed questions about the workings of the order and give further explanations that may be necessary about the proposals in relation to the electoral law order. Naturally, we shall study carefully what is said in the course of this debate.
I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will take note of the electoral law order, debate it fully, and, subsequently, before we rise for the Summer Recess, pass it so that arrangements can be made 61 for the local elections which I believe to be urgent and in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
§ 4.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)
Under the Temporary Provisions Act which this House passed a few months ago it is possible for orders to be debated and to go through this House in 1½ bours. The Electoral Law Bill, which had not had Senatorial approval but which had been through Stormont, is one such measure. However, as the Minister explained, the special provisions in Article 4 for the local general elections to be held in 1972 make the Bill, now translated into an order, a fundamentally different document. A major change is made in the order. The Minister of State will recall that we put to the Government the view that when new matters were introduced in an order, especially fundamental matters, the 1½ hour procedure would not be suitable. Hence this debate.
At the outset, I want to thank the Government for making available a full day's debate on this matter. However, we do not apologise for asking for it. One part of the United Kingdom is introducing proportional representation. There has been considerable political discussion about proportional representation going on for many years. At one time I thought that it was a matter of fundamental principle to the Liberal Party. When it comes to the crunch, not only are the Liberals not here after twelve o'clock it seems that they are not here after four o'clock, either. However, we thank the Government for arranging this debate, and we on this side of the House are glad to see that proportional representation in the form of the single transferable vote is the form that has been chosen.
We want to make it clear first that we are discussing this proposal in the context of Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Wilkinson) raised a point about this. It is not new in the context of Northern Ireland. But it is important, given the sectarian problem of Northern Ireland and the fact that, since Northern Ireland became a province in the form in which we now know it, there has always been an alien population which was not in the Government. In this 62 sense, proportional representation is important.
I accept that in the days of the Nationalists in Northern Ireland, because of this alienisation, even when they were elected, they preferred not to take their seats not only in Stormont but in some local authorities. In the context of the future, it is vital to lower the community barriers in order to obtain the growth of participatory politics. In order to get an acceptance of government, it is vital to get a wider range of people with a wider range of views playing a part in the Government of Northern Ireland.
We see no reason for proportional representation here. Those who believe in it are entitled to advocate it and entitled to be absent when it is advocated. However, my concern for proportional representation is concentrated on the needs of Northern Ireland. As I understand it, proportional representation has been asked for by moderate parties, by the Northern Ireland Labour Party, by the New Ulster Movement—in addition to the strong views about it held by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) for the SDLP. What is more though not dealing with local government, proportional representation was one of the possibilities advanced in the Faulkner Government's Green Paper.
One reason why I have always been against proportional representation in terms of national government is that I have felt that it led to weak government. I still feel that that is true. However, in Northern Ireland, especially in local government with its committee situation, that is not so relevant.
The single transferable vote is the form that we prefer. There are weaknesses in it. But we prefer it because in the circumstances it has to be introduced quickly. The Minister of State has told us the history of it, and it has a history in Northern Ireland. He has explained how it works. He has explained the multi-member constituency, and I shall come back to that. He has told us that it will be decided by the Chief Electoral Officer. I think that we shall want to probe more deeply into how it will work.
The Minister of State told us by implication—quite properly he felt that he did not want to go into it in great 63 detail—that the candidate must obtain a quota. The hon. Gentleman spoke about a seven member constituency and said that the quota would be just over one-eighth of the vote, and that the elector would be invited to vote by numbering his prefences. There would be no gain in "plumping. That would only ensure that the other votes that he might have given would not be spread round the other candidates.
I put one question to the Minister of State straight away. It concerns the excess of votes under the single transferable vote. What system will be used for disposing of excess votes?
I put my mind to this question over the weekend. In an explanation of it—it does not matter which one, because I found it in practically everything at which I looked—I found this:The excess of votes for a candidate above the quota is transferred to the other candidates in proportion to the next preferences of all those who voted for him.The Minister of State might have said that there will be a training course for those who are to work the scheme. These excess votes, as I understand it, may be dealt with in this way: either all the votes can be transferred at partial value or a proportion of the votes can be transferred at full value. Which scheme are we to have in the North of Ireland? Is there to be a total transference of partial votes or a partial transference of full votes? We ought to know.
I come back to the order. The Minister has told us that it is in force only for 1972. We might have views about transferring the idea to a wider field, but the Government have decided that it is only for 1972. What it means is that if we are to use this scheme in the local authority elections—and I have not checked whether these elections are annual or triennial, but I suspect that it will not be for another two years before we have to apply our minds to this matter—
§ Mr. Channon
They are every four years. However, as they will be held so late in 1972, the next elections will be in 1976.
§ Mr. Channon indicated dissent.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
Surely the Minister of State should tell us that the idea is that the district councils are to be elected for four-year periods.
§ Mr. Rees
I accept that it is every four years. It does not weaken my argument. The important point is, how are these areas to be decided by the Chief Electoral Officer? So far as the urban areas are concerned it is one thing, but in the rural districts, taking the number of members per constituency, per division or whatever it is to be called, there will be a lower number of people in the area concerned. What instructions is the Chief Electoral Officer being given in this respect?
Take Lisburn for example. I am informed that the average electorate is 2,087. If a multi-member ward were created, consisting of wards 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15, which make up the town of Lisburn, the average electorate would be 2,376. On grouping the seven rural areas consisting of 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 23 the average electorate would be 1,842. There is a variation of over 500. Yet this arrangement could be defended on the ground of geography. It has been put to me that it would be more equitable to take one of the members from the rural wards and add it to the urban wards. This would give 2,086 electors to the urban wards and 2,144 to the rural area, and this would be much more defensible. Would the redrawing of the boundaries allow this when the Chief Electoral Officer puts forward his scheme?
On the question of the deposit, given that in local authority elections in this country we have worked on the basis of no deposits, it is very difficult to argue in favour of deposits in the North of Ireland when this House is considering the same issues there. I understand the argument which the Minister has put forward about the swamping of the electoral paper in certain circumstances, but surely this is the whole purpose of the single transferable vote. If there is to be a swamping of the kind that he is concerned about, the single transferable vote would attend to this. As to the loss of deposit—
§ Mr. Leonard
I have been following my hon. Friend very carefully. I wonder whether the point he made is valid. If there is to be a single transferable vote system, it means that there will be a larger number of names on the ballot paper anyway. If there are seven vacancies, there could be 24 or 30 candidates. It does not seem to me that the introduction of the single transferable vote will ease the problem. Indeed, it could make it worse.
§ Mr. Rees
If there is swamping to that degree I can see my hon. Friend's argument, but a deposit of £10 or £15 is not enough to stop swamping of that kind. If the deposit were much greater, there would be force in that argument. In considering the loss of deposit, is it the Government's intention that, given that there is to be a party list, the loss of deposit would be governed by the performance of the party or the performance of the individual? There might well be people who would lose their deposits, but because of the party list would it not be more appropriate to consider it from the point of view of the performance of the party?
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when the Bill was first presented in Stormont there was no question of a deposit? It was only after pressure from the Government benches that the Clause referring to deposits was written in. The Bill never envisaged elections of this sort under proportional representation. Therefore, it would have been wise for the Government here to have taken a second look and to have done away with the deposit.
§ Mr. Rees
We debated that point on a previous occasion and we noted the hon. Gentleman's absence, as well as his earlier views expressed in Stormont a few months ago. The point is still relevant. This is an appropriate time to put the general question to the Minister. Today we have a general debate which can run widely, but we are talking about proportional representation and about the 66 order in advance of the debate on Friday. Suppose the view is generally held in this House that there should be no deposit, will there be time to amend the order before Friday or are we, because of the space of three days, making a fait accompli in this respect, or are we merely having an exercise in stating our views here without having a chance of getting the order amended? Could the Minister tell us that? Can it be altered or are we wasting our time in raising the matter?
§ Mr. Douglas
The Minister said, I believe, that the loss of the deposit would be related to the candidate receiving one-quarter of the quota. It depends very largely on the size of the electoral areas. That one-quarter could be a very large vote indeed.
§ Mr. Channon
No debate in this House is a waste of time. In fact, it is possible to amend the order if it is the will of the House that it should be amended.
§ Mr. Rees
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was beginning to think, judging by the look in the hon. Gentleman's eye, that that was not the case.
How will by-elections be run? As the order stands there will be an ordinary non-PR election for a by-election, but if we pump for the principle of proportional representation, should there not be proportional representation when it comes to the by-elections? If small parties form coalitions on local authorities with a majority of only one, it needs only one poor chap for some reason to have to give up his seat—there could be a vacancy because of death—and the result is a one-member type by-election.
The Minister said that staff would be trained. I hope that arrangements will be made for advice to be given to people acting as agents for the various candidates. It is sometimes bad enough with a single member count. In some of the elections it will need a slide rule to get a true result.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Foley) raised the question of what the functions of local authorities 67 would be. The Minister said that the local authority reform Act had gone through Stormont. As I understand it, there are to be area boards for a number of functions, and there will be elections from the district councils which will be administered on the basis of members who have been elected by proportional representation. Now there are to be elections by district councils for those members who are to attend and vote and play their part on the area boards.
This is rather like the situation of the Senate in the Northern Ireland governmental system in relationship to the House of Commons. They vote by proportional representation by the Members of the House of Commons for the Members of the Senate. There will be some strange results on the area boards in relation to the district councils unless there is proportional representation in the voting of the members of the various district councils for the area boards. I hope that the Minister will put his mind to that problem, because perhaps one-third or a quarter of the members of the area boards will come from the district councils.
The shape of the ballot paper is important. Anyone who is not just a member but is an agent at local elections learns a great deal. Real problems arise when there are a large number of names on the electoral paper. One can work it out mathematically to show the advantage of name Ackenschmidt rather than Zachariah.
§ Mr. Rees
The hon. Gentleman's Biblical training is greater than mine. Ackenschmidt is a variation of the name of a famous wrestler whose name began with "H" rather than "A".
A ballot paper with 30 or 40 names in alphabetical order would be about 18 inches long and confusing to the electorate. Why not arrange the names horizontally? Why not list the candidates alphabetically under party labels. Under Labour, there would be Mr. L., Mr. S., and Mr. or Mrs. V.; Under SDLP there would be Mr. M., Mr. P. and Mrs. R.; under Unionist there would be Mr. A., Mr. C., Mr. D., Mr. E. and Mrs. F., and so on. By doing it that way one would 68 show the party labels and underneath them the names of the various candidates. This is not a frivolous point.
Earlier in the debate there was some questioning about the fact that we were looking at the nuts and bolts of the order which we shall be considering on Friday. Unless we look at the nuts and bolts in advance, we shall leave it to the Chief Electoral Officer to decide the issue. I am sure that he is an admirable person in every way, but he used to work for Her Majesty's Stationery Office, and that is why I raise the issue. The Chief Electoral Officer will obviously know a great deal about the size of the paper.
§ Mr. Rees
I am sure that the Chief Electoral Officer could answer that at the flip of a finger. It is not a question that I am able to answer.
What about the cost of PR? Running a local election is often a grave problem to rural councillors. That may be one reason why rural councils often have elections for which no candidates put themselves forward. They consider perhaps the local penny rate needed for the election, and decide not to stand. That is why rural elections are often non-elections. Cost is the deciding factor. Who will bear the cost of these elections in Northern Ireland? Will it be borne by local councils?
Another important consideration is the location of polling stations. All of us, in our local ward parties, have had discussions about the location of the polling booths. It makes a difference where a road is, where a section of the population lives, where a school is sited and so on. We have all been through this kind of thing. The location of polling booths is particularly important in the context of Northern Ireland where people are grouped by religion, with slight overlaps. I warrant that it would be asking too much now, and would still be asking too much in a few months' time, to suggest that Catholics and Protestants should vote in areas to which they do not normally go. I do not know how the problem can be dealt with other than by increasing the number of polling stations. That 69 will be expensive, and I hope the Minister will put his mind to the problem.
The Minister mentioned poll cards. I think he said that the free poll card which we have for national elections is not to be used for local elections. In recent months I have spoken to a number of people in Northern Ireland. One person told me that in the thick of all the murder and shooting that goes on he had been going out every night canvassing to get people to join a political party. It occurs to me that in some areas this might be a dangerous thing. It will be difficult for people to canvass and knock on doors in some areas in order to make the name of the candidates known.
Given the problems in Northern Ireland, I think that it is important to have a free delivery of poll cards. I know that we cannot have our arguments both ways. One minute we argue that the election should be on the same basis in this country as in Northern Ireland, and five minutes later we lean on another elbow and put the argument the other way. But the whole problem must be looked at according to the need of the situation, and that calls for the use of poll cards.
Those are the nuts and bolts questions that I wanted to put to the Minister, and I am sure there will be others. There is no mention of a plebiscite. If there were to be a plebiscite this would be the appropriate and, indeed, about the only way of providing for it. I think that it would be appropriate for something about a plebiscite to appear in the order. In any event, if I am on a weak point this is a broad debate, and I am at the moment looking for a hook on which to hang some remarks on a plebiscite.
The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister in the early days of the initiative talked about a plebiscite—of that there is no doubt at all. Our view on this side is that there may well be an occasion when a plebiscite would be a sensible but that at present it would only help further to polarise an already polarised community. Another view put to me very firmly is that a plebiscite would reassure the Protestant population of the North, and on that I make only the following aside. Given the happenings of the last few months, it is very difficult to reassure the Protestant population in the North 70 of Ireland: even our discussions on the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Bill were not enough. Frankly, I do not believe that there is much one can do, and certainly not by a plebiscite.
We believe that the majority of the people in the North of Ireland do not want to go into the South of Ireland. That is clear, and no one can gainsay it or argue against it. That being so, to prove that attitude by a plebiscite is merely to prove the obvious. It is a fact of life which everyone in Northern Ireland in the last three months or three years has had to take into account. If it were not so, the problem would not have arisen. We think that to have a plebiscite in this circumstance and at this time would be wrong, though we do not say that a time may not come.
If one had a plebiscite, what questions would one ask? I have so far taken half an hour just asking about the nuts and bolts of the order, about the shape of the ballot paper, and so on. What questions would be asked? The only question that one can ask that gets one anywhere is that needing the simple answer, "Yes" or "No". But it would still merely tell us what we already know. In our view, therefore, there is no point in having the plebiscite. It is not that we do not take into account the strong views expressed by the minority and the majority in Northern Ireland—
§ Captain Orr
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am interested in his views on the referendum. I understood that until fairly recently his party was in favour of the plebiscite—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—It was included in the package. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us why a referendum would polarise views in Northern Ireland when local government elections would not? It surely makes sense to have the plebiscite first and then one can have local authority elections without questions about the order or anything else.
§ Mr. Rees
The whole point of local government elections on PR is the aid which will be given to some moderate parties, and so on, which will do the opposite of polarisation. That is why we have been putting forward that argument.
Another factor which should he brought to the notice of the House is that 71 when the local elections come in December we shall say, "Here is the order. There will be PR." But have hon. and right hon. Members noticed that these will be the first local authority elections fought on the basis of one man, one vote? There are bound to be very great changes in the representation resulting from the elections. That change should be taken into account, because many people, on both sides of the community split, who have been elected year after year may find themselves for the first time not elected. There will be profound changes at the end of the year.
We on this side hope that the elections later this year will give a status to parties which wish to play a role not only in local government but also in any further legislative assembly which may come out of current discussions. I have not made up my mind firmly, but the best analogy I know is that of the Greater London Council and the way in which it is run. That does not mean reducing Northern Ireland to a lower status by any means, particularly when one looks at the budget of the Greater London Council and at the work which it does. The great advantage that the GLC has is that it is not based on the parliamentary process, which finds it very difficult to flourish in a split community. It is based on a committee-type system. Although at the moment, we are not discussing the future form of government, it is relevant to have at the back of our minds the thought that if these local elections get off the ground and work well, there will be a pattern on which the legislative-type system can work.
I have here an article written by Mr. Erskine Holmes, Chairman of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, and published in Community Forum in 1972. Mr. Holmes wrote:…I would like to be able to convince all those other elements in Northern Ireland politics who could loosely be termed 'the centre' that we all must face up to the logic that P.R. spells coalition and it is time we accepted the challenge which that poses to us.It might well be said that the idea of sectarian parties, coalitions and PR is not British, but Mr. Holmes made the following fundamental point:Our introspection—and he is referring to Northern Ireland: 72has blinded us to the fact that Northern Ireland is normal by European standards and that it is British politics which are exceptional.It may be because our way of conducting politics in this country is exceptional that we may not have looked at the problems of Northern Ireland in the right way. We have asked, therefore, for proportional representation, which will be a major break-through and, in our hope, will release moderate opinion to vote for those parties which are prepared to work the system.
We are talking about the mechanics of elections. We can talk about the mechanics of elections until we are blue in the face, or red in the face, but the events of the last three years, culminating in the events of the day, show that mechanics are not enough. We have to get the mechanics right, but before the mechanics contained in the order will work properly we must have a situation, which I hope will be here before the end of the year, in which the people of Northern Ireland can, without fear, put numbers against their candidate, and the candidates against whom the people put their numbers will be those who are prepared to work for a peaceful solution in a country which has had too much trouble over the last 50 years.
§ 5.19 p.m.
§ Mr. Rafton Pounder (Belfast, South)
I very much agree with the concluding sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees). The spirit of his speech, which certainly asked many questions, ended on a note with which everyone in Northern Ireland, of whichever community in that Province, would agree. We want only those who are prepared to work for peace.
I am not enthusiastic about the draft order, particularly article 4 thereof. The hon. Member for Leeds, South expressed the sentiment towards the end of his speech that PR for the district council elections could very easily be a dry run for PR for a future Stormont election. Therefore, in the context of proportional representation, we are discussing rather more than just the district council elections to be held in the near future. One's doubts about the relevance of the order and what it is aiming to do must also be set against the context of Stormont being in suspended animation at present.
73 I have a relatively open mind about the single transferable vote. I have yet to be convinced whether it is a good or a bad system. We had it previously, some 50 years ago, for Stormont and local government elections. It is reasonable for someone to argue that all we are doing is returning to an established practice that existed at the time of the formation of the State. Where I take my stand on this matter is that, although there were differences—we know that this was so until relatively recently—between the local government electoral practices in Northern Ireland and those which pertained in the rest of the United Kingdom, the system which operated in Northern Ireland was that of the pre-1948 British system, which allowed business votes, and the franchise was restricted to the resident occupier and the spouse of the resident occupier. But those differences have now been swept away, thank goodness. Our electoral practices for local and national government are exactly the same as those for any other part of the United Kingdom.
But now, before we have got used to the standardised electoral practices, we are being asked to create yet again a divergence of the electoral practices between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
As a Unionist, I believe that the cornerstone of Unionism is the maintenance of British standards in Northern Ireland. It is as simple as that. One of these must be similarity and comparability of electoral practices. But some people believe that PR is intrinsically a good voting system. They may be right, although I have my doubts about it.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State referred to this at the beginning of his speech and we were all sent a copy of the booklet "PR—Urban Elections in Ulster 1920", produced by the Electoral Reform Society, a society whose openmindedness on the subject of PR is not well known. Certainly we could do without the society's preface in its publication about elections in Northern Ireland. But what is very valuable are the statistical tables contained in the booklet. Because of a delayed aeroplane flight some time ago, I was able to settle down to work out certain statistics.
There were 60 seats—and still are—for the Belfast City Council. But in 1920 there were only three seats where 74 parties which would have won on a direct voting system lost their seats under PR. It is interesting to note who the beneficiaries were. In one case it was the official Unionist Party, in another case it was the Unionist Labour Association and in the third case it was the Belfast Labour Parity. The losers were Sinn Fein, which lost two seats, and the Nationalist Party, which lost one seat. Far from supporting minority parties, it could be argued that on that occasion PR assisted the majority parties.
To be absolutely serious about this matter, taken on the 1920 basis, only 5 per cent. of the Belfast seats were affected party-wise as a result of PR, taken on the umpteenth count as distinct from those who were leading on the first count, which is the only way in which one can operate any such comparison.
Some have said that the Unionist Party has reason to be apprehensive of PR. That is not so. Any reservations that I may have are not based on that. From the straw polls that have been undertaken, the evidence is that the Unionist Party, Province-wide, would do every bit as well under PR as under the single vote system.
However, I am unhappy that we in this House in looking at the order—particularly in view of Article 4 and the new section to the order—are trying to create, not for good democratic reasons but, perhaps, for rather ignoble reasons, a new voting pattern in a part of the United Kingdom. I apologise for my phraseology, which could be neater. As I see it, however, the object of imposing PR at present is to try to weaken the position of the majority party in Northern Ireland. Some may say "That is what we want to see". But we should realise what a dangerous principle we are establishing if we pass legislation which tinkers with the democratic principle of whatever the franchise system may be in order to try to weaken the majority party which has been elected by the wishes of the majority of the population.
§ Mr. Paul B. Rose (Manchester, Black-ley)
Would the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a democratic principle that a minority of people in the city of Derry are able permanently to keep control over that city in spite of the fact that they are a minority? Would he agree that, in achieving proportional representation, this 75 is the first time for 50 years that the people of Derry can begin to run Derry?
§ Mr. Pounder
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present when I began my speech but I said that at last we have got the practices standardised vis-à-vis elections at local government and national level in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. I hold no brief whatsoever for the activities of the former Corporation of Londonderry and I never have done so. The hon. Gentleman will know that my views and the oft-expressed views of my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark) are in complete accord. Proportional representation does not make a difference. The Harrison Boundary Commission had a look at the structure in Londonderry. PR is not a relevant argument in that context. There is a danger in the dictum of consciously and deliberately trying to alter the franchise in order to weaken the position of the popularly supported majority party.
I turn directly to the order and to certain specific questions. I notice that we are to have these elections held in every fourth year. I am not saying that that is wrong, but why are we to have a change from three years? We should bear in mind that we are not talking about just the tail end of 1972 as election time but that the order says clearly that the elections are to be in 1972 and at every fourth year thereafter. So we are establishing a set four-yearly pattern. I do not object to that but I should like to know the reason for extending it from three years.
Unlike the hon. Member for Leeds, South, I welcome the retention of a deposit system. I would have kept it at its existing figure of £25, because there is a grave danger that one could have a multiplicity of only quasi-relevant candidates. This should be resisted. Anxiety was expressed by the hon. Member about the loss of deposits and the quota system of voting. To cite one small part of my constituency from the famous PR booklet, the electorate was 17,014, the votes cast were 10,635 and the average needed to get elected was 1,330. A quarter of 1,330 is 332 votes out of an electorate of 17,014. So we are not talking in terms of very great hardship regarding saving 76 a deposit. I took those figures at random from my area but I have no doubt that similar patterns could be found elsewhere if one waded through all the statistics.
I notice that the existing system has been retained for filling a vacancy on a local authority within 21 days of its falling vacant by reason of death, resignation and so on. As we are making so many changes to local government structure in Northern Ireland, and bearing in mind the problems we have had, certainly in my constituency, with by-elections for the local council, perhaps 28 days should be the period rather than 21 days. I realise that a vacancy has to be filled as quickly as possible but there are considerable administrative problems in mounting an election from cold in 21 days, choosing candidates, and so on. Unless there is Holy Writ to prevent consideration of an extension of seven days, I advocate 28 days.
I had not realised that by-elections were not to be held on PR. This only adds to the anomalies and complexities.
As the whole rating structure is being reconsidered, and as much of what was done by local authority rating will now be done centrally by Stormont, almost certainly the cost of these elections will come out of the general Exchequer rather than the local exchequer. If I am wrong about that, I should be glad to be corrected.
Belfast had 60 seats spread over 15 wards. These were reduced by the Harrison recommendations to 52 single-member wards. The single-member wards will go by virtue of the order. The order refers to grouping not less than four and not more than eight single-member wards together.
There could be sizeable district electoral areas in Belfast if more than four were grouped, because the electorates would then be about 20,000. We should try to keep government as local as possible and district electoral areas as small as is reasonable.
I regret that election postage is not to be paid. This has caused great difficulty in local government elections. I hope that this matter can be reconsidered.
We are, in a sense, talking in a vacuum. This order and all the other orders which have been consequential on the McCrory 77 Report have been based on the assumption that there will be a Stormont of some form. It seems to be putting the cart very much before the horse to prorogue Stormont and go ahead with all these changes to take effect on about 1st April next.
By all means let us pass the legislation, but let us think carefully about going ahead with district council elections when the powers of these councils are restricted to bins, baths, parks and cemeteries. Eighty-five per cent. of the rate-borne expenditure in Belfast is to be transferred to Stormont, leaving 15 per cent. at maximum of present functions being retained. It is crazy to transfer these functions to an authority which is temporarily prorogued, unless Westminster is prepared to assume the local authority responsibilities for the 26 district councils.
The plebiscite was not written into the Temporary Provisions Act. It was wished on Northern Ireland by, and based entirely on, the Prime Minister's statement of 24th March. Whether one wants a plebiscite is obviously a matter for argument. The undertaking was given that a plebiscite would be held. Then my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State went further and said:It should be remembered that after the plebiscite there will be the local government elections."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th June, 1972; Vol. 839, c. 1688.]These undertakings having been given, it will be regarded as a gross breach of faith by the majority community if the plebiscite is shelved. I realise that the timing is difficult. Timing is difficult for the district council elections and for any elections in Northern Ireland. We cannot go on running away from elections and from the exercise of the democratic voice merely because of the danger that life may be a little difficult, whatever the election date may be. If the plebiscite is not held, that will be seen by the majority community as an apparent backtrack on an undertaking which was considered to have been made in good faith and to have been binding.
If no plebiscite is held, or if district council elections are held in advance of a plebiscite, those district council elections will be converted into a miniplebiscite. It would be naive to pretend 78 that it would be otherwise. The local issues which should predominate in local government elections will be subordinated to the issue—"If we cannot have the plebiscite, let us make this election into a plebiscite". Not only will the issues which should concern the voters not be properly discussed, but there could also be some interesting results, to put it mildly.
I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will proceed with the haste which is necessary for a plebiscite. All the major parties in Northern Ireland, representing the vast majority of the electorate, have independently said "We want a plebiscite". There may be good reasons for not holding it for a month or so, but let it be held before the district council elections. I realise that all the nuts and bolts have to be considered. However, I hope that there will not be a mad rush to hold district council elections until the future of Stormont has been decided, otherwise not only shall we have no regional administration and no regional parliament but we shall have virtually no local government and we shall be grossly under-represented in terms in which that is normally understood by British standards of local government.
§ 5.37 p.m.
§ Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
I join with the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Pounder) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) on his speech.
I was intrigued by one point in the hon. Gentleman's speech when he appeared to be a little surprised that the interval between elections should be as long as four years. This may be significant. Are there not grounds for reducing the term of office and the interval between elections? We are all aware of the electoral malpractices of the last 50 years in the North of Ireland. It was inevitable that those malpractices should have led to the stultification of political life in many areas. For example, how many electoral contests have been held in Derry since the war? In other areas also there has been simply no case for putting forward opposition candidates. Hence candidates have had no incentive for putting forward programmes.
79 This has meant that not merely Derry but also other electoral districts have had no opportunity to choose candidates and programmes. A necessary political stimulus has been non-existent. An important training ground in the municipal sphere for young politicians has been absent. The system as a whole has suffered because it has been deprived of vitality. Paralysis must have spread across some parts of the Province.
It is easy to say where the responsibility for this lies and that the political debilitation which has resulted is the responsibility of this or that part. However, we all want to be forward-looking this afternoon and to be concerned for the revival of the health of the system and the restoration of vitality. One way in which we can do this is to make for more elections. One way of doing that is to look again at the tenure of councillors and ask whether we could not bring the practice envisaged in the order into line with what I imagine we have all had experience of in Britain and reduce the period from four years to three years.
I am sorry that proportional representation was abolished in Northern Ireland for local elections in 1922 and for parliamentary elections in 1929. Even if there had been no accompanying injustices of any kind, that action alone would have revealed a complete lack of sympathy with minority rights and, therefore, with the future of democracy in Northern Ireland. At worst it was a party manoeuvre, at best it was a psychological blunder, because above all it has made for a frozen condition in much of Ulster's political life. Anything that threatens to break that mould and provide conditions wherein genuine co-operation and real progress can become a reality, as the basis upon which a true community can be built, must be considered. This is why many of us will be looking closely this evening at the proposed proportional representation system.
Theoretically, under the single transferable vote system of proportional representation, the larger the constituency the more proportionate the representation but there are practical limitations to the principle. Ideally the whole country should be treated as one constituency. This was done for the 1925 Southern 80 Ireland Senate general election, with the result that there were 76 candidates and a ballot paper more than 8 ft. long—which I imagine, comes as another surprise to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South, for otherwise he would, I imagine, have mentioned it himself. My hon. Friend will not be surprised to know however, that a booklet had to be issued to the electors giving the biographical details of the candidates as a voting aid.
Those who are experienced in local elections in North America know that there always are such factors to be contended with, yet the elections are not rendered impossible. Citizens cope and there is no widespread evidence in North America of demands for reform in this respect. We must recognise nevertheless that we may have to find an equitable solution between the theoretical and practical claims of PR.
When proportional representation was in use for Stormont and when it was first used for elections to the Dail Eireann, there was a tendency to have large constituencies returning seven, eight or nine Members apiece. Such constituencies in Southern Ireland, where the PR system has continued in use till this day, were found, to be cumbersome and the theoretical advantage of increased size to be outweighed by practical considerations of manageability. Hence over the years the PR system has been modified in Southern Ireland as a result of experience gained from its use since 1921. The size of constituency or electoral district found to be most convenient from the point of view of electors, the Members elected and physical size of the area to be represented has been found to be one returning three, four or five Members apiece.
I realise that there are objections-some have been put forward already and doubtless we shall hear of others—but surely such a change in voting technique for this purpose, for this one occasion, is a small price to pay for an attempt to secure harmony in the North of Ireland.
I was glad to hear about the background and qualifications of the chief electoral officer since his contribution is clearly of crucial importance. But I was sorry that the Minister could not dwell also on the equally important contribution which will be made by all those persons who will be appointed to assist 81 the chief electoral officer. However, I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South say a word about the registration of electors and about the publication of the annual register. We know in this country of the difficulties which attend its annual publication and the extent to which it is subject to query and to protest. I imagine that conditions could not possibly be more difficult for registration than they will be during the next few weeks in Northern Ireland, given the recent movements of population.
I hope that thought will be spared also for the use to which the register may be put and for the mechanics of electioneering. I am mindful of the plea on that matter made in the debate in Stormont earlier in the year.
The conduct of elections and the business of curbing illegal practices will call for the most scrupulous application of the law in future in Northern Ireland, and two problems in particular will demand more attention than most. One has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend, namely, the siting of polling stations. The other is the problem of impersonation.
The siting of polling stations is important not only as a matter of convenience, as in this country, but because it may make for danger to the elections. A polling station may be sited in such a way as to discourage opposition in rural areas.
I realise that it has been said that two can play at impersonation, and that is true, but on balance it seems to have been of the greatest assistance to the party in power because the party in power has usually had the best organisation.
I hope that the Minister will look again at the question of a candidate's deposit. I am not convinced that it is necessary. I was much more impressed, when I read the account of the debate in Stormont, by the argument of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and I add to it, if I may, that election expenses themselves may well provide a sufficient deterrent to irresponsible candidatures.
I welcome the extended hours of polling but I wish to say a word about the eligibility of electors. Will the Northern Ireland register still differ from the practice in this country in excluding 82 natives of the 26 counties who lack seven years' residence in the Six Counties? Much is rightly said about the desirability of parity between British practice and practice in Northern Ireland. I could understand objection being made on this score if I were convinced that it would constitute a problem, but the Safeguarding of Employment Act reduces the number of such persons to a minimum and where they are likely to be more numerous will be in certain border areas, particularly in centres of communication such as Derry, Strabane and Newry, where they are unlikely crucially to effect the character of local representation. Although they may reinforce it, I do not see how they will change it.
The psychological impact of such a change would be considerable and probably very beneficial. It will come eventually anyway, with EEC membership.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
My hon. Friend has worried me a little, though I recognise that he may be right. Is it not a fact that anyone working in the North of Ireland—I see the point about reduced numbers coming in because of the legislation to which my hon. Friend referred—would in practice be entitled to vote on the same terms as if he lived in Liverpool?
§ Mr. Duffy
Exactly—the need for reciprocity. The psychological impact would be considerable and it would be a gesture well worth making.
Hon. Members must not delude themselves into thinking that the present nuts and bolts approach will be sufficient or even that the introduction of PR will be more than a marginal contribution unless there is also a community of interest, a minimum consensus.
How far does the essential basis for consent run in Northern Ireland? Is there an adequate political infrastructure? The recent study of Northern Ireland by Professor Richard Rose of Strathclyde University entitled "Governing without 83 consensus" is a warning against too much reliance on any such answers. His survey suggests that Ulster lacks a stable majority which either supports or rejects its Government. According to his findings, it appears that Ulster lacks a middle-of-the-road majority on which moderate men can build a conciliatory coalition. His survey was completed just a month before the onset of the present strife with the civil rights march in Londonderry in 1968. How much more deep-rooted must Ulster's divisions be today? In The Guardian today there is a brief report of a recent statement by Mr. Maurice Hayes, who unhappily confirms, and he should know after his experience and his seniority in office, a lack of community of interest in Northern Ireland.
If today's troop deployments will bring the activists on both sides to their senses and allow meaningful talks that can help stimulate such a consensus to take place, the Secretary of State's gamble may come off. I hope, however, that the right hon. Gentleman realises he has undertaken brinkmanship of a peculiarly complicated and potentially explosive kind. Such military action is unlikely to be painless and there will almost certainly be suffering for innocent people who have had to put up with too much of it already. The concensus basis for the forthcoming elections may be totally absent. Possible casualties of present military activities—if the right hon. Gentleman allows himself even to appear to be departing from his own declared objective of absolute impartiality—would therefore be not only the Secretary of State's policy of conciliation and political initiative but, obviously, the local elections that structure and provision of which we are discussing.
§ 5.53 p.m.
§ Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)
This major reshaping of local government was begun as far back as 1966, over two years before the so-called civil rights agitation plunged the Province into a state of confusion anud turmoil from which it has not yet emerged. The reshaping of local government was therefore a reform in the very best sense of the word. It was part of a continuing process pursued by successive coalition Unionist Governments with the aim of improving the lot and the quality of life 84 of all people in Northern Ireland. They made some other experiments, such as the nationalisation of road transport, which did not contribute quite so much. It was not and is not part of the so-called reforms of the past four years which were rightly regarded by all the subversive elements in Northern Ireland as attempts at appeasement, and which were openly rejected by, for instance, Mr. Michael Farrell in his famous statement:We don't want reform in Northern Ireland—we want revolution in Ireland.The failure of that policy of appeasement was writ large across the map of Northern Ireland in the early hours of this morning.
The order raises questions of sequence and timing because the new edifice of local government was designed to be built on parliamentary administration at Stormont. It has very little resemblance to the proposed structure of local government which is being introduced in England and Wales. It consists of relatively small, relatively powerless district councils. All the important services, like education, health and welfare, roads, rating, and motor taxation, are to be concentrated and centralised in Stormont and responsible not to elected councillors but to elected Members of Parliament at Stormont. It makes no sense to proceed with these drastic changes while Stormont is in abeyance. It is like trying to furnish and decorate a house before even the foundations of the structure have been provided. In the same way it is totally mistaken to legislate for proportional representation in local government without first deciding on the method to be used in local elections for a future Stormont Parliament which will control local government.
There is no sense in having one electoral system for local government and another for the Parliament in Belfast and the Parliament at Westminster. Before we start to discuss the future of parliamentary democracy in Northern Ireland, surely it would be wise to decide who was qualified to talk. It would be very rash to assume that the present Stormont Members—with some exceptions—reflect the views of the Ulster electorate, because so much has happened over the past three and a half years since the February, 1969, election and so artificial 85 were the issues on which that election was fought that the composition of the new Parliament would be very different from the composition of the present Parliament.
Now it seems that the plebiscite is to he pushed out of the way, mainly because certain people would not like the answers it would provide. The obvious alternative would be to have a Stormont General Election. Unlike a plebiscite, it would not require legislation. It would enable the people to express their wishes on the constitution through the ballot box and it would also produce authentic representation which could speak with real authority so that any settlement arrived at as a result of the talks would have a degree of permanency.
There is a specific problem affecting an area in County Fermanagh. There has been an unpopular proposal to join the Churchill polling division to that of Garrison. Will the Minister ask the Secretary of State to take into account the views expressed in writing of over 80 per cent. of the electorate in that area? They have put forward some sensible commonsense suggestions and we would like them to be taken into account.
My main objection to the proposed change to proportional representation is that it has caused and will cause endless confusion. It is possible that the electorate will be asked to vote in local government elections on proportional representation and within one month to be asked to vote in a General Election for this Parliament, using what will now be regarded as an out-of-date method under the Representation of the People Act. That should be borne in mind. That kind of complication is surely not in the best interests of democracy.
Another very valid objection is that it is a departure from British standards of parliamentary democracy and procedure and it would seem to be providing in advance very useful ammunition to agitators in the future who would then claim they had a right to the same practices and standards as those to which we in Great Britain are entitled. Their claim would be particularly valid if Eire in the meantime succeeded in getting rid of proportional representation, something it tried and failed to do but which no 86 doubt one of these days it may succeed in doing.
There is another undesirable aspect of proportional representation, particularly in local government. This point has been made in another context from the Opposition benches. At present, many councillors are local people representing comparatively small wards of perhaps not more than 500 electors. The political or religious views of the councillor are of little account. He is supported by people of all faiths because they know him, he has worked with them, he is a neighbour and he has given service to the community. The proportional representation system—as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Pounder) suspects, probably rightly, introduced for the purpose of subverting the normal processes of parliamentary democracy—will destroy this local contact. The proposed system of multi-member wards, confronting the electorate with a vast ballot paper of blocks of candidates sponsored by various bodies bearing divisive labels, will have an adverse and opposite effect to and from what is intended by the promoters of this idea of proportional representation.
My hon. Friend and others have extolled the virtues of proportional representation. I wonder why Englishmen are so unselfish. Why are they determined to withold its benefits, if there are any, from their own countrymen? Will it be said that Northern Ireland is a special case? Special cases in this Chamber have a habit of becoming a general rule, as we saw not so long ago. It may be said that it is unnecessary in Great Britain.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Wilkinson) pointed out earlier that Great Britain has minorities. We have a large minority, which unhappily is not represented here at the moment as so often happens. I refer to the 2 million Liberal electors who over the past 50 years have had no hope of ever forming a Government. For that reason, I suppose the United Kingdom has been misgoverned for 50 years. Are they to be for ever deprived of the right of proper representation which, under proportional representation, would presumably amount to 40 Members and not the six absentees they have at the moment?
87 What of the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists who secured a bit of a look-in in the news over the weekend? In Great Britain there are roughly 500,000. They too are unlikely to be able to form a Government in the foreseeable future. Should not they have these enormous benefits conferred upon them?
I share the objections of most hon. Members in this House to proportional representation as a principle, but I am willing to be converted, first, if it can be shown to be in any way superior to the existing system and if it will make any significant change and, secondly, if we are so convinced, if it is resolved to extend the practice to the whole of the United Kingdom.
§ 6.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Dick Leonard (Romford)
I strongly regret the rather churlish reception given by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) to the proposals for proportional representation contained in the order. The Ulster Unionist Party in Northern Ireland bears a heavy responsibility for the collapse of democratic rule in the Province in the past. We can only hope for greater success in future if the hon. Gentleman's party is prepared to enter into the spirit of the arrangements which are proposed today. It will bode ill for the future of Northern Ireland if the Ulster Unionists are not prepared to approach these proposals with a more open mind than the hon. Member for Antrim, South has shown today.
I warmly welcome the order, but I should like to utter one or two words of warning to the Government. These words are spoken in, I hope, an entirely constructive and friendly way. They are in no sense designed to cause any difficulties for the Government.
Over the years a large number of words must have been spoken in this House on the pros and cons of systems of proportional representation. Though I believe there are strong arguments in favour of proportional representation as a system, there are also a considerable number of drawbacks. I do not think that in principle the case for proportional representation has been made in such a way that it is equally applicable in all countries and at all times. One has 88 to take into account many other circumstances in any society that one is considering. But I believe that there are certain circumstances in which there is an imperative need for a system of proportional representation to be introduced if peace, justice and harmony are to flourish.
I retain the view that the present Anglo-Saxon plurality system is the best for parliamentary elections in Britain. This is because we have hitherto been a pretty homogeneous society without having minorities of a religious, linguistic or national character which have felt themselves alienated from society and so discriminated against that they have been cut out of the mainstream of political life. It is no accident that proportional representation was first introduced, and has been most successful, in those democratic societies which have such minorities: in Denmark in 1855, at a time when there was a large German-speaking minority in Schleswig-Holstein, in Switzerland in 1891, and in Belgium in 1899.
Because Northern Ireland does have a strong religious minority, which has felt itself alienated and discriminated against in the past, a more proportional system than the Anglo-Saxon plurality system is highly desirable. The system proposed is that of the single transferable vote. I wish the Government would use this term more frequently, instead of just talking about proportional representation. I do not want to split hairs, but the single transferable vote will not result in proportional representation; it will result in more proportional representation than the system which it is designed to replace. This is not a damning criticism of the single transferable vote; it is not a criticism which could be applied to this system rather than to many others.
I should like to refer to the view of Professor Douglas Rae of Yale University, one of the world's leading authorities on electoral systems, who, in his book "The Political Consequences of Electoral Laws", says:All electoral systems tend to award more than proportionate shares of parliamentary seats to parties with large shares of the vote, and to award less than proportionate shares of seats to parties with smaller shares of the vote.The single transferable vote undoubtedly leads to more proportional 89 representation than the plurality system which exists in Britain, the United States, and other Anglo-Saxon countries. Equally, it will lead to less proportionate representation than party list systems in Israel, the Netherlands, and a number of other countries. It can be described as being about half-way between the two types of systems—more proportionate than the Anglo-Saxon system, less proportionate than the party list systems.
But one feature of the single transferable vote system is that the larger the number of candidates to be elected for each electoral area, the more proportional the system becomes. Article 4(4) says:The Chief Electoral Officer shall make and publish proposals regarding district electoral areas and the wards which those areas are to contain and in doing so shall regard five, six or seven, as being the desirable number of wards in any district electoral area unless the total number of wards in a district or geographical considerations make another number more suitable for any particular district electoral area.I hope we can receive an undertaking from the Under-Secretary that guidance will be given to the Chief Electoral Officer that in all normal circumstances five should be the minimum number of councillors to be elected for any area, and that if there is to be a variation in the recommended numbers of five, six or seven the variation should be in an upward direction rather than downward, because the whole purpose of introducing a system that is meant to be more proportional will be defeated if the number of councillors to be elected for an area is much less than five.
We should be playing with fire if we tried to oversell the system, if we tried to raise expectations that we shall not be able to satify. For example, the idea should not get around in Northern Ireland that any party which secured 15 per cent. of the votes would be guaranteed 15 per cent. of the seats, because that will not be the case. For an illustration we can see what happened in the elections in the 1920s under the single transferable vote system. In the 1921 Stormont election, for instance, the Unionists received four more seats than they would have been entitled to on a strict mathematical division of their votes and the Sinn Fein four fewer seats. The Unionists, who were mathematically entitled to 32 seats in Stormont, received 36, and the Sinn Fein received only six instead of 10.
90 My second point is that a guarantee is needed that no future Northern Ireland Government will be able unilaterally to reverse the proposals we are discussing or to change to another system without the express agreement of this House. I know that the order applies only to the elections to be held this year. It would be fatal if the belief spread in Northern Ireland that the concern of this House that there should be a more proportional system will lapse with the election which will take place this year. The people of Northern Ireland must be assured that the House will have a continuing responsibility for the arrangements, because it has happened before that the Northern Ireland Government have gone back upon the decision of the House as to the type of electoral system that should be used in Northern Ireland. In the 1922 settlement there was an implicit understanding that proportional represenation would remain in both the North and the South of Ireland. It has remained until this day in Southern Ireland, but in Northern Ireland the Government of Lord Craigavon lost very little time in the 1920s in scrapping the system. Only one set of local elections, in 1921, and only two elections for Stormont were held under proportional representation.
In his book "The Government of Northern Ireland" Nicholas Mansergh comments thatThe peculiarities of the situation appeared to demand some such system of election.some such system as proportional representation—The minority, embittered by the partition of the country and resentful of government by their traditional opponents, were naturally sensitive to the smallest infringement of their rights. In such circumstances the Government displayed a frankly aggressive attitude in abolishing P.R. for local government elections in 1922 and for parliamentary elections in 1929. Even if there had been no accompanying injustices of any kind, this action revealed a complete lack of sympathy with the minority outlook. At the worst it was a party manoeuvre; at the best a psychological mistake.
§ Mr. John E. Maginnis (Armagh)
Is not the hon. Gentleman arguing against his own case? He said earlier that at the 1921 election the Unionists received four more seats than they would have been entitled to on a proportional basis.
§ Mr. Leonard
The point I was making was that neither the single transferable 91 vote system nor any other system will give exactly proportionate representation, but there is no doubt that—as the hon. Gentleman will see if he reads the reports of debates in Stormont at the time—the Unionist Party thought that it would do much better if it abolished the system of proportional representation and all the minority parties thought that they would do a great deal worse. Whether or not its belief was well-founded, there is no doubt that the Unionist Party believed that it would improve its representation considerably by abolishing PR.
§ Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)
In fact, in the 1929 Election following the abolition of PR, the Unionist Party's representation in that Assembly went up from 32 to 39 seats.
§ Mr. Leonard
I believe that to be so.
We know that there were other injustices accompanying the abolition of PR in particular, that a degree of gerrymandering was introduced into elections in Northern Ireland which was a disgrace to the good name of this country, going far beyond any exercises in the same direction which we have known in Britain proper at least since the 1832 Reform Act.
An example of the effect of this gerrymandering is given in Mansergh's book. In an election for the Omagh Town Council 5,000 Unionist voters suceeded in electing 21 councillors, and 8,000 Nationalists elected only 18. So an area with a large majority of Nationalist voters fell under Unionist control. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) has already mentioned the city of Derry, where a similar scandalous state of affairs was allowed to continue for a very long time.
§ Mr. Maginnis
That was under the ward system. The matter can be argued the opposite way. There are even wards in Belfast where Unionists are underrepresented in the same way as the hon. Gentleman is trying to show.
§ Mr. Leonard
There are two points at issue. One is whether it is better to change over to proportional representation, and the other is whether the Anglo-Saxon plurality system as administered in Northern Ireland was administered with the same degree of fairness and scruple as 92 it was on this side of the Irish Sea. I have no doubt that it was not. That strengthens the case for having a system of proportional representation in Northern Ireland, under which the drawing of electoral boundaries is much less important, because it is much more difficult to gerrymander under that system than under the Anglo-Saxon plurality system.
The point I want to make very strongly is that the House must reserve for itself in future the right to confirm or vary the electoral arrangements for Northern Ireland, the arrangements which we are discussing and those which it is to be hoped we shall discuss in the not-too-distant future for the restoration of some form of representative government for Northern Ireland as a whole. The matter is not one which can be handed over to any representative assembly in Northern Ireland which may be produced to replace Stormont, if the minority in Northern Ireland is to gain any confidence that in the future its rights will be respected.
The Chief Electoral Officer will have a difficult but essential task to fulfil in the arrangements which we are now discussing. There is no precedent in British law for the appointment of such an official, although many Commonwealth countries have appointed similar officials. In India there is an election commissioner, an independent official, who has presided with great authority over parliamentary elections at both federal and State level for the last 25 years.
No citizen of Northern Ireland could hope now to fulfil this difficult role and be accepted as being completely impartial by every party and faction in the Province. I doubt whether any English, man could do so, whether Protestant or Catholic. If one claimed to be an agnostic, the first question asked by an Irishman would be "Are you a Catholic agnostic or a Protestant one?" We have been told that Mr. James Jones has been appointed. I take it from his name that he is a Welshman.
§ Mr. Leonard
I hope that Mr. Jones will be more acceptable in Northern Ireland than an Ulsterman or an Englishman might be. I hope, too, that when 93 he is considering the appointment of his staff he will consider approaching the Indian Government to see whether they are prepared to second a senior official from the election commission, a body which has built up a great deal of experience over the years. A Moslem, Sikh or Hindu might find it easier to satisfy all factions in Northern Ireland of his impartiality than an English agnostic.
The question of deposits has excited some controversy in the House. I am not happy about the provision for deposits in Northern Ireland local elections. However, I accept that there is the threat, given the lack of respect for law and democratic process which exists amongst many elements in Northern Ireland, of attempts to sabotage the elections by flooding the ballot papers with frivolous candidates. The Government are right to take steps to try to prevent such sabotage.
There is one anomaly which might occur because of the provision as it is now written in the order. As I understand it, a deposit will be forfeited if any candidate fails to get more than a quarter of the quota in the electoral area for which he is standing. That figure will vary as a proportion of the total vote according to the number of candidates to be elected from that area. If the electoral area returns seven members, the quota will be one-eighth of the first preference cast plus one vote. A quarter of that would be one-thirty-second of the first preference cast, which would be about 3 per cent. If an electoral area returns five members, the quota will be one vote more than one-sixth of the first preference cast. In that instance, to save the deposit one would have to get one-twenty-fourth of the first preferences about 4 per cent. of the whole.
It would be preferable to write in a percentage figure, which might be 2 per cent. or 3 per cent., which would apply to all first preferences in every electoral area irrespective of the number of candidates to be returned. It would create a sense of injustice if a candidate in one area had to forfeit his deposit while a candidate in another area with a lower percentage of the first preferences retained his deposit.
I congratulate the Government in introducing an enlightened and beneficial order. I hope that it will ensure that 94 local elections in Northern Ireland take place under conditions of fairness for the first time in 50 years, and that it will prove to be a seed from which future tolerance and peace in Northern Ireland may grow.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)
We have before us an important piece of legislation dealing with the machinery of democracy in Northern Ireland. There are many features about the order which take the form of the Measure which was sponsored by the Stormont Government in the Stormont Parliament. Some of those features I wholeheartedly welcome, and they have been welcomed by many hon. Members.
I welcome the appointment of the Chief Electoral Officer. It is long overdue in Northern Ireland. All hon. Members will agree that animosity has been engendered by the preparation of electoral lists. On occasions there was deliberate discrimination and the dropping of certain eligible poeple from the lists. When I first fought the Bannside constituency, a man who was 70 years of age was on the list and had a vote. It was known that he worked and voted for me, and when the list came out for the next election he was deliberately dropped.
That is not an isolated case. That sort of thing was happening all over Northern Ireland. I welcome the strict supervision of electoral lists that there is to be and that the chief electoral officers will have the job of seeing that everybody who has reached the age of 18 and is eligible to cast his or her vote for the candidate of his or her choosing is on the electoral list. That point needs to be stressed. It will be welcomed by all right-thinking people in Northern Ireland that at least the preparation of electoral lists has been taken out of the political arena and brought into the open where it can be seen that justice is being done.
I also welcome the fact that the order deals with local government election expenses. Under the old system a person could spend as much money as he pleased to get elected to a local government authority. That was ridiculous. Many candidates spent at least £1,000 to get themselves elected to the Belfast City Council. It was entirely wrong. I am glad that parliamentary candidates will 95 have to submit their expenses and that their expenses will he limited.
The deposit will not have the effect which many hon. Members think it will have. If people seek to upset the electoral system and fill up the ballot paper with candidates, then £15 a candidate will not deter them. As the number of votes which will make them lose their deposit will in many cases be small, the deposit will not be the deterrent which many hon. Members think it will be.
My party will not make heavy weather about proportional representation. Under any system of election the majority in a district will be successful in getting their candidate elected, no matter what system of election machinery prevails. However, proportional representation destroys the personal relationship between the individual member and the people whom he represents in multi-member wards. When seven people represent a large area, the people cannot look to one person as responsible for representing them and bring their views before the local council. I think that in such circumstances there is the destruction of the personal relationship between the member and the constituency he serves.
There is one matter which gives me great concern. Although it will not be shared by many hon. Members, I feel that I would be lacking in my duty if I did not mention it. There is grave unrest in Northern Ireland about the promise, given by the Prime Minister and emphasised by the Secretary of State, that a plebiscite will be held to deal with the question of whether Northern Ireland is to remain part and parcel of the United Kingdom. When the Secretary of State was pressed by the Opposition about the timing of the plebiscite, he was adamant in saying that it would come before the local government elections. That was clear, and HANSARD will bear me out.
The hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) mentioned today the Northern Ireland Labour Party and gave a lengthy quotation from one of its members. The Northern Ireland Labour Party has said that the plebiscite should take place before the local government elections. The Alliance Party has said the same. So have other parties. As 96 the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Pounder) has said, if we do not have the plebiscite before the district council elections, those elections will be turned into a plebiscite, which is the very thing that the House says that it wants to avoid. [Interruption.] We in Northern Ireland who know the feeling of the people there have a right to state their view. If we do not hold the plebiscite first, the local elections will not be fought on the issues on which they should be fought.
The whole purpose of the IRA campaign of terror was to take Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Surely the people of Northern Ireland have the right now to the fulfilment of the promise that the plebiscite would come first. They did not ask for that promise. They did not agitate for a plebiscite. It was promised to them in the so-called initiative of Her Majesty's Government. Surely now they have the right to say "Give us what you promised." Let us state before the world where we stand.
I do not believe that the result of such a plebiscite would be a foregone conclusion. I believe that the vast majority of the minority would say that they want to remain part and parcel of the United Kingdom. There seems to be a feeling in the House that the entire minority want to cut themselves off from the United Kingdom. I believe that having the view that they wish to stay in the United Kingdom registered in a plebiscite would be a vital step forward to peace and progress and some sort of normality in the situation. This is an important point and the House should not miss it at this moment.
Many people may say that we should press ahead with the district council elections and have proportional representation. I believe that proportional representation should not be over-sold, that people should not be led to think that by proportional representation we shall have a panacea for all the troubles in Northern Ireland. That will not be the case. The great issues of the moment will still have to be discussed and will still have to be dealt with. The Government should have regard to what they are doing in postponing the plebiscite. If Northern Ireland is fit to have district council elections, it is fit to have a plebiscite.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
It is never highly dangerous for the people of a country democratically to have the right to express themselves on a burning issue. The hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends wanted a plebiscite on British entry into the Common Market because it is a burning issue. In Northern Ireland we have a burning issue that has divided the community, that is the talking point throughout Northern Ireland. Surely the people of Northern Ireland have a right to express themselves about it.
§ Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham)
The hon. Gentleman tells us that this is a burning issue. Would not he confirm that we would have a conflagration?
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
No. I believe that a conflagration can be largely avoided if the people of Northern Ireland have the opportunity to say democratically what their future is to be. This House should know the feelings of the ordinary people of Northern Ireland. By that I do not mean just the feelings of the official Unionists, or any other brand of Unionist. The issue goes right across the board to include the Alliance Party, the Northern Ireland Labour Party and other parties.
The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard) said that the Northern Ireland Government had changed the voting system envisaged in the 1920 Act. It should be put on record that the Act gave them the right so to do because it contained a provision entitling them to change the system if they wanted to. In Southern Ireland the Government would like to change the system but are tied to the referendum—plebiscite, if hon. Members prefer the word. There was an attempt to destroy proportional representation but it failed.
§ Mr. Leonard
I did not contest that the Northern Ireland Government had the legal right to change the system. They did it by Act of Parliament in Stormont in a perfectly legal manner. I 98 suggested that they did not have the moral right to do it because it was understood at the time of the settlement in 1922 that Catholics in Northern Ireland would feel apprehensive, in the same way as it was understood that Protestants in the South of Ireland would feel apprehensive. It was implicit in the agreement that proportional representation would be adopted both North and South in order to reassure the understandable fears of both communities. I am challenging not the legal right to change the system but the moral right.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
I go along with the hon. Gentleman but I thought that he more or less stated the case in such a way as to put some sort of blame on the Northern Ireland Government for doing it. It should be remembered that, under the proportional representation system, in the first Parliament of Northern Ireland the minority did not take any part but withdrew completely from parliamentary life. It should be remembered that the Unionist Party then divided itself into a Government party and an Opposition party in order to carry on parliamentary business. However, I am not labouring the point. If I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, I apologise. But I thought that for the record it should be stated clearly that the Northern Ireland Government had a legal right to change the system—a right given them by this Parliament. If the United Kingdom Parliament had wanted to keep proportional representation for ever, it could have stipulated as much in the Act. So the United Kingdom is really to blame. Let the United Kingdom take a wee bit of the blame for the Irish problem.
§ 6.39 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
The House is in danger of concentrating on the issue of the plebiscite when we are supposed to be discussing the electoral system for the district councils. I understand that hon. Members opposite wish to do so but that is not what the principal subject of the debate is supposed to be. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) that no one on this side of the House is against the plebiscite in principle. As the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) has said, some of us were pressing for a 99 plebiscite on another issue. But, clearly, a plebiscite must be a matter of the most delicate timing in a situation such as that which exists in Northern Ireland.
By merely discussing the question of timing—which hon. Members opposite are inclined to do—they are, clearly, forgetting the principal object of the exercise. If the object of the exercise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South said, is merely to prove the obvious, what is the point of doing it at this stage?
Presumably the sort of question that should be asked—and this needs to be clearly decided—is, "Would you prefer that the place in which you live should leave the United Kingdom and be part of the Republic of Ireland, or not?" It seems clear that a plebiscite will serve no useful purpose if it merely relates to the totality of the counties of Northern Ireland. It will serve a useful purpose only if broken down into districts—and even polling districts—when at last one would be able to see the difference that Carson and Craig made in the days before the First World War, and during that war, when the present area of Northern Ireland was created, when two counties were added, the majority of the inhabitants of which were Catholics, to the four counties with a majority of Protestants. If that is the purpose of the plebiscite, nobody who has advocated it has yet said so. We must make clear for what purpose we want the plebiscite.
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)
Would not my hon. Friend agree that if we are having plebiscites on what is or is not to be part of the United Kingdom, 50 million people on this side of the Irish Sea might like to be included?
§ Mr. English
I do not know whether people in any part of the country on this side of the Irish Sea would like to move the place in which they live outside the United Kingdom, with the possible exception of a small portion of Wales—but I do not think that they want to move into the Republic of Ireland. That was the way in which I phrased my question. I was very careful about it, as my hon. Friend will see when he reads the OFFICIAL REPORT.
100 I turn to the subject that we are primarily discussing. I share the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard). This order declares as the law something that is an impossibility. It saysAny contested election … shall be according to the principle of proportional representation, each elector having one transferable vote.Like nearly every hon. Member except a small group of people who are not present to advocate one of their distinctive views—the Liberals—I believe that for the purpose of the Government of the United Kingdom the British plurality system is most appropriate, because it produces two strong parties, either of which is capable of governing—something that proportional representation systems like that of the Weimar Republic before the war failed to do, and something at which we see the Netherlands not readily successful today.
The single transferable vote system is not a proportional representation system. Virtually every hon. Member who has referred to it has said that. I hope that the Government will stop calling it a proportional representation system for exactly the reason expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford. The people might believe that it is, but they will find out after the election that the results do not represent any exact proportion. The different parties will represent the people in an obscure proportion.
A single transferable vote system gives any surplus of votes from the votes of the highest candidates and the lowest candidates to people who are moderate in the view of the original first preference voters. That is not necessarily desirable in the Irish situation. The immoderates on both sides—we all know about their views, and the views of this House are quite plain about them—will be precisely the people who are excluded by the single transferable vote system. There may be arguments for that, but I do not share them, because I believe that in a situation like that in Northern Ireland a representation of extremists, however small it may be, gives them a legal channel—the possibility of becoming elected and a platform upon which they may legally express their views, without having to resort to bombs and explosives, 101 or the other means to which they have been resorting.
By the single transferable vote system we are discouraging the possibility of extremists being elected, whereas a proportional representation system would elect everybody in exact proportion to the votes cast. A true proportional representation system is therefore desirable. I do not oppose the order; I realise that the single transferable vote system may be better in the Northern Ireland context than what has gone before. The Government have clearly realised this fact—I believe that they have introduced it only because of time, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South has said. But if they intend it only for this election I hope that they will assure the House that they will undertake to study two things: first, the results of the elections under this system, because I believe that they will be extremely strange, as they were, in some cases, when the system formerly applied; and, secondly, what sort of truly proportional representation system is appropriate for Northern Ireland.
If the Minister wants my thoughts on this matter, I suggest that we should have something much more akin to the system that is used for the election of the Dutch Parliament—the list system. It may not be appropriate for the election of the Parliament of a sovereign State, but it may be appropriate in the context of a local government election, such as this. I say that because, first, it represents everybody's views in precise proportion to their size, and, secondly, it causes a person to realise that when he casts his vote he is not necessarily casting it against something that he deeply believes in. A supporter of the Labour Party may be a fervent and passionately devoted Unionist. We should therefore probably get a small Irish Unionist Labour Party.
There is a whole series of possibilities, and if we construct the system aright we can ensure that the whole population chooses the people they want. It would be salutary to both Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland to know that a Unionist who did not believe in discrimination against the Catholics, and said so, had a greater chance of being elected than an extremist.
102 It is possible to construct such systems to ensure that voters are represented by the people they believe in.
I suggest also that if we are going in for this electoral system then the abolition of something of great use and moment in our present electoral system—only mentioned by the Minister—the single-member constituency—is odd, because the single transferable vote system can be applied to single-member constituencies. If we are to abolish them, why did not we go in for entities such as the whole city of Belfast and elect a truly representative council? Instead of that we have created strange, artificial constituencies of five, six or seven wards, voting for five, six or seven members. I suggest that a true proportional representation system for this election would be best for Northern Ireland and best, therefore, for the United Kingdom as a whole.
§ 6.48 p.m.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) because he and I have recently, in a different context, been allied in support of the proposition that there is no substitute for legislation and, where the United Kingdom is concerned, no substitute for legislation by this House.
There is a respect in which this order marks a definite phase in the administration under the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act. This is not actually the first order laid before the House which has not also, in its totality, been through the normal stages in the Northern Ireland Parliament; but it is the first order containing a major provision which has had no prior legislative consideration by any other Parliament. We are therefore today being asked, not indeed to approve, but to consider, in the form of delegated legislation—in non-legislative form—what is a new legislative proposal and a legislative proposal of great and far-reaching importance. That has come out with every speech as the debate has proceeded.
We not only labour under the disability of not having a Committee stage; we also recognise the disability of having no Report stage. My hon. Friend the Minister of State was challenged by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. 103 Merlyn Rees) as to whether the Government would listen to any of the views put forward, however strongly, by the House during this "take note" debate. With some evident reluctance, my hon. Friend got to his feet and said that the order could be altered before it was presented for a "Yes" or "No" at the end of this week. One then realised at once what was the difference, even so, between proper legislative procedure and such amendment as my hon. Friend was prepared—at any rate theoretically—to consider.
This House, when it legislates, is not satisfied, after points have been made in discussion, after new vistas have been opened up, to be told that the Government will take note of them but that the form in which it may do so must be taken or left. It is as well we should realise that we are now facing one of the consequences which were pointed out when the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act was passed, namely, that we are usurping in terms of delegated legislation, with all its weaknesses and inconveniences, what ought to be a function for proper law-making.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State endeavoured to tell the House that this was an isolated matter which could be kept completely encapsulated within the range of this order, namely, the local government elections in Northern Ireland in 1972. There is no hon. Member in this House who can compete with my hon. Friend for the appearance of innocence. No one can make propositions to the House with the bland innocence of which my hon. Friend is capable. Yet one felt that even he almost dropped his mask when he sought to tell the House that we were only considering the Ulster local government elections of 1972. Every speech which has followed has shown quite clearly that we are considering a great deal more than that.
Are we not considering subsequent local government elections in Northern Ireland? The very grounds on which Article 4 of this order is commended to the House are not grounds, agree with them or not, which any hon. Member thinks will disappear in four years, eight years or 12 years. If they are valid at all, they are valid for local government in Northern Ireland as far ahead as the eye can see. Let us recognise that what 104 we are doing, in this one debate and by delegated legislation, is taking a decision about the appropriate franchise for local government authorities in Northern Ireland.
It does not stop there. One hon. Member after another has pointed out that the same arguments which apply, if they do apply, to local government elections in Northern Ireland would have scarcely less force if it were a question of again electing a legislative assembly for Northern Ireland, and scarcely less force when it comes to Northern Ireland sending representatives to this House whether under the present system or any future system. So it is not only local government in Northern Ireland, nor only 1972, but the representation of the people of Northern Ireland, and one of the most basic facts about the representation of the people—the form of the franchise and the exercise of the franchise—which is before the House in this, in practice, one and only debate.
The matter does not even stop there. The question—I must heed the warning of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West—of a single transferable vote in elections was discussed at some length in the Green Paper of the Stormont Government. I have read and re-read with attention the arguments urged on both sides in the relevant paragraphs, where it was put forward as a subject for discussion. I cannot find one of them, one way or the other, which is not just as relevant to elections in Great Britain. There is not a single argument there which, though admittedly against a background of different circumstances, could not be urged one way or the other in respect of Great Britain. Perhaps unawares, several speeches—ah! Perhaps it is an accidental but at least it is a fortunate apparition that at least there should be one attender from the splinter party in the United Kingdom Parliament. Aptly enough I was just saying when the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) entered the Chamber that several speeches have betrayed a realisation that in his decision we cannot fail to be stating something doing something, which is of relevance to the franchise of the United Kingdom as a whole. In other words, this afternoon the House of Commons has been engaged in one of the most important debates in 105 which it can engage. It finds itself taking, admittedly in a hole-in-corner way, for one election in local government in one part of the United Kingdom, the sort of decision which it ought only to take in legislative form for any part of the Kingdom.
I have referred so far only to the scope of the decision; but every speech has opened up new vistas as to the content. The whole speech of the hon. Member for Leeds, South illustrated how, once one raises the question of the single transferable vote, all kinds of subsidiary matters have to be discussed and decided, which will affect its application, which will influence its fairness, and which ought to be maturely considered before a change is made in the system.
If I may, I will refer only to one such consideration which has featured in only two or three speeches and yet I think is of great importance. It was mentioned by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and one or two others. It is the fact that the single transferable vote destroys one of the most important characteristics of representation, namely, the personal identification of one representative with one constituency and with the inhabitants of that one constituency. I imagine it has been the experience of many hon. Members, in that overlap which occurs in Great Britain between the functions of parliamentary and of local representatives, that their constituents have been reluctant to approach, as they should have done, their own local councillors in cases where there were several councillors representing the same ward and where there was therefore no unambiguous responsibility of one councillor to all the electors in that ward. In my experience there has been an equal embarrassment on the part of a Member of Parliament in suggesting that a constituent should go to one councillor rather than to another.
If that has occured under a system in which there are three councillors for one ward as has commonly been the case under our local government system here, how much more difficulty would there be with the system of the single transferable vote which is being proposed for Northern Ireland, where there could be no possible identification between an individual elector living in a particular 106 village and the person, whatever might be his political views, to whom he had the right to go with any local concerns or difficulties?
§ Mr. Leonard
I see the force of what the right hon. Gentleman says. But will he consider the position of a Catholic—or, for that matter, a Protestant—in Northern Ireland if he has only one representative who may not be of the same faith? If there are seven representatives to whom he can go there is a strong possibility of there being someone of his own faith and even of his own political persuasion to whom he can go. Many of us represent constituencies where more people have voted against us than for us, and they may have many different views. Is there any strength in this counter-argument?
§ Mr. Powell
That may be so, and can envisage circumstances such as the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard) describes. That does not alter the simple argument that I was putting forward, which is that the consequences of the single transferable vote are far-reaching and that before introducing such a change, even in the context in which we are asked to do so by this order, there should be far more consideration and far more exploration than have been possible. There ought to be at least a Committee stage and a Report stage before we proceed to approve such a change. So my first reason for saying that I do not believe that Article 4 ought to be in this order is that Article 4 does what ought not to be done by order.
There are other reasons, too. They are reasons which relate not necessarily to the desirability of a change of this sort or to some other form of proportional representation—
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the phase of his speech that he has been developing with such force during the past few minutes, may I put this point to him? He will recall that we on this side of the House made the point that because of the important and peculiar nature of proportional representation, there was an extra day's debate. On the occasion to which the right hon. Gentleman referred the Minister made the point, in however general a fashion, that 107 the views of this House would have to be taken into account.
The right hon. Gentleman has spoken about the new vistas which are opening. May I draw to his attention a vista which has been opened by the strength of his own argument? Article 4(4) says:The Chief Electoral Officer shall make and publish proposals …Accepting that the Government of the day are in some real difficulty, given the nature of the problem which has arisen since the temporary powers legislation, does the right hon. Gentleman think that it might partially meet his point if the proposals that the chief electoral officer makes under Article 4 (4) come to this House as a Statutory Instrument under the affirmative procedure so that, however admirable the proposals of the chief electoral officer, at least we in this House are able to look at a number of issues, including the siting of polling booths, which normally are dealt with by local authorities? Would that meet the right hon. Gentleman's point? Perhaps the Government would take it into account in the spirit in which we have all dealt with it today?
§ Mr. Powell
I am very much obliged for the hon. Gentleman's intervention because it strengthens my case. It was when he made that very point in his own speech that the forcible contrast struck me between the proper legislative procedure and that which we have here. The proposal that the hon. Gentleman has made is one which ought to be put forward in the form of an Amendment in Committee. The Government should have an opportunity to consider it before they come to debate it. The Government should be able to hear both sides in the Committee, and both sides of the Committee should be able to consider, before they debate it or vote on it, what their preliminary view is to be. Then, when that debate in Committee has taken place, there should still be the opportunity for the Government to reflect, to consult and to come forward subsequently with their proposals.
I agree with the hon. Member for Leeds, South: his point—in its limited scope—is a valuable one, but the importance of it is to illustrate once again 108 that what we are doing for Northern Ireland in this order is what we should only do for any part of the Kingdom in any circumstances by legislation in this House.
I return to my other reasons for rejecting Article 4. The argument is put forward that time presses, that this is too urgent a matter to brook delay for legislation and that if we are to have these local government elections—as we must, under the change in local government which has already been promulgated in Northern Ireland—we must make this change now. I do not believe that we must. I believe on the contrary that we do harm in the present situation by making this change now in the electoral system in Northern Ireland.
I say that for two reasons. It dissimilates administration in Northern Ireland from that of Great Britain at the very time when it is desirable to assimilate it in every possible respect. This point has been made in the debate already. After long campaigns have been conducted in Northern Ireland to secure there the same franchise and the same procedures as those prevailing in Great Britain, we are now asked deliberately to make them different again. I believe that it is undesirable, counter-productive and potentially dangerous, especially now, to introduce differences between the systems of administration and representation in Northern Ireland and those in Great Britain.
There are all too many voices on this side of the Channel which would persuade this House and the Government that the people of Great Britain can forget about Northern Ireland, that it is foreign, that it can be left out of account as far as possible. When we in this House deliberately introduce a system in Northern Ireland which we would long hesitate before introducing in Great Britain, we strengthen one of the factors in the current situation which anyone who, whatever his other views, desires to see a return of peace and stability in Northern Ireland must regard as most dangerous.
My last point, derived from immediate circumstances, is this. I go almost as far as the hon. Member for Antrim, North in saying that inevitably the introduction of a change in the electoral system will 109 be regarded as a panacea; it will attract entirely undue hopes and expectations. Over and over again those who have studied this matter have pointed out in this debate that the difference in the actual representation of minorities which the single transferable vote will bring about in Northern Ireland is negligible and may in some cases even be negative. I say that it is dangerous to make this change, because it will nevertheless be widely regarded as liable, even likely, to bring about a different representation and thereby for its part to transform the political situation in Northern Ireland. From disappointment and misunderstanding will spring rancour and a sense of having been cheated. Those in Northern Ireland who hitherto have refused to take part in the political process, those who have declined to be involved in government in Northern Ireland, have not done so because they were not satisfied with the form of representation either in local government or at Stormont or in this House. They have done so because they profoundly rejected the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. We shall not bring any sort of remedy if we pretend, or allow others to pretend, that that basic factor in the situation in Northern Ireland will be altered by anything that we are prepared to do in amendment of the franchise.
So this act is not only something which ought not to be done in this way; it is something which ought not to be done at this time. It can contribute nothing positive to reconciliation and to pacification. It may well contribute negative elements of misunderstanding and of disappointment, and also the dangerous sense that step by step, piecemeal, those who wish to deny to the majority the rights which the majority will insist upon having will get their way.
§ 7.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Dick Douglas (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)
I have listened with great interest to the arguments put forward by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell). In some ways I reluctantly agree with many of his arguments.
I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will not think ill of me if I speak against article 4; they might 110 well think more ill of me if I were to speak against Clause Four. Nevertheless, some of the arguments put forward by the right hon. Gentleman would have greater force if his own statements, during the weekend in particular, indicated some of the temperance and tolerance which he has advocated today and did not give rise to a degree of expectation on the part of the majority which might exceed their realisation.
I suspect that some of the right hon. Gentleman's statements during the weekend are capable of putting into the minds of the majority that there is perhaps a possibility of a return to the status quo ante, and that they would get back into power in a Stormont which might have not only the power of the old Stormont which is now prorogued but a greater degree of power.
§ Mr. Powell
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman, who has been so very courteous, would permit me to interject that for years past, in Northern Ireland itself, I have been advocating the complete integration of those six counties into the administration of the United Kingdom and into representation in this House. One of my reasons for doing so was that it offered the prospect for participation, on party and not national lines, in the politics of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Douglas
The right hon. Gentleman's views are well known and they are quite respectable views, but they do not answer the problem of Northern Ireland at the present time.
I do not want to follow that argument too far because we are really dealing with the calibre and state of democracy in Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. When we were discussing the European Communities Bill and a proposal for a referendum was put forward by some hon. Members, I took the view that one could not look at that kind of proposal in isolation, that one could not put into a United Kingdom context a form of proportional representation, the single transferable vote, and treat that in isolation.
We are awaiting the report of what we must reluctantly call the Kilbrandon Commission, because of the demise of Lord Crowther. It may very well be that the implications of this form of proportional representation will have 111 some form in the proposals which may emanate from that Commission. As a Scot, I shall resist this type of proposal for Scotland, and I do not see any good reason why I should wish it on Northern Ireland. I am reluctant to propose for other people a form of representation that I would not necessarily accept for myself. I say that in the knowledge that people in Northern Ireland, particularly the Northern Ireland Labour Party, have desired the introduction of this form of electoral reform.
By so doing, one would be in danger of creating the view in Northern Ireland that everyone starts equal in the race and everyone gets a prize. That is not what elections are about. Elections are about winning and losing. One takes the responsibility of winning, and if one loses an election one takes that responsibility as well, in challenging the established power. The disease in Northern Ireland has been cooking the books and the reluctance of those who were in power to accept that other people could take power through political processes in Northern Ireland. These are the things to which I have objected during my 20 and more years' association with Northern Ireland.
Those who argue for a single transferable vote take the view that one caters for minority parties, that one can get multi-parties in a constituency, but they deny—and this is an important point made by the right hon. Gentleman—that one has a distinct Member of Parliament for a geographically defined area. This is important to me in our system. The danger in Northern Ireland is that people assume a responsibility which is not theirs for an ill-determined area, that everyone will share in the electoral processes but that no one will have the responsibility of looking after the area.
It is important to discuss this attitude of mind in relation to democracy. It is not about voting. It is about the form and nature of representation of people in an area. I stood as a candidate in an election; there were four candidates altogether. I represent people of all parties and of no party in my constituency. A few months ago my hon. Friend the Member for Salford. West (Mr. Orme) and I visited Belfast, including the Shankill Road area. We were taken 112 round by John McQuade. The thing that characterised his attitude was that he represented the constituency and he was known in the constituency.
Therefore, I am not wholly enamoured of the idea of introducing the proportional representation system. One of the points that I put forward to those who support the system, and particularly members of the Liberal Party, is: does this enhance the calibre of the men who come forward? That is important. Is there any evidence that the single-transferable vote or any other form of proportional representation will enhance the calibre of people who stand for election? I am not saying that we in this country are better as representatives, but I say that if one argues the case for proportional representation, one has to show that in other countries which have the single transferable vote they have a better calibre of member and that such members take a deeper interest in their constituencies. I have no comprehensive knowledge of this, but my knowledge of other countries where that system operates does not lead me to believe that they have better representatives of the people or that they are more mindful of the needs of their constituents. That is another reason why I am dubious about the wisdom of wishing this on the people of Northern Ireland.
I turn to another issue on which I might be at odds with others in the House. I am opposed to a referendum in principle. I am not opposed to a referendum when it suits me, but I believe that the people who promote a referendum know the answer. They know the answer at the end of the road. The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley)—and I say this with respect to him—desires a referendum because he knows the answer. It is not in doubt. Some of his colleagues indicated that perhaps some of the minority would vote to he retained as part of the United Kingdom.
The danger of holding a referendum in Northern Ireland now is that it would stir up sectarian strife. There is a real danger of that happening in the present situation, and I hope that the Minister will give a clear indication that the first thing that we shall try to promote in Northern Ireland is the establishment of law and order and that the attitude to- 113 wards a referendum will be reviewed in the light of the local government elections.
The prize is the holding of local government elections in an atmosphere of peace and law and order. If the hon. Member for Antrim, North is correct, and the local government elections become a referendum—I hope that they will not—then perhaps the need for a referendum as he understands it will disappear.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that it was not the people of Northern Ireland who called for a referendum? One of the points put to the Stormont Government by the Government here was that they should hold a referendum. The Stormont Government accepted that, but they did not accept that responsibility for law and order should be taken over by the British Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister, when he announced his so-called initiative, put forward the idea of a referendum as soon as possible, and that was confirmed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland therefore have a right to ask the British Government to honour their pledge and give them what they said they were going to give them.
§ Mr. Douglas
I am aware of that, but I do not accept it. The Prime Minister must answer for his statements, and I shall answer for mine.
I hope that people on this side of the Irish Sea will argue strenuously for a political solution. I hope that the prominent members of the SDLP, some of them in this House, will agree that that should be the aim. I hope, too, that John Hume will retract his statement that because of the British Armys actions the round-table political discussions are in danger. We must push ahead with finding a political solution to the problem. If the people of Northern Ireland were to say that they wanted proportional representation, that would be another matter. I see very little evidence of the desire for it, but if the Government argue that this will produce a more conciliatory attitude, then I may reluctantly not oppose the order. Certainly I am reluctant to wish on another part of the United Kingdom something that I should not accept for my own constituency or my country.
§ 7.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Carol Mather (Esher)
I followed the remarks of the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Douglas) with great interest, and I agree particularly with his view that law and order must be restored. This is the essential climate in which any elections or other constitutional arrangements have to take place.
I hope that it will not be out of place in what has been called a wide-ranging debate to congratulate the Government on the decisive action they have taken to achieve that and the exemplary way in which the armed forces carried out their task. The first priority has been achieved, and the Government have provided the climate in which we can move on to the next phase.
I should like to cast my remarks in a slightly wider context than the order, although the order is central to them, and discuss, first, the order of priorities for achieving various things in Northern Ireland and the climate in which one hopes to get them done. Various things need to be done, but the climate and the timing are important.
By all means carry on consultations about the constitutional future, but I think that the conference will give rise to difficulties. It will be difficult to reach agreement, and at the end of the day the Government will have to lay down what is to happen. There are three essential constitutional processes which have to be gone through. First, there have to be the local government elections which we are discussing today. Secondly, there must be regional parliamentary elections, or Stormont elections, whatever one calls them, if Stormont is to be reconstituted. Thirdly, there is the plebiscite. We must get these things in the right order if we are to get the best possible foundation for the future of Northern Ireland.
There are, of course, other matters to consider at the same time. There is the Crowther Report and what it will suggest. Should we wait until we get the report, and will it say anything specific about Northern Ireland? There is the question of direct rule, and whether it will come to an end. There is the further consolidation of law and order. There must be a follow-through to the present operations. Finally, there is the outcome of the constitutional conference, if it takes place.
115 All those factors seem to point to the possibility of the local government elections being delayed. I wonder whether the best men will come forward for election to the district councils if they do not know whether there is to be a regional government. I wonder whether they will decide to enter for the district council elections before they know whether they will be able to stand for the regional government elections. There will be that element of uncertainty. As most of the powers of the districts are being transferred to the central Government in Northern Ireland, would it not be best to settle the question of a regional parliament first and decide whether or not it will be reconstituted? But before settling even the question of the regional Parliament should we not consider the plebiscite which is to provide the real foundation for Northern Ireland's future?
I suggest that all those factors should be considered in the following order: first, there must be a consolidation of law and order; secondly, there should be a referendum; thirdly, a decision should he taken about Stormont, whether direct rule is to continue, or whether there is to be some form of regional government; fourthly, the local government elections should take place.
I wonder whether there is not an essential conflict in having proportional representation, in that it will give more power to minority groups and to the moderates but at the same time power will he taken away by the order and passed to the central Government. I wonder whether the two things are in conflict.
In discussing the order we should be discussing not whether it is going to go through but rather when it is going to go through and the timing of the local government elections. The people of Northern Ireland have suffered greatly during the last few months and years. They have suffered a great shock, and it is up to us to see that they get off again on the right foot.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)
In supporting the order, with its intention of using PR in Northern Ireland elections, I am mindful that on both sides there may be many hon. Members who feel 116 that this may be the thin end of the wedge. I do not think they have any reason for that fear because Northern Ireland, as we have seen in a very dramatic way over the last three or four years—indeed, over the 50 years since its inception as a State—does not bear any comparison with other regions in the United Kingdom. That is why it is so important that it should be treated in isolation.
I have heard many hon. Members, particularly on the Government side, expressing the wish that somehow, some day and in some way Northern Ireland might be totally integrated with other parts of the United Kingdom. That idea cannot have much validity in the minds of reasonable, understanding hon. Members. But what we are trying to do by this order is to bring about some semblance of normality and to seek to establish or improve democratic institutions which have been singularly lacking throughout the existence of the Northern Ireland State.
I recognise that PR may in a sense not bring about the changes which are so necessary, but it will give an opportunity to the voice of moderation. Its introduction will in effect isolate extremists, and people who have a particular interest in bringing normality to the troubled area will have a better chance of being elected. The position at local government level, and at central Government level at Stormont when it existed, was that a candidate only had to be a Protestant in a Protestant constituency, mouthing the outdated slogans of 1690 and of the Apprentice Boys, to be assured of election. On the other hand, and I say it with regret, throughout the years there have been Opposition politicians with no political philosophy but who only had to adopt the slogans in reverse to be assured of electoral success.
The result was that because of the electoral situation then obtaining we had one extremist sitting on one side and another sitting on the opposite side, both of them voicing their sentiments daily in the now discredited Stormont. Both undoubtedly had influence on ordinary decent people in their constituencies and built up emotions to such an extent as to fuel the fires of hatred and hostility which had tragically got us into the present situation.
117 There are people in Northern Ireland, aged at most 45, 50 or 60, who have never in their lives voted in a local election because they never had the tenancy of a house. Perhaps they were not married and they lived with parents, or had been married but could not get a tenancy from a bigoted local authority and had to live in lodgings. Such people have never had the opportunity of casting a local government vote at all. I agree with the Minister of State that it will be necessary to engage in a publicity campaign, although I do not feel that it will be all that necessary because the people of Northern Ireland are no fools when it comes to the casting of a vote. If they have a vote, they are very eager to cast it—on too many occasions on one day, which can lead to certain problems.
In introducing the order the Minister of State seemed to have the idea that PR is the ultimate answer. I support its introduction, but the whole idea can be defeated. In the city of Belfast, for instance, because of Stormont legislation we have had one-member wards. Now it appears that four or five such wards will be grouped together and PR will be used to fill the four or five seats. To a certain extent I agree with the hon. Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Douglas) that it will mean that a member will not represent a definite geographical area but will also have to represent the other wards included for the purpose of PR. One of the most important things to be decided will be the grouping together of the wards and their geographical location.
Certainly in Belfast it will be very important to make sure that those who vote under the PR system are not intimidated from going to a certain polling station to cast their votes. Intimidation can in certain circumstances apply equally to Protestant and Catholic alike. For example, two of the most explosive roads in Northern Ireland—Shankill Road and Falls Road—are in my constituency of Belfast, West. Some of the voters in Shankill Road have to traverse what they would call hostile territory in order to vote in the Falls Road area, and voters in the Falls Road area are in a similar but reverse position. It is important that people living in such areas will have an opportunity to vote at polling stations where they will not be intimidated.
118 One wonders whether the electoral officer will be prepared to listen to representations from valid interests, and certainly from political representatives. Sir Richard McCrory, when drawing up the 26 district councils, listened to the elected representatives and also to other parties who did not have elected representatives at that time but who had something to say. In the matter of an election, on which the whole concept of democracy depends, the electoral officer for an area, whoever he may be, should be prepared to listen to recommendations, though he does not have to accept them, because one political party may want a polling station in an area where it will get maximum support while the opposing party will argue in the same way for a different site. The polling stations should be situated over a widely accessible area, with no intimidation, and the inclusion of five or six wards in an electoral area gives reason for the introduction of PR.
Unfortunately in Northern Ireland, and it has become even more apparent over the last two or three tragic weeks, we are going back to the ghetto system. There was a time in the last 10 or 15 years when Catholics were able to buy their own homes on mortgage in a Protestant area, and when Protestants were able to get a mortgage and take up residence in a Catholic area. But with the polarisation that has taken place, resulting in the movement of population—I cannot refrain from saying that this to a large extent particularly affects the Catholic people in Belfast, though Protestants have been affected as well—that situation no longer holds good. One can say, "Those who live in this particular ward are all Catholics and may be inclined to vote a particular way" or "One is a Protestant and will vote in the reverse direction". We shall have to be very careful in grouping together the wards to make sure that democracy prevails and to make certain that those who want to vote will have all the necessary help to do so.
This evening one of my hon. Friends, although disagreeing with PR, said that Northern Ireland was in a unique situation and that PR could be taken as a political rather than a military solution. We all accept that political movements must begin to take place in Northern Ireland before we can hope for normality to return to the area.
119 Mr. Speaker said that the debate could be widened. I am reluctant to widen it to any great extent. I want to limit my remarks. I cannot, however, refrain from widening it to this extent. I understand that in another place the Secretary of State for Defence said that fewer deaths had taken place in Derry today with the breakdown of the barricades because of the policy of conciliation that had been brought about by the present Government since direct rule was introduced four months ago. I hesitate to contradict those those sentiments of the Secretary of State for Defence but I should be less than honest if I did not say that that policy of conciliation is in grave jeopardy.
We in the Social Democratic Labour Party have tried desperately over the past few weeks to bring about a process of reconciliation and to take whatever steps we could to ensure that talks would take place in which we would be involved as elected representatives, talks which we hoped would lead to an eventual political settlement. But the actions that took place in the early hours of this morning and, I understand, into the early hours of this evening—I do not want to say anything which will cause trouble or further heighten or escalate the existing tension—have caused a serious feeling of discontent in areas of Belfast which the Minister of State knows so well, such as Dock, Ballymurphy, Turf Lodge and so on. This is particularly so in the Bog-side because of the approach of the military this morning.
Let me make it quite clear that I want to see every barricade in Northern Ireland brought down. Barricades are indicative of a sick society. There is something wrong with a society in which people have to barricade themselves against security forces or against those who may be opposed to them in matters of religion. From that point of view, and because I want people to learn to live together, I want to see the barricades brought down.
Barricades were erected in Bogside and Creggan because of particular incidents in 1968 and 1969 and because the people had withdrawn their consent to accept the rule of the security forces. Over the past few weeks we have seen the erection of 120 barricades in Belfast, the UDA barricades as they became known. The Minister of State must have heard from many sources in Northern Ireland that the existence of the UDA barricades caused very serious concern because of the brutal, horrible assassinations that have occurred in Belfast, especially in recent weeks. Many Catholics felt that other Catholics would approach these barricades in a car and would be stopped and that the next thing would be that their bullet-riddled bodies would be found. That has happened all too often, even within the past day or two.
But we must look at the approach of the Army this morning. The Army used its great strength, its tanks and guns and the other armour at its disposal to take down barricades in the Bogside and Creggan. I have said that I want to see all barricades taken down. But why was not the same approach used to the UDA barricades? Why was it that the Army and the UDA men in uniform seemed to be acting with a great deal of camaraderie? Why did they seem to be acting in collusion? Why was absolutely no force used in bringing about the dismantling of the barricades in the Unionist no-go areas? It may be that the Army thought that was the easiest way out. I understand that the Army did not want to do anything which would increase tension and bring about further deaths. But there is a feeling in Northern Ireland at present that the Army, under the aegis of the Government, has once again resorted to the quest for a military as opposed to a political solution. I accept that the Minister of State says that that is not so. But in Northern Ireland the feeling is that pressure has been applied to the Government which has led to instructions being given to the Army that, at all costs, it must not antagonise the majority.
The Secretary of State must agree with me that many of the recent assassinations and horrible murders which have occurred were not committed by either wing of the IRA, the official wing or the Provisional wing. I am bitterly opposed to all extremist organisations. I have made that clear. I do not need to keep restating the case. But I warn the Minister—
§ Mr. Channon
For very understandable reasons, the hon. Member was unable to be present earlier today when I made a statement about this matter. I tried to assure the House about this. I shall not deal with all the points the hon. Member raises, as I am sure that that would be out of order, but I cannot accept all of them. I want to make it absolutely clear that my right hon. Friend and the Government have made it perfectly clear that we do not think it is humanly possible to solve the problem in Northern Ireland by military means. It must be solved by political means. That is what I have tried to explain to the House this afternoon. I very much hope that all hon. Members—I am sure that the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) is included among them—will do their utmost in these very difficult circumstances in assisting the process of the extremely difficult task of finding a political solution. That way lies the only possible hope.
§ Mr. Fitt
I would hope now that it would be clearly evidence that the Army was acting in an impartial way, that it would take very active steps to prevent the daily intimidation taking place in Belfast, and that if an Army presence is needed in a so-called Unionist area it will be there. I hope that the whole might of the British Army will not be sent to exclusively anti-Unionist or Catholic minority areas. If that is the picture that is seen it will not make for a de-escalation of the tension or help in the process of reconciliation.
In the present situation in Northern Ireland there is serious reason for discontent in the minds of the people, who see the British Army once again as an occupying force going through the usual repression. I urge the Minister to impress upon his colleagues that the next 24 to 72 hours can be a very dangerous time. If the Army acts in the right way there can be hope of talks bringing about a correct solution. If the Army acts in the wrong way there can be no hope of a solution.
§ 7.49 p.m.
§ Mr. John E. Maginnis (Armagh)
Earlier today Mr. Speaker intimated that we could have a reasonably wide debate and that those hon. Members who failed 122 to catch his eye during questions after the statement could ask their questions and make their comments during the debate. I intend to take up that position.
First, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State to convey to his right hon. Friend the sincere congratulations of all right-thinking people, not only in this House but throughout Northern Ireland, on his decision to remove no-go areas, no matter of what denomination, throughout the whole of the Province. When history comes to be written about this period, perhaps my right hon. Friend will be referred to as William IV.
This evening we are debating electoral law in Northern Ireland. To the minds of many hon. Members this is part of the initiative introduced here in March. The question of re-drawing boundaries and re-structuring local government was started back in 1966, but only now are we reaching the final stages. It was introduced not by this Government but by the Stormont Government of Captain Terence O'Neill. The blueprint was contained in the report of the review body under the chairmanship of Sir Patrick McCrory.
The Government have stated their intention of adhering to the programme and have said that April, 1973, will be when the new arrangements come into force. Many hon. Members have pointed out that this is putting the cart before the horse, because when the McCrory Report was accepted Stormont was operating. Sormont is now prorogued. The question is: will Stormont be restored before April, 1973; if not, who then will take responsibility for local government?
The Minister of State said that Article 4 is new in Northern Ireland electoral law. This is the provision concerning proportional representation. I have an open mind on this question, except that I believe it to be wrong for Westminster to impose proportional representation on the Northern Ireland electorate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) referred to the Green Paper introduced for discussion by Stormont in which reference was made to proportional representation. I know that this question was under active consideration throughout the whole of my constituency by people at grass roots who brought experts down to 123 explain to them how proportional representation worked. In the not-too-distant future the Northern Ireland people might have accepted proportional representation under their own steam, but they will now have a grouse in that it is being imposed on them by an Order in Council from Westminster.
The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) said that he was in favour of proportional representation and that it would reduce tension. The hon. Gentleman's speech will not serve to reduce tension, because he sought to rake over all the old embers. Wise counsels must prevail during the next week or two so that the efforts by the Army to restore law are not negatived.
I want to clear up once and for all the argument whether Stormont reversed the decision of the Westminster Government under the 1920 Act regarding proportional representation. The 1920 Act provided that PR would apply in Northern Ireland but that after three years Stormont had the right to decide what form of representation should prevail. Stormont exercised that right.
South of the Border, people have been trying for years to rid themselves of PR. It is a very cumbersome method. This Measure about electoral law is mainly about people, not about Members of Parliament, because in the end it is the people who count. Already there has been confusion. On top of the scrapping of the old local government system the multi-member constituency will come into effect under the new system.
I wish to endorse the point which was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West and by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). Relations between the elected representative, either at local government level or at central government level, and those he represents are of the utmost importance. However, when a member of the public wishes to make a complaint to any of the members in a multi-member constituency it will be a question of one member passing the buck to another, because one member will say "My colleague who lives in so-and-so will probably have a better knowledge of your case than I have."
In any part of the United Kingdom the electorate has difficulty in deciding which 124 avenue of redress to pursue, whether to go to the local representative or to the parliamentary representative. Northern Ireland had the additional hazard in that, in addition to parliamentary—that is, Stormont—and local representatives, there were also the Westminster representatives.
When proportional representation was originally applied in Northern Ireland, only one local goverment election took place on PR and there were two elections for Stormont, with no significant difference in the resulting representation for the main parties. It was discovered that under this system the "Don't knows" usually vote for some obscure person. One party which secured a seat in Parliament was the Unbought Tenants. The Northern Ireland Labour Party did better under PR than under the ordinary system of voting. With those two exceptions there was, and will be, little change.
Despite all the shouting about the changes which will be brought about as a result of PR, the good sense of the people of Northern Ireland will always prevail and they will elect those whom they want to represent them rather than adhere to any particular voting system.
This discussion comes before us because of the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Bill introduced following the prorogation of Stormont. My hon. Friend the Member for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs-Davison) sought leave to introduce a Bill to provide for a referendum in Northern Ireland. I was one of my hon. Friend's main supporters. I believed then that it was right that the Border question should be taken out of politics and that the local political light should be on issues, not on whether we remained within the United Kingdom.
A significant fact most hon. Members have overlooked is that under the Government of Ireland Act, 1949, Stormont had the right to stay in or opt out of the United Kingdom. Over the past three or four years both the Leader of the Opposition, when he was Labour Prime Minister, and my right hon. Friend the present Prime Minister have said publicly that the people of Northern Ireland had the right to decide their political future. This was not so. If Stormont had so decided it could have joined the Irish Republic against the wishes of the majority of the people of Northern 125 Ireland. This is why the Prime Minister decided that a plebiscite was necessary.
On 24th March my right hon. Friend gave this solemn pledge in the House which, as it will take only three minutes to read, I shall now read again so that we can understand what it means:This Government, and their predecessors, have given solemn and repeated assurances that the position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom will not be changed without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. We have decided that it would be appropriate to arrange for the views of the people of Northern Ireland to be made known on this question from time to time. We, therefore, propose in due course to invite Parliament to provide for a system of regular plebiscites … about the Border, the first to be held as soon as practicable in the near future and others at intervals of a substantial period of years thereafter.These plebiscites will be in addition to, but not in substitution for, the provisions in the Ireland Act, 1949, which require the consent of the Northern Ireland Parliament to any change in the Border. This position is not prejudiced by the temporary prorogation of that Parliament.We hope that this arrangement, while leaving open the possibility of a change in the status of the Province if the majority so wish, will both confirm that no such change will be made without their consent and provide, in the intervals between plebiscites, a greater measure of stability in the political life of Northern Ireland."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th March, 1972; Vol. 833, c. 1862.]That was reaffirmed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 29th June, 1972. He is now in some doubt about whether he can carry out that plebiscite because of the situation in Northern Ireland. I should have thought that, with the Army now in complete control, this was the best time possible to hold a plebiscite, and I hope that it will not be delayed. Legislation will have to be passed through the House, and I know that many hon. Members will be glad when that day comes.
There is opposition to the plebiscite from the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) and many of his hon. Friends, and perhaps even some opposition on this side of the House, but let it be understood—
§ Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Chigwell)
My hon. Friend will have noted that when I sought the leave of the House to introduce a Bill providing for a plebiscite there was no opposition whatever. In fact, there was the greatest cordiality.
§ Mr. Maginnis
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Over a good many years now there has been a great deal of talk about opting out by what is known as the minority in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Belfast, West has constantly claimed on radio, on television and in public speeches that 40 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland have opted out of the system. The plebiscite will show whether that claim was well founded. Throughout the world, the various media believe that 40 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland do not want to belong to the rest of the United Kingdom. This is totally wrong.
Here are some of the latest figures, taken from a poll in Northern Ireland last July. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Antrim, North is not present at the moment, for it is not generally known or accepted that there is a small minority of Protestants in northern areas who would favour a united Ireland, and that 4 per cent. of his constituents, a throw-back to the old Liberal Party, would favour a united Ireland.
I favour a united Ireland, provided that it is in the United Kingdom. I have made that absolutely clear, and I believe that all loyalists would do the same. I have said it in the House and in speeches outside, and I echo the words of the late King George V, in opening the Stormont Parliament, when he expressed the hope that the day would come when both Parliaments would be back within the Parliament of Westminster.
Apart from the small minority of Protestants who favour a united Ireland, the really significant figure is that only 24 per cent. of what is termed the minority would say "Yes" to a united Ireland. Those figures should be made known so that people not only here but throughout the rest of the world are not misled into believing that 40 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland have opted out.
I wish every success to the initiative now taken by the Army. Let it be followed rapidly by talks, if we have to have them, but above all, let us realise that what we need to stabilise the position in Northern Ireland is a return of the democratically-elected Parliament of the country so that we may get back to democratic processes. The sooner that 127 day dawns, the better for all, and the sooner will peace, order and stability return to the Province.
§ 8.7 p.m.
§ Mr. Maurice Foley (West Bromwich)
I welcome the order as a modest step forward, modest in the sense that any political activity is better than the stalemate of confrontation and hostility. We must regard the order in that context. We must not look at it on its own but have regard to the three essentials—a peaceful situation with normal political activity, the resolution of communal divisions and movement towards a political solution. Those three needs are interrelated.
There is some unreality in our discussion of the order in the context of what is happening now and the absence of information available to the House, but I shall direct my attention to the three elements I have isolated—a peaceful situation, the prerequisite for making progress, normal political activity and the resolution of communal disorder, and an effective political solution.
By a peaceful situation we do not mean just the absence of killing. The reality is that there are 21,000 British troops in Northern Ireland and the major so-called no-go areas are totally occupied. In his statement this afternoon the Minister of State refused to go further than the reality at this moment: that the troops are there.
However, I do not believe, and I imagine that not many people in this country or in Northern Ireland will believe, that the army will embark on an exercise of this magnitude without knowing the next step. Our troops are in the Bogside and the Creggan. Will they stay there? Are they in the Shankill Road? Will they stay there? Are they conducting arms searches in all these areas indiscriminately? Is it the intention that they should do so? Did the Army give 48 hours' notice to the IRA to leave? Is that why things were so peaceful? We are delighted that these areas were occupied with the minimum of casualties—there is no question about that—but we are entitled to know, having put the Army in this situation, what the next step is.
128 To what extent has there been forward thinking about what happens? Does the Army withdraw? Do the police move in? Which police? Who will be trusted in the Creggan, the Bogside or Anderson-town? Will the RUC dare to go there on their own ever again?
These are basic questions which one must ask in the context of the first prerequisite, the need for a peaceful situation, and without answers one must question whether this step, a momentous step taken by the British Government—Mr. Faulkner himself would not take such a step over 12 months ago—
§ Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)
The main reason why Major Chichester-Clark and Mr. Brian Faulkner resigned was that they could not get the Army to agree to go into the Bogside as they wished it to.
§ Mr. Biggs-Davison
No. Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that Mr. Faulkner himself could have imposed his will on the Security Committee and insisted that the Secretary of State for Defence deploy the forces of the United Kingdom against the no-go areas? The hon. Gentleman must know better than that.
§ Mr. Foley
I do not want to slide away from it. All I am saying is that the decision taken during the past weekend is momentous, and it was not taken during the time when there was a Stormont Government.
The amount of information that has been supplied to this House since action was taken is very limited. If we are talking about moving back to normality, we are entitled to ask the Government to what extent, going beyond the immediate, beyond today or tomorrow, they 129 can indicate to the areas being occupied for how long the Army is there and who is to replace it when it moves out. This is essential. The Government must make up their mind. Do they intend to do nothing about the arms situation, legal and illegal? These are matters of profound importance if we are talking about returning to normal political activity. We expect answers either today or before the House rises for the recess.
The procedure suggested in Article 4 of the order promoting modest and normal activity is the single transferable vote. I have no personal experience of any other voting system than our own and it is a sad commentary that in a situation where Britain ultimately has the responsibility we have to devise some kind of scheme in order to isolate extremism from our political processes. The purpose of Article 4 is to try to devise a system in which the two communities can learn to live and work together, to discover what they have in common and to push to the fringe the elements of extremism in both communities. We are talking about structure. In debates on Northern Ireland people have advanced positive ideas about what the structure should be and about how to give it life. We should not waste the time of Parliament talking about structure if it is meaningless and if there is nothing for it to do.
Does the Minister see the local councils playing a dominant and prominent part in effecting good community relations at local level? Does he see them acting as some form of consumer council in terms of the gas, electricity and other services in the area, or what are they for? If they have no function, why establish them? If they have functions, let us try and build them up as much as possible.
On the movements towards political conciliation we are entitled to ask what will come next. Does the Secretary of State intend to proceed with his dialogue with the various political parties? Have they all indicated their willingness? To what extent is there a sense of urgency that these meetings should take place and that there should be some form of planning? People will be required to put forward their ideas long before the local elections get off the ground.
130 There has been ambiguity over the referendum. I want to clear up the matter for the Opposition. We support the idea of a referendum. The argument is about when it should take place. In so far as the House has now arrogated to itself the responsibilities for Northern Ireland, I and my colleagues who have visited the Province feel that we are as much entitled to address ourselves to the situation there as anyone else. The motivation of those who are pressing for a referendum is either that they do not believe in the Government and that they still believe there will be a sellout in terms of a united Ireland, or they are willing to risk sectarian conflict in order to bolster up their sagging morale.
§ Captain Orr
Will the hon. Member accept that there is a third version: that Governments should keep their word?
§ Mr. Foley
I asked the Secretary of State whether, in the consultations with the political parties, he would ask them to propose the kind of questions which should be put in the referendum and whether he would consult them as to the timing, and he replied "Yes" to both questions. It is all in HANSARD. I am consoled with that reply. In view of the ambiguity I would like a clear expression of view from the Minister of State, or from the Under-Secretary about the referendum. Is it a matter of timing rather than of principle?
§ Mr. Channon
I can assure the hon. Member of this: the Government's pledge to hold a referendum as outlined by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last March still holds.
§ Mr. Foley
I am glad that that has been cleared up.
Will the Government say that there has been no change in their policy of peaceful conciliation and reconciliation and that there is no question of partiality in dealing with one community or the other? The fact that there are so many British soldiers in Northern Ireland is a sad commentary on a situation which did not simply happen over the last three years but developed over many years. We would be doing ourselves a disservice if we pretended that the root cause of the problem in Northern Ireland was a handful of gunmen holding 131 the people to ransom. There is something much more profound than that in the views held in Northern Ireland. Methods that have been used can be questioned. There are strongly-held views and beliefs in a united Ireland and I would have thought that the most important thing was to achieve peace and economic stability for the whole of Ireland and the whole of the British Isles.
§ 8.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)
I have heard most of the debates on Northern Ireland in the last two years and I believe that this has been the best-tempered of them all. The fact that within 24 hours of the Army taking over the no-go areas we could have a good-tempered debate on Northern Ireland, and a debate that attracted remarkably few people, is the best tribute possible to the way in which that operation was carried out. We hope that it will continue. The ending of the no-go areas was an essential foundation to the good nature of the debate. Many of us would have found it odd to discuss the nuts and bolts of local government elections in Northern Ireland while a substantial part of the Province was not under the control of the forces of law and order but was under the control of the gunmen. The ending of the no-go areas was an essential foundation to any sensible discussion of the nuts and bolts of local government.
I give a qualified welcome to the Government's proposal for proportional representation. We know that proportional representation tends to produce weak Governments and coalitions. That is why it is wholly unsuited to elections for Westminster. At the same time, what is suitable for elections to a Westminster Parliament need not necessarily be suitable for elections to local government authorities in Northern Ireland. It is a paradox, but it is at least arguable that weak local authorities are what are wanted at this moment.
Proportional representation has one positive virtue when two communities living cheek by jowl in areas which cannot easily be separated are, at least for a while antagonistic to each other. The larger areas which proportional representation makes possible make it easier to draw boundary lines which are reason- 132 able. If there is tension and argument about the drawing of every boundary for every ward and whether Catholic or Protestant houses are excluded or included, then there is positive merit in having a large constituency made possible by a form of proportional representation. However, there seem to be substantial demerits. One is the complexity of the system that has been proposed. I thought this was brought out very well by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees). This is a complicated form of the single transferable vote and, indeed, of proportional representation.
I recall that in the Armed Forces one used to have things called TEWTs—tactical exercises without troops. Now it seems that we are to have things called CEWVs—counting exercises without votes. After looking at the system proposed in Article 4 one understands how necessary this will be. It is an immensely complicated system. In electoral matters complexity is to be avoided, if not at all costs, then certainly high on the light of priorities.
§ Mr. Leonard
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when this system was used for Stormont elections in the 1921 General Election only 1 per cent. of ballot papers were invalidated and only 2 per cent. in the 1925 General Election? That does not seem to suggest the system was so complicated that the great majority of voters were unable successfully to cope with it.
§ Mr. Goodhart
It is not complicated from the point of view of filling in the paper, but it is immensely complicated to understand the result at the end of the voting process with the business of voters wholly transferring part votes or part transferring whole votes.
I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) when he expressed strong reservations about the desirability of introducing proportional representation into the voting system of this country in this way. Certainly there are precedents of 50 years ago for the use of proportional representation in elections for Stormont and local government in Northern Ireland. Although this system was used 50 years ago, it does not detract from the fact that it is now a major alteration in the 133 voting system of the United Kingdom. Why stop at 50 years ago? Going back 400 years we find ample precedents for the divine right of kings. However, we surely would not wish to reintroduce the divine right of kings, by order, into this Parliament merely on the argument that this had been the practice in the past. When there is a major change in the voting system of the United Kingdom there ought to be a Bill before the House. Even a day's debate is not really good enough.
I give a warmer welcome to the other part of the Government's electoral package for Northern Ireland—the referendum. The hon. Member for Leeds, South suggested that there was no real reason to hold a referendum at this time because we all know what the answer will be. We know that the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland wish the constitutional link between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom to continue. However, we do not know how many members of the Catholic minority want this link to continue. One of the most important things to flow from holding a referendum would be the opportunity of putting this question fairly and squarely to the Catholic minority. To get the result fairly and squarely on paper we need the answer broken down into constituencies, and even into polling districts, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) suggested. It is wholly desirable that this should happen.
I do want to see a global result announced for Northern Ireland. I also hope the referendum will show the balance in every constituency and, indeed, every polling district in the whole of Northern Ireland. Given the tensions of the last two or three years, it would be foolishly optimistic to think that a referendum or, indeed, local government elections could be held without cries of "Cheating" and considerable intimidation. I am perfectly prepared to see observers from the Commonwealth—after all, we are part of the Commonwealth—and from the European Economic Community, which it seems we are soon to join, coming in to see how the referendum is held. On this we have absolutely nothing to hide.
I also expect that there will be substantial areas in which there will be intimidation during the referendum cam- 134 paign. The Government should make it plain as soon as possible that no change in the constitutional bonds that link Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom can be contemplated until at least 51 per cent. of those on the register, not just those voting, cast a vote in favour of there being such a change. Otherwise, I fear there may be substantial attempts to keep people from casting their votes.
I fear also that there may be a degree of intimidation in the local government elections that will be held when we pass the order. I fear that with the ending of the no-go areas a degree of IRA activity will be pushed into the border districts, and that it will be particularly difficult there to hold local government elections freely. I do not expect my hon. Friend winding up the debate to tell us about the consultations going on with the Government in Dublin about the control of the border, but I hope that at this moment it is being made plain to Mr. Lynch in Dublin that the IRA is now a greater threat to him than it is to us.
§ 8.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Frank McManus (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) said a peculiar thing, that the results of the referendum or plebiscite should be announced for smaller areas, and that we should not just have a global result. An hon. Friend and I exchanged glances and smiled then, and I am sure that we were thinking exactly the same thing. No doubt the hon. Gentleman was driving at the theory that I believe is going ground in the corridors of power, the repartitioning notion—in other words, that if there is an overwhelming result in favour of unification in one part of Northern Ireland there is a wee piece to give to Mr. Lynch. The theory is that Newry, which is a trouble spot, Derry, which is a thorn in the side, and most of my constituency could conveniently be removed and then we would perhaps have a bit of peace and quiet in the rest of the Province. Only in a House like this could such a solution be put forward. It baffles the imagination that anybody should think of solving the Irish question by repartitioning the Six Counties, because the first partitioning was an absolute disaster. Any further partitioning would only make the disaster even more ludicrous.
135 I favour proportional representation, as I have always done. I welcome the fact that it is to be introduced, at least in the up-coming local government elections. I ask those who decry it as a very cumbersome system to take heart, because it is not as bad as it sounds. It is a bit difficulty, but it can be carried out successfully with a certain amount of practice. Heaven knows, there are enough highly-paid civil servants in Northern Ireland who do not do an awful lot most of the time. Let them do something for their money for a change. Let them count the votes.
But let no one pretend that the issue of proportional representation is central to the problem in Northern Ireland. It is a good idea and will help in the long run. It is a good system and a fair system, probably suited to the peculiar conditions in Northern Ireland. But it will not solve any of the problems of Northern Ireland. Unless the Government reach a proper appreciation of what the problems in Northern Ireland are all about, proportional representation or any of the other so-called reforms that they think of introducing will have only a marginal effect.
I understand that Mr. Speaker said this could be a wide ranging debate. I intend to take Mr. Speaker at his word and for a few moments range a bit wide from the mark. I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will bear with me because I will do so for only a short time.
If proportional representation or any other reform is to have any effect, the Government must have some appreciation in future, because they clearly have none at the moment, of the real problems which confront Northern Ireland. Since I came here two years ago I have tried to convince the Government that their whole approach and policy are wrong. I have tried to point out that the problem in Northern Ireland is the existence of the Northern Ireland State. I have tried to show that the Northern Ireland State is an unnatural entity, born of the threat of violence, which can survive only through continued use of violence, corruption, discrimination and gerrymandering. I have tried to point out that the present problems spring inevitably and naturally out of the State of Northern Ireland.
136 The present troubles, which have brought about the dissolution of Stormont and this order, stem from 1969. "Trouble" is an historic word in Irish history which refers to periods of upheaval and unrest. But let it be recorded that in the present round of troubles the first shots were fired by the RUC heading Unionist mobs in an attack on minority areas. Let it also be recorded that the first explosions, according to the then Prime Minister, Captain O'Neill, were caused by so-called loyalists. Let it further be recorded that the first evidence of mob violence was caused by Orange Unionist mobs when they wounded and intimidated thousands of people in the city of Belfast. Let it also be recorded that the present troubles are merely a major manifestation of what has been happening in Northern Ireland since its unnatural birth.
I have tried on a number of occasions to point out to the Government that the only way to solve the Northern Ireland problem is to confront the forces which created and maintained the State of Northern Ireland. I have tried to point out that if the British Government are ever to solve the trouble they should say to the Orange Unionist power groups "Enough. You will no longer be allowed to pervert and prevent the true development of all Ireland." But that advice was disregarded. I have tried so often to show that no military solution is possible, yet over the past two years military repression has increased and intensified. Almost exactly a year ago the crime internment was committed and the repression, torture and brutality which followed lack equal or parallel outside Nazi Germany.
The so-called political initiative created the pretence that a new course was being followed. The Secretary of State cynically involved himself in peace talks with the Provisional IRA while his Army was consorting and conspiring with the armed and hooded UDA to prevent 16 families taking possession of houses to which they had been granted legal tenances, thus creating conditions whereby the truce must break down.
The remainder of my remarks will be exceptionally brief.
Refusing to act on adequate warnings, the Army was primarily responsible for what is now called "Bloody Friday".
137 Acting on the excuse of "Bloody Friday", the Secretary of State, having publicly shed some crocodile tears, decided to embark on a campaign of military repression against the minority community on an unprecedented scale. Once again the threat of violence from Orange Unionism was responded to by the Army in the traditional fashion, "When the Orangemen object, bash the Catholics."
The invasion of the no-go areas last night marks, in my solemn opinion, a turning point in Anglo-Irish relations. The rumble of tanks in the streets of Belfast and Derry will be heard in Dublin, in Cork, in Brussels, in Rome—in the streets of every city in the world which loves freedom and justice. The vampires of the Tory Unionist regime were denied their gallons of Fenian blood last night due to the good sense of the minority community and of the IRA. The Secretary of State gambled recklessly on that good sense because when he ordered the invasion of the no-go areas his Army went prepared to shed as much blood as might be necessary to obtain its objective.
Therefore, what is there to talk about with such a man? Most of these things I have argued in vain. Those who have no power can only protest. Therefore, until the Government change their policy of military repression, until they give some indication that politically they are prepared to confront the political issues at the centre of the Northern Ireland problem, I have no other option but to withdraw in protest from this House which gives its authority to the militaristic repression by the present Government.
§ 8.41 p.m.
§ Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South)
I do not think that the House would expect me to agree with the interpretation placed upon the activities of the Army this morning and later by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. McManus), who has just left the Chamber. I do not think that even he with his eloquence can create a myth that will have the remotest effect upon opinion throughout the world. The skill, ability and humanity which the Army has shown in the operations it has just conducted will stand for what they are. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of my right hon. Friend's reaction to the events of "Bloody 138 Friday" will stand up at all. One thing on which I would have agreed with the hon. Gentleman was his reference to the possibility of a referendum being used to further the argument for a re-partition of Ireland. If there is one thing on which Irishmen could agree, it is that this would be an absolute nonsense, if anyone, indeed, ever thought of doing it.
I agree that it would be interesting, not only for historians but for observers of the Ulster scene, if, when the referendum is held, the results can be shown in as small packets as possible. It would be an error to depart from the global results—for counties or constituencies—because to do so would not give a true overall picture. But it would be interesting to see the results, for example, in Belfast broken down into polling districts.
I come now to what I regard as the most crucial issue of the debate. The first factor is that of timing. What we are discussing is an order to deal with the electoral law for the elections to the district councils, but we are doing it in the absence of any idea of what is to be the main structure of local government in Ulster. We do not know what is to be the principal authority. We do not know yet who is to appoint the area hoards. We do not know what the authority of the area boards is to be. Yet we are to proceed now to the election of the district councils and are setting out the electoral law under which those district councils are to be elected.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) put his finger on the essential point. I would agree with the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone that the adoption of a proportional representation system for the local government elections in Ulster is not going to be of any great significance, one way or another. Those who think that it is are deluding themselves. But it will be significant for the rest of the United Kingdom. This is a constitutional innovation in the form of a draft Order in Council. Its effects will not be so profound in Ulster as they are elsewhere but I am certain that the door to the single transferable vote system having been opened in one part of the United Kingdom, it will be opened wide in many other contexts, particularly in the light of the report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution.
139 The question dominating the minds of the majority—I think that I can speak for the vast majority—is whether Her Majesty's Government will keep their word to the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. What was their word? It was not simply that there would be a referendum. The people of Northern Ireland did not ask for a referendum; they were satisfied with the guarantees under the Act of 1920 while Stormont existed. While their own Parliament existed the guarantee was that the constitution of Northern Ireland would not be changed without the consent of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. When the Stormont Parliament was prorogued there was substituted for that guarantee a guarantee by the Prime Minister himself that the referendum would be held in Northern Ireland. Every indication was given that the referendum would be held early. We were told that it could not be held before September, and we were told a good deal else about it.
On 29th June the Secretary of State, referring to the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees), said:The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right on the question of a plebiscite. The plebiscite was promised in the first instance in my right hon. Friend's statement when the new situation was created. I believe that it is needed at an early date as a reassurance to the majority community. Assurances given by this Government, and indeed by both parties in the House, have proved in many cases to be not enough. I beg those who still have doubts"—the Opposition had expressed doubts—to believe that the clear offer of an early plebiscite must add to those assurances which have been constantly given by me, by the hon. Gentleman, and by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House, and which are very important to the majority community.My right hon. Friend went on to say:It should be remembered that after the plebiscite there would be the local government elections."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th June, 1972; Vol. 839, c. 1687–8.]Those are the key words, because if the local government elections are to be held after the plebiscite it follows that anybody who understands the rudiments of the English language that the plebiscite must precede the local elections. If that is not a plain pledge I do not understand what the English language means. These 140 are words that have been noted by the majority of the people of Ulster. In the last few years they have become so accustomed to people telling them one thing and doing another that they will not lightly forgive this. If the referendum does not precede the local elections the credibility of Her Majesty's Government in Ulster will be gone for ever. Let there be no misunderstanding on that point by the Government. The Ulster people did not ask for this referendum; it has been pledged to be held before the local government elections.
Those elections may not be all that important, but it is important that the referendum issue should be out of the way before they are held if these district council elections are to be held upon local issues as they should be. If we do not hold the referendum on the plain issue of "Do you or do you not wish to remain part of the United Kingdom?", then the local government elections will be the first opportunity that the people of Ulster will have to declare their position with regard to their allegiance to the Crown. If that is the issue in the local government elections, then they will be totally meaningless as local government elections.
Not only is the word and honour of the Government at stake, but there is also good practical common sense in proceeding to the referendum before the local government elections. The hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Foley), who, I am sorry to say, has now left the Chamber, asked all the right questions about the military situation. The Army has with great skill, humanity and good sense occupied certain areas which were not occupied before. What we really want to know before we can make a sensible judgment about the situation is the answers to the questions put by the hon. Member. They are simple questions.
I was sorry that the Minister of State was not able to give me the pledge I asked for at Question Time. It was a simple pledge, that the Army, having dominated these areas, would continue to do so until something had been thought out about how they were to be policed in future. All I was asking for was that the Army would not immediately, or even within a week or two, withdraw 141 from these areas, but would wait until such times as the peace-loving people of those areas had been given some guarantee that there would be no return of the IRA on to their backs. Even in the most tightly-controlled of the no-go areas there are decent people who wish to make their views known in a democratic manner through the ordinary political machinery.
The next question is: what steps will be taken to prevent the IRA from returning from across the Border, if that is where they are? It is difficult to ask my hon. Friend to give me answers which prejudice the security arrangements which might be in being, and I do not expect him to do so. I do not even ask him to tell me, if he knows, where the IRA are. But it would be useful if I could have some guarantee that at least every effort will be made to prevent the IRA from returning in force and from carrying out the kind of operation that it did at Claudy this morning.
What the people of Northern Ireland really want, fundamentally, is two things. First, they want a guarantee that the perpetrators of violence, whether from the IRA or anywhere else, will never again in the foreseeable future be allowed to dominate the Ulster scene. They want to know that that is the firm resolve of the Government. Secondly, they want to be assured that before any other procedure is instituted they will be permitted to express their views upon whether they wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. They wish to do that by referendum before anything else happens.
Finally, for heaven's sake let Her Majesty's Government make up their minds as soon as possible about what is to be the political structure of Northern Ireland. It is an illusion to think that agreement upon this by everyone is possible. There will not be agreement between those who wish to remain citizens of this Kingdom and those who do not. There can never be agreement upon that. Let Her Majesty's Government lay down the broad parameters. Let them lay down the limits. Let them set out what are and what are not the options in the situation. Only then will there be a swift move towards agreement on the nuts and bolts of the situation.
142 I have to reserve my position about this order. I do not like the idea of such a Measure containing a provision like the present article 4. I am not sure what my attitude will be on Friday. It may be that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be able to help hon. Members when he replies to the debate.
§ 8.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), I feel that this has been perhaps one of the most fruitful of our many debates on Northern Ireland. It must be pleasant for some listening to our proceedings who perhaps come from my part of the world to hear so many Ulster voices raised in this House.
This has been a wide-ranging debate in the course of which the vast majority of hon. Members have referred to the security situation in Northern Ireland. I include among them the hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Foley), who I hope will return, and the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. McManus), who I expect will not return. What is more, the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) referred in some detail to it. For that reason I hope I shall be forgiven if I preface my remarks with a few comments on the recent events in Northern Ireland. They have been very significant.
I agree with much of what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain On) said a moment ago. If it had not been for the speech of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, I might have had to make a fresh point. I did not expect to find myself in agreement with him of all people. However I was largely in agreement with him, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will take note of that because the Government do not seem prepared to face the basic question: what is the problem.
This House continually addresses itself to the possibility of solving the Northern Ireland situation. However, one has only to listen to someone like the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and to study the terrible casualty lists of the past three years to understand that the real problem facing Northern Ireland is the existence of a small group 143 of dedicated Republicans who are determined to stop at nothing.
This country has a great reputation for fairmindedness. But it will never achieve a solution to a difficult, intransigent situation like Northern Ireland unless it is prepared to face facts. For my hon. Friend the Minister of State to pretend, as he did in reply to questions following his statement, that one side was as bad as the other and that the Army had to act against both was to attempt only to deceive this House, the country and himself about the true nature of the problem.
The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone made no bones about the matter. He is dedicated to the Republican issue and he knows himself to be in a minority. But it is Members like him and the hon. Member for Belfast, West with whom I take issue. It is basically the IRA: whether it be the Official or the Provisional IRA matters little. It is this body which has been shooting and killing throughout Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Belfast, West pointed out that a certain number of Catholics had been killed recently. However they have not been killed only recently. Throughout the past few years we have had news of girls in Catholic areas having their heads shaved. Others have been found with hoods over their heads and bullets in the backs of their necks with the word "IRA reprisal" written on them. Terrible tragedies have been caused because they were seen talking to a soldier. The IRA has been afraid of one thing above all, and that is of being betrayed by its own people. Therefore to pretend, as my hon. Friend did, that because a certain number of Catholics are killed one can assume that they have been killed by members of the UDA is neither honest nor correct.
I do not wish to labour this point as the debate is on electoral reform, hut I should like to say with all the force at my command, in answer to a question put by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, who asked what the Government would do next, that the Government should face the problem of eliminating the IRA from Northern Ireland. They should not say that they are going into the Bogside and the Creggan in order to protect the minority there and that the next stage is 144 to reconcile the two sides of the population in Northern Ireland. This is to miss the main function of government. The main function of government is to bring peace and justice to Northern Ireland, and I heavily emphasise the word "justice".
If one really wants to reconcile the two sides of the population, one must pursue the guilty men of the Irish Republican Army who have murdered and pillaged throughout the last three years, who have caused over 450 deaths and many thousands of terrible injuries. Anyone who has visited the hospitals in Northern Ireland and has seen the young girls and children mutilated, with limbs missing and sometimes the sight of an eye missing, must realise that it is the primary function of government to bring to justice law-breakers—people who are guilty of murder, treason and anarchy, Only when they are seen to have been brought to justice will the two sides be able to get together and be prepared to accept one another.
It is important to stress the necessity for seeing that justice is enforced in any community. Unless there is justice, these bitter wounds will last in the minds of both sides. Indeed, they have become worse as a result of the delay. I should have liked to see the action which the Government have taken—and on which I congratulate them—taken three months ago or even two years ago. This action could have been taken without any fear of loss of life, if it had been taken with sufficient determination and resolution, at any stage since the original troubles arose in August, 1969, and when the barricades were first put up. The barricades should never have been allowed to be erected. The IRA has used every month of the intervening three years to prepare and strengthen its position.
I should like to know, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South said, how many of the IRA have been captured in the last 24 hours and whether the Government intend to carry on and capture every one of them. I should like to know also how many escapes have been made across the border and what precautions the Army will take to see that those men do not return to Northern Ireland. We are only beginning the struggle in Northern Ireland for the reoccupation of the no-go 145 areas. We shall see a lot of atrocities committed in the next few months unless these guilty men are put away for a considerable period where they can no longer menace the innocent populations, both Catholic and Protestant, who do not approve of their methods and aims.
I should like the police to return as quickly as possible and the men of the RUC restored to their former dignity and their morale restored thereby. I should like these men of the police force of Northern Ireland allowed as quickly as possible to resume their day-today patrols in the areas which we have come to know as no-go areas. It is only by phasing out the Army as quickly as possible, letting the troops take over guard duties and getting the ordinary policeman back on the beat that we can properly restore the rule of law in every part of Ulster.
I agree very much with what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) that proportional representation is a major Change in our law and therefore it is not appropriate that it should be slipped in in a Measure dealing with Northern Inland which will not be thoroughly debated by the House.
There are many sides to the question whether proportional representation is a good and useful reform for the electoral system of this country. Those who are opposed to it advance as part of their argument that it is a system which, at any rate initially, is difficult to understand. This applies particularly to those areas which it is supposed to help, the ghetto areas, where a complicated system of voting may not be easily grasped by the average man in the street.
Secondly, it leads to fragmentation of the representation of the electorate either in local government or in Parliament, and I regard that as bad for democracy. I always understood that one of the great weaknesses of the French system of government was the great fragmentation that occurred and the fact that the Government rose and fell almost at the drop of a hat. Where there is fragmentation the Government depend for their strength on coalitions, and coalitions are fundamentally weak. I favour—because I think that it leads to strong, positive Government—the bi-party system 146 which is established so strongly in this House. Proportional representation should be looked at very carefully before it is accepted for any part of the United Kingdom.
Thirdly, those opposed to proportional representation argue—I think with good reason—that it tends to weaken the close relationship between a public representative and his ward or constituency. On the other hand, it may be said that the experiment should be tried in Northern Ireland because of the failure of the existing systems in Ulster properly to represent every type of opinion. There are many wasted votes. There are many areas in which one party is particularly strong and another is particularly weak, and the votes of the strong party are wasted. These are deep and important arguments, and I feel that they should be considered carefully before proportional representation is tried in Ulster, particularly in the present difficult circumstances.
Because time is short I shall make only one or two points on the question of a plebiscite. I feel that a plebiscite will miss its main point if it is intended by regular plebiscites to settle the border issue. It will have exactly the opposite effect. It will tend to keep it alive. It might be said that we should have just one plebiscite, and there is strength in that argument, but I am apprehensive that it might set a precedent. A plebiscite will not remove the border problem. The electors will always first ask a candidate his feelings about the border before voting for him. The question of where Ulster stands in regard to the border issue is best decided by a General Election.
None of the provisions we have here can be properly accepted before the Northern Ireland Government is restored. The entire McCrory proposals were based on the premise that an Ulster Government should be in existence at Stormont. Without some indication tonight of the Government's intention in regard to Stormont, I feel that we should not accept any of these provisions.
§ 9.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)
The House will agree that this debate has been conducted in a very sombre mood and against a backcloth of the general Northern Ireland situation—and not least 147 the events of 4 a.m. today and subsequently. I will return to the broader political argument later. First, I want to deal with the proportional representation argument or the single transferable vote argument because, strangely enough, the debate has divided itself into two halves, the first being largely devoted to the single transferable vote while the second half tended to move to the broader political issues affecting Northern Ireland.
I am no advocate of the single transferable vote in elections in the United Kingdom. Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Douglas) and the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), made this point but I do not think anyone in the Chamber felt that by discussing the single transferable vote for Northern Ireland we were opening the back door to its introduction into the United Kingdom. The fact is that certain very reputable institutions in this country—some major trade unions—use the single transferable vote in their elections.
Perhaps the one factor that underlines the point I am trying to make is that the Liberal Party, which in all election campaigns throughout the country advocates this form of vote, has seen fit to give us only a fleeting visit throughout the whole of our debate, and no attempt has been made by any Liberal hon. Member to participate. This underlines the point that in talking of this electoral system for Northern Ireland we are talking of a very special case.
The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, with his blinding logic, again tended this afternoon to destroy many of the arguments in favour of this system of voting and complained that we might be raising the expectations of the people of Northern Ireland. I thought that our job was to raise political expectations there—something that has so far first been diminished and then completely eradicated. That is why we have direct rule. That is why it was found necessary to suspend Stormont. That is why we are in such a difficulty. That is why in towns and cities in part of the United Kingdom of which we are talking them are at the moment 22,000 British 148 troops with tanks, heavy guns and the rest. The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Wilkinson) mentioned earlier that the Sikhs or the Indians in his constituency might demand direct rule, but he is not in touch with the reality of the present situation in Northern Ireland.
We have to look at PR. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) was slightly pendantic in his earlier argument. To meet his susceptibilities I shall refer to the single transferable vote. We might all argue about the creation of the State. We heard what the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. McManus) said about that. But when it was decided that Ulster, which was reduced from nine counties to six counties, would remain part of the United Kingdom PR was introduced. It was introduced because it was recognised then that an in-built majority had been given control of those six counties and that, willy-nilly, that majority would control. History has proved that. For over 50 years the Unionist Party has controlled the Province. But PR was introduced. It operated in the local government elections in 1920. It was abolished in 1922 for local government and in 1929 it was abolished for the elections to Stormont.
I quote an authority who has done a great deal of work on this matter. Mr. Robert A. Newland has said:Powerful but myopic political leaders in Northern Ireland, who should have known better, found the Single Transferable Vote too sophisticated for taste.They abolished it for the local government vote in 1922 and the last general election under it was in 1925. Mr. Newland—this is only part of the argument—continues:The simmering frustration which this engendered at last came to the boil in the Civil Rights Campaign which has now exploded into blind and obscene violence.No one claims that the single transferable vote would have maintained a situation of perfect harmony because all hon. Members recognise that there is a minority which genuinely wants political unity with the South and a majority which rightly wants to remain within the United Kingdom.
I deal now with the arguments about the plebiscite. Unless they are careful some hon. Members on the Government benches are likely to get their wires 149 crossed and to create imaginary problems. The present Government and the Opposition are not in favour of making any changes on the border to which the people of Ireland as a whole, and in particular those in the North, do not agree. There is no question of tricking or forcing the Protestant majority into a united Ireland against their will, as much as that may be desirable and as much as many may want to see such a unity created.
No one can ask the Government for a political solution at present as there is no easy political solution. We are looking forward to some form of detente which can be arrived at in the North whereby normal political activity can be restarted and the fierce arguments on both sides can be waged whereby it will no longer be necessary for 22,000 British troops to be in the Province and the use of the bomb or the gun will not be necessary for any manner of persuasion. This is what we are searching for.
This interesting and fascinating debate on the single transferable vote is but a tiny part of the answer. There are some fundamental arguments connected with it. This is why the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West got it wrong. We are a long way from the attic, so to speak. We are only in the basement of the political argument.
If something could cut across the sectarian line and achieve a break in the political structure, much would result. All of us are guilty of the two-to-one equation, of saying "For every two Protestants in the police force"—or the Civil Service or whatever it may be—"there must be one Roman Catholic". We shall get away from the equation only if we find a new political approach.
We have been talking about the Falls Road and the Shankhill as two very emotive places where there appears to be little give. In the 1920 election, in the Falls the Nationalists got two seats, Sinn Fein got two seats, the Labour Party one seat and the Unionists one seat; in the Shankhill the Unionists got five seats, the Labour Party got two seats and Sinn Fein got one. This shows that there can be cross currents and that Unionists, with a second preference, might vote for a Labour candidate and that Republicans might do the same. This could help to 150 create a better situation. This was why the Unionist Government abolished the system in 1922.
§ Mr. Powell
How does the hon. Gentleman think that those results would have been different with the single transferable vote?
§ Mr. Orme
There would have been a complete block of Unionists on one side and a complete block of Nationalists on the other.
Another argument is that this system would militate in favour of independents and that "flat-earthers" would be elected in the Shankill and the Falls. Nothing could be further from the truth. This system would help smaller political parties, but they would have to be organised parties. If it brings about a break in the monolithic structure on her the Protestant side or the Catholic side, it will be in everybody's interests.
If there is not a minimum of five seats per constituency, difficulties can arise. With five it would be impossible for one party to get a majority.
§ Mr. Channon
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the general run of cases. There are one or two exceptions where, I suspect, though it is not for me to say—it is for my right hon. Friend and the chief electoral officer—it may have to be four.
§ Mr. Orme
I thank the hon. Gentleman. The question of ballot papers has been raised. The crucial question of polling districts and stations, which was dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), will have to be taken into account. When are the elections likely to take place? It would be useful to know the date. I realise the difficulties, but, if we cannot have a date today, perhaps we may be told on Friday.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) raised a point on Article 4(4), suggesting that a report to the House on constituency developments might be useful. It might, indeed, help to meet the genuine point raised by 151 the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West about adequate discussion of these matters in the House, though I must say that I regard them as so urgent that they should be discussed as soon as possible.
These are only steps—"one small step", was it, in Neil Young's words—but we must make a start. In looking to the future of democracy in Northern Ireland, the Minister must look also at the Special Powers Act, the ending of internment, the question of oaths, the rights of the majority and the rights of the minority. The need for economic development is urgent. We welcome the £30 million which is to be devoted to this purpose. This is extremely important. It shows keenness on the part of the Government to get economic development under way, and we fully support it.
In the difficult problems which we shall now face—I have in mind here the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West—I hope that the events of the last 24 hours will not rupture the talks which are about to take place. These talks are essential. I noted the courageous statement made by John Hume yesterday evening—or early this morning, was it?—to the effect that, while he criticised the use of troops in the Bogside and the Creggan, he nevertheless laid the blame firmly at the door of the provisional IRA. I wish that my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone had, perhaps, done the same in regard to what happened in Belfast on Bloody Friday.
The political statement by the SDLP is extremely encouraging. It is positive, and it represents a developing political point of view. To the Unionist Party, one must say that it is about time that it came forward with ideas for political developments in a new situation, contributing to the progress which we hope will be made in the talks and the working out of some form of assembly for the North.
Everyone recognises that we shall not go back to the original Stormont. Those 50 years are behind us. But we must look forward now not to the next 50 years but, possibly, to the next five years, with the difficulties to come and the drift towards civil war and sectarian violence, which, my hon. Friends know, if it really 152 broke out with a vengeance could not be kept on one side of the Irish Sea. At all costs we must prevent that.
I listened carefully to the Minister of State when he made his statement this afternoon following the movement of troops into the no-go areas. Many of my hon. Friends have strong doubts about the situation, and we will understand that. We want his word now that the Army will act impartially, underwritten by action. We want, if we can, to see an end to the bombers. We want to see an end to the masked men of the UDA. We want to see those people off our streets. We want to see an end to the murder squads.
We want the Minister to bear in mind the sensitivity of the Catholic community at the present time, and it would be our wish to urge upon the Army that it remember that it is there in a holding position. It is there, and can only be there, on a temporary basis in the present state of affairs.
The Minister has been asked what contingency planning there has been for further developments. Thought must have been given to the type of policing which must follow in the no-go areas. This is crucial. Sometimes a situation of this kind calls for exceptional action. It might, perhaps, be necessary for members of the British police forces to be used along with others for a limited period. I make these suggestions to the Minister as valid contributions to the argument because we accept that there is no simple or quick solution. He must now go forward to political action. He has said, and so have we, that there is no military solution to the problem.
There is not a great deal of time for a political solution and what time there is could easily run out. Some people, like members of the SDLP, will be under great pressure from certain sections of the community to withdraw from the talks, but I hope they will stand firm and take part. I believe they will now be encouraged not just by words but by example and by the action of the Minister.
As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said this afternoon, one example might be to call in all guns, registered or otherwise, which exist throughout the community. It seems 153 [...]udicrous that 104,000 licensed guns exist in a community of that size.
§ Mr. Biggs-Davison
I sympathise with the point that the hon. Member is making but how would he like to be a farmer living near a border which was not sealed, in a position isolated from his neighbours, without even a shotgun in the house?
§ Mr. Biggs-Davison
I ask only for the right of self-defence for people—[Interruption.]—and I mean Catholic or Protestant. I ask only for the right to have a licensed firearm for purposes of self-defence for those who live in a lonely situation.
§ Mr. Orme
I hope we shall soon get away from such circumstances. We do not want a United States-type situation imported into the United Kingdom.
It is against the background of the argument for the single transferable vote, which we regard as a positive but small step forward, and it is against the background of the need for a political initiative that the Opposition on Friday will support the order and support other political reforms within the context of how and when the Government introduce them. In this sombre debate there is a ray of hope. It is not a great deal, but we must grasp hold of it because the alternative is too terrible to contemplate.
§ 9.34 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. David Howell)
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box, at least on Irish affairs. He is extremely well-informed on these matters and makes great efforts to keep himself well informed. The House looks forward to many further speeches of the kind we have just heard.
The debate, like other debates which we have had on Northern Ireland affairs on questions of basic and important administration, takes place yet again under the shadow of dramatic events in 154 Northern Ireland, particularly those which began in the dawn hours of this morning. But despite that, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, minds have been concentrated wonderfully on the complexities of electoral law and we have had some extremely stimulating and constructive speeches on the various aspects of the matter.
I should like to turn to a question which arose at the beginning of the debate when the matter of the procedure by which we are looking at this important issue was raised. This time we are going one better than the short debate procedure on the Order in Council, the 1½ hours and then the "chop"; we are having a full day's debate. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) rightly pointed out, this is not good enough. I agree that it is not good enough. Of course, by its very nature the title of the Act which legitimises our actions, the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act, illustrates that we are in a temporary, unsatisfactory situation in which we are all trying—indeed, this is the whole thrust of my right hon. Friend's efforts—to move towards political and constitutional developments which will provide a better and improved means by which the people of Northern Ireland can govern themselves. We therefore recognise that, although time is given, the situation is not satisfactory. However, it is obviously better than the 1½ hours for the order which will be debated at the end of this week, and it has provided the opportunity for a variety of views and observations to be advanced.
The hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) quite rightly pointed out that there has been quite a warm welcome from a surprising variety of viewpoints in Northern Ireland for proportional representation, or—I must bow to the opinion of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English)—not pure proportional representation if we are talking about the single transferable vote. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I slip back shoddily into calling it proportional representation. I recognise from the viewpoint of the purist doctrine this is not pure proportional representation; it is merely more proportional than other forms of representation which exist in some areas.
155 The hon. Member for Leeds, South also talked about the ward groupings and how the Chief Electoral Officer would go about his business. I should like to go into this matter in some detail, because it is important and there was misunderstanding about the way this would happen.
The grouping of single member wards into suitable electoral areas will be carried out by the Chief Electoral Officer as soon as possible after his appointment, which we hope will be in the middle of August. He is required to make public provisional proposals about the grouping of these wards for each district council area. A period of 28 days will be allowed for consideration of these proposals and for the making of objections. The Chief Electoral Officer will carefully consider any objections and representations and make his final recommendations on the groupings to my right hon. Friend. Thus, the Secretary of State will take the ultimate decision in these matters, not the Chief Electoral Officer. That must be made clear. So, by approximately the end of September my right hon. Friend will be in a position to prescribe by way of regulations the precise groupings.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point clear. If an election is to take place in December, is it not appropriate that the final decision of the Secretary of State should be put to the House in the form of an Order in Council so that the House may look at it, bearing in mind that with local authority ward arrangements, and so on, it is eventually a decision for an elected organisation, a city council, or whatever it may be? I realise the difficulty in terms of timing, but if it is the end of September perhaps something could be done which would assist the House.
§ Mr. Howell
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of the difficulty in terms of the timing. The timing is very tight indeed. Nevertheless, I certainly take note of his point and will convey it to my right hon. Friend. However, as the hon. Gentleman rightly recognises, the timing is extremely tight.
Now we come to another matter of some complexity, the surplus votes. I understand that the matter at issue is whether, when we come to deal 156 with the surplus votes accruing to any elected candidate, it is just the surplus or a proportion of the votes that is reallocated to other candidates. It is the second method that we propose to try in Northern Ireland, the method by which all votes are distributed proportionately. I believe that it is called the senatorial system. I acknowledge the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), that it is undeniably complex to administer, but another hon. Member rightly said that from the point of view of the voter the complexities have not been found formidable wherever this method has been tried and that it is possible to carry out this voting system with a suitable degree of simplicity. But for the administration there are complexities, of which the question of the distribution of the surplus votes is one.
The deposit is to be based on a quarter of the quota. There were differences of opinions expressed on the matter, but we believe that that is about right.
When there is a resignation or death in a single ward within a group of wards there will be a single-member by-election. That is the simplest and most straightforward way of doing it.
§ Mr. Leonard
There is a slight ambiguity in what the hon. Gentleman has just said. Surely under the proposed system the elected member will represent the whole group of wards, so that if he dies the vacancy will be for the whole group and not one single ward among them?
§ Mr. Howell
That is not necessarily so, because the intention is that with the guidance of the electoral officer, or, if that does not appertain, on the proposal of the Chief Electoral Officer, within the group of wards a particular councillor should be allocated to a particular ward, ideally the one he lives in, so that there would be some linkage between a particular councillor and a particular ward. That goes some way to meeting the criticisms rightly voiced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West and others, that the system moves away from the very important personal link between the individual elector and his councillor. Although it can be argued that it moves away from the purist doctrine again, this 157 has virtue in meeting the problem of my right hon. Friend and the practical problem of how to organise by-elections.
§ Mr. Howell
I am quite happy that it should be looked at again. That is the purpose of the debate. The present view is that the problem can be dealt with by the electoral officer agreeing with the councillors elected. If that cannot be done, if it turns into great difficulty, we shall look at the question again. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will deal with it again on Friday.
§ Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)
What is wrong with the alternative vote in single-member constituencies in that case?
§ Mr. Howell
That happens to be a completely different system to the one we propose, which is a single transferable vote system.
§ Mr. Powell
As my hon. Friend has kindly said that he will look at this point, may I put to him again the difficulty which is thrown up by a by-election? I can quite understand that an individual councillor can be allocated nominally, and indeed for practical purposes, to an individual ward, but it seems impossible that if he dies or retires he, who has been elected by the entire area, should be replaced by an election in a particular ward.
§ Mr. Howell
We shall certainly look at the matter again, but at present we take the view that that is the only practicable, way of doing it.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
I realise the difficulty, but I return to the point about an order that we made earlier. This problem proves that if there are difficulties in orders the report to the Secretary of State of the Chief Electoral Officer must be presented to the House in some form or other so that it can at the very least have a look at it.
§ Mr. Howell
I have said that I take note of the point which the hon. Member 158 for Leeds, South has made sincerely, directly and now with great emphasis.
I now turn to some other questions which the hon. Member for Leeds, South and other hon. Members asked. Election by proportional representation or single transferable vote to area boards is in practice not on. It would lead to very great complexities not only for the administrators but for the public. The hon. Gentleman talked about the shape of the ballot paper, which is an important matter. It will be looked at carefully by the Chief Electoral Officer and careful note will be taken of the points which have been made today, particularly the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), that we do not want to end up with an 8 ft. ballot paper, which would not be suitable for our purposes. The cost of the single transferable vote system will be approximately £100,000, which will probably be borne centrally and not by the local authorities. The siting of polling stations is another important matter. The Chief Electoral Officer will prepare a draft scheme which will be examined closely. I recognise the difficulties.
I now turn to the point to which many hon. Members referred, which, strictly speaking, is not within the order which we will discuss at the end of the week, but which is relevant and of great importance, namely, the plebiscite or referendum. The matter was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Mather), the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), who was kind enough to tell me that unfortunately he cannot be here for the end of the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, who is something of a pundit on referenda. The question raised was the present attitude of Her Majesty's Government towards the plebiscite. It is our hope that it should take place before the local elections. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is anxious to take the necessary legislative steps as soon as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Pounder) raised a number of questions. He asked why we should change the period from three years to four years. Having examined the matter carefully, we believe that the four-year 159 period is about right. It gives a longer time for the authorities to settle down and makes sense in administrative terms. My hon. Friend made the point about district electoral areas in Belfast becoming very big. We agree that there is that danger and we shall have to watch the situation carefully. My hon. Friend also asked about free postage for election addresses. We have looked at the matter and it is our view that it would be too expensive.
§ Captain Orr
I am a little puzzled by what my hon. Friend has just said about the referendum. My hon. Friend says that he "hopes", yet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that it would happen before the local government elections. If my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary hopes that it will happen, when can we expect the legislation to give effect to it?
§ Mr. Howell
I can only repeat that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is anxious to take the legislative steps. I repeat what he said on 14th July:…it is only a question of its timing which is affected by the security situation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th July, 1972; Vol. 840, c. 2034.]That is the position taken up by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I cannot go further.
The hon. Member for Attercliffe raised the question of qualifications for voting. This is a complex subject and there is some confusion about it. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the seven-year provision. It is necessary under Northern Ireland election law at present for anyone who is a British subject but was born in Northern Ireland to have resided for seven years continuously in the United Kingdom to qualify to vote. Whether this is a good or bad practice, or desirable or not, I will come to later. But that is one practice. The other practice relates to the question of citizens of the Republic of Ireland, and it is more straightforward. Citizens of the Republic, if they were not on the register in Northern Ireland in 1962, cannot be included to vote in Northern Ireland, unless of course they apply for British citizenship.
It may be said, and rightly, that these are difficult and complex arrangements.
160 The Government take the view that they need looking at again and it is hoped, with the convening of the Electoral Law Advisory Commission in due course, to examine these questions, particularly the seven-year provision.
§ Mr. Howell
I do not wish to go further than I have. I have indicated that all these complex questions, particularly the seven-year qualification, will need examination when it has proved possible to convene the Electoral Law Advisory Commission.
The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard) reminded us of the example of Schleswig-Holstein, but I was always told that that is a matter to be avoided because of its complexity, so I shall do so. The hon. Member also said that the single transferable vote system was not pure proportional representation. He and the hon. Member for Salford, West rightly raised the question of ward groups being at least five members. That will be the figure aimed for except in one or two instances where it will prove in practical terms impossible. In general terms, however, the aim will be to have groups of five or more.
§ Mr. Howell
They will be outside Belfast.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether proportional representation or the single transferable vote will be reversed. That takes me to an issue also raised with great eloquence by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West and many others. In speaking of these proposals, which will become law if the House accepts the order at the end of the week, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, with his beam of logic penetrating into the future, saw them as leading from one thing to another. He said they could not stop where they are and he saw them step by step, from his point of view, leading 161 inevitably downwards to worse things and greater things. That may be his way of seeing the situation but the fact remains that what is proposed in the order, and what will be the legislation if the House accepts the order, is that proportional representation or the single transferable vote should be provided simply for the local elections in 1972.
It may rightly be argued that this will lead to a new view of things. Of course it will, Each event allows one to judge by experience how to proceed. When the matter has been tried and some of the complexities have been noted, together with the advantages and disadvantages, a judgment will be made of its relevance for future constitutional and political development in Northern Ireland.
Perhaps we should also apply what I am saying to the point made about the need for long-term plans, particularly following the dramatic events of last night. Of course the Government have plans and policies but it would be very unwise if we were not constantly to adapt them to unfolding events, because events have a material effect on what is being done.
§ Mr. Douglas
The hon. Gentleman is saying that the Government must adjust plans to the unfolding of events. He discloses an attitude of mind in doing so which suggests that the most important priority is to have the plebiscite first and the election afterwards. Would he not adjust his plans and programmes to changing events?
§ Mr. Howell
The hon. Member is divining subtleties in my attitude of mind of which I am not aware. I thought that my remark disclosed a commonsense view. If the Government had a wonderful idea or policy but events developed in an unforeseen way, not to adapt and adjust it would lead to disaster.
§ Mr. McNamara
The Minister said that following last night's events, plans which are ready will unfold. What are the plans for the future policing of these areas?
§ Mr. Howell
I can only repeat that what develops and what is done will be adapted and influenced by events. Any intelligent policy must exist in the first place. My right hon. Friend has con- 162 stantly reiterated what his overall strategy is, and the main prong of his policy—flatly against the absurd propositions put forward by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. McManus)—is to seek a political solution. That is his strategy. I make the obvious statement that all these matters have to be modified in the light of the way in which things turn out and events shape up.
I think I have covered most of the points that have been raised. If I have not covered detailed points they can be put to me by letter. We shall be covering detailed points on the aspect of STV or PR when the order comes before the House. It remains for me to make the point that came up again and again in debate that we are at a critical and important stage in the development of our policy. It is literally and metaphorically true to say that the paths to peace are being cleared both in respect of the UDA and the IRA.
Hon Members on the Opposition side asked again and again for it to be made clear that the security forces would be impartial in their attack on the forces of lawlessness. That is certainly so. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has given direct and explicit instructions that barricades will come down wherever they may be found. They will be taken down if those responsible do not take them down. That action will be carried out impartially by the security forces, who insist on imposing a framework of public protection of law in the situation that has prevailed, which is unacceptable to the citizens of Northern Ireland.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham that the action taken last night—this is outside the question of law reform but it was raised in the debate—was necessary. I go further and say that it had become possible, and was only possible, as a result of very difficult decisions and very controversial policies pursued over the past months with great courage and determination by my right hon. Friend. That action became necessary and may be the precondition and the reason why we have been able to have an amazingly constructive although sombre debate this evening.
Our objective remains to achieve a political solution based upon a sound economic and social foundation within a 163 framework of lawful protection of the public and people of Northern Ireland. We are determined to achieve that goal.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Order 1972.