HC Deb 23 January 1973 vol 849 cc388-417

11.57 p.m.

The Minister of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. David Howell)

I beg to move, That the Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Order, 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 14th December, be approved. The Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Act was approved by Parliament in order to fulfil a pledge to the people of Northern Ireland that they would be able to vote on the question of the border. The Act provides that a poll shall be held in Northern Ireland to enable voters to say whether they want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, or whether they want their Province to be joined with the Republic of Ireland outside the United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has informed this House that he has designated Thursday 8th March as polling day. This was the earliest practicable date on which the poll could have been held, particularly bearing in mind that the date of 8th March will make it possible to hold a poll on the new electoral register which comes into force on 16th February 1973.

The Act provides that the poll shall be conducted along the lines of an election to this Parliament—that is, under the Westminster Rules. The order has, therefore, been designed to spell out in detail those parts of the existing law which are to be applied or modified for the purpose of the poll. The statutes concerned are the Representation of the People Act 1949 and the Representation of the People Act 1969, together with the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 1969.

Schedules 1 and 2 of the order, about which I shall have more to say later, list applications and modifications. I am sorry that this has resulted in a rather technical-looking document, but the alternative would have been a self-contained order, which would have been very much longer. Moreover, those concerned with running the poll can see much more clearly from an order in the form now before the House which parts of the existing law are to be applied and modified for the purposes of the border poll.

The main substance of the order begins with Article 4. Article 4, after setting out the date of the poll, provides for the hours of polling to be from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. This compares with 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. for a General Election. The reduced hours for polling will enable the majority of voters to vote in daylight—lighting-up time in Belfast will be at about 6.45 p.m. on polling day—and will ease the recruitment of staff for the manning of polling stations.

I think that these arrangements, which have been made, of course, with the agreement of the returning officers, will be generally well received. It is not expected that the reduction in hours will affect the number of votes cast, particularly in view of the provisions for postal voting, which I shall mention in more detail in a moment.

The under-sheriffs for Northern Ireland are the returning officers for the poll. All of them, and there are six, will be carry- ing out this role. Article 5 is purely precautionary. It simply provides for the Secretary of State to employ substitute returning officers if, for example, an existing holder of the post was prevented from acting by illness.

Postal voting is dealt with in article 6, which I have mentioned. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate the arrangements we are making for the extension of postal voting facilities. The order provides that any elector may apply to vote by post if he gives an address in the United Kingdom to which a ballot paper may be sent. I emphasise that this is a very considerable extension of the normal provisions for postal voting and could result in a high proportion of the electorate voting by post. Applications to vote by post should in normal cases reach the registration officer not later than 9th February. The form of application is shown in Schedule 3 to the order, and forms will be available tomorrow at local authority offices and post offices or by postal application to the appropriate registration office.

The House will also note that in Schedule 2, on page 11 of the order, there is a modification to regulation 16 in order to provide additional safeguards against personation, particularly where postal votes are concerned; where the address of a postal voter is different from the qualifying address, notifications that the application has been allowed will be sent to the applicant at both addresses. Over and above this, we will be having spot checks on application forms to check their authenticity.

Article 7 enables the Secretary of State to appoint observers to attend at the issue of postal ballot papers, polling stations, the opening and verification of returned ballot papers and at the central count. Since there are no candidates for this Doll, there can be no polling or counting agents in the ordinary sense in this whole operation. However, it is the intention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to invite hon. Members elected for Northern Ireland constituencies, those hon. Members at Westminster and in the Northern Ireland Parliament, to nominate observers who will have broadly similar functions.

In addition, my right hon. Friend has accepted an offer from the Department of Political Science at the Queen's University, Belfast, to conduct a research project into the border poll, having in mind the undertaking given by the Government during the debate on the Bill to report to the House and to keep the House informed about the outcome of the Poll."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd November, 1972; Vol. 846, c. 1641] It is intended that members of the project team will visit polling stations all over Northern Ireland, and be present at the central count, and later report to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

The Minister has just made a most strange statement about the function of the team from Queen's University. Does he not think that he ought to elaborate on this matter. What exactly is the project to do? What is the team to report on? Is it the conduct of the poll, the way people vote, or the voting in particular areas? It is a most dangerous suggestion.

Mr. Howell

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thinks it is dangerous. I shall be happy to elaborate in considerable detail on the nature of the project team. I shall come back to some of the specific points raised by the hon. Gentleman, and perhaps give him the full details in correspondence.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

At a General Election, anyone going into a polling station takes a form of oath that he will not reveal any matter that he sees or any matter that may be relevant to the voting. How can this project team visit Northern Ireland and afterwards reveal to the general public how the vote went? I shall have to protest in the strongest possible manner if that is what the Minister has in mind.

Mr. Howell

All appointed observers and authorised members of the project team would be required to take this oath and they would operate under those conditions. It would be unacceptable to have within the polling stations people who were not bound by those requirements of secrecy.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us, not in detail but in general, what is the purpose of the Queen's University team? It would help if we could be clear about that. The Minister spoke about Stormont Members and Stormont Members who would be allowed to send observers. I wonder whether, on behalf of the Secretary of State, the hon. Gentleman would arrange for an all-party delegation of Members of the House of Commons to go over at the same time to act as observers.

Mr. Howell

On the first point, I should like to come in much more detail to the nature of the project team because, clearly, there is considerable interest in how it will work. Broadly, the purpose is to observe and report objectively on the conduct of the poll. This is to reinforce the functions that will be fulfilled by the appointed observers. I am sure that all hon. Members recognise the importance of seeing that the poll is conducted in a way which allows observers to ensure that there is the minimum of personation and other abuse.

My right hon. Friend is favourable towards the idea of an all-party delegation and will be glad to pursue the matter with the hon. Gentleman through the usual channels.

Now I come to Articles 8 and 9, which deal with the counting of votes and the declaration of the result. The votes are to be counted at one central point, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has appointed the Under-Sheriff of Belfast and Antrim to be in charge of the central count. As the House knows, the result of the poll will be declared for Northern Ireland as a whole and not by constituencies or other geographical areas. My right hon. Friend will publish the result as soon as possible after polling day.

One important feature of Schedule 1 is that it applies and modifies the parliamentary elections rules made under the Representation of the People Act 1949, as amended. Rule 26, which is on page 8 of the order, is very important because it enables a returning officer to provide a sufficient number of polling stations and allot electors to them. As a result of an examination carried out with the help of the security forces, returning officers have decided to use about 380 polling places, and a polling place may include a number of polling stations.

This is a considerable reduction from the 900 or so used in the last General Election. Although the number of polling places has been reduced, every attempt has been made, taking security into account, to limit the distances that electors will have to travel to reach their polling places. The extended facilities for postal voting should ensure that electors will not be inconvenienced or deterred if their normal polling place is not being used—as may be the case in some instances—and the smaller number will greatly ease the problem of security.

Rules 33, 34, and 37 contain important modifications bearing on the question of security and the role of the security forces. The House may recall that my right hon. Friend undertook that we shall do everything we can to provide appropriate security for the poll. At polling stations law and order will, as is normally the case, be the responsibility of the presiding officer, assisted by the police.

However, we have felt it right to provide in the order for a situation where the Army might be needed in aid of the civil power. Hon. Members will of course, hope, as I do, that the Army will not be required to act in this way during the poll, but this provision has to be made.

Finally, I should like to mention some matters under the heading of publicity. Rule 6 of the parliamentary elections rules applied in Schedule 1 on page 7 of the order provides for the returning officer to publicise the date and hours of the poll, the polling stations to be used, the latest date for the receipt of applications for postal voting, and the addresses of registration and returning officers. Publication will begin as soon as possible after this order has been approved by the House.

Also in Schedule 1, rule 29 on page 8 provides that official poll cards will be issued to each elector. Hon. Members will find the design of the poll card indicated in Schedule 2 on page 13, which shows modifications to the normal poll card. The questions which will appear on the ballot paper will be set out on the poll card, and arrangements are being made for a certain amount of additional publicity of a purely factual nature about the poll to be given in the Press and on television. Hon. Members will find that the form of ballot paper is specified in the modification to rule 19 in Schedule 1 on page 8 of the order and in the appendix to Schedule I on page 10.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

If I may again intervene to save time, the hon. Member explained, with the aid of the schedule, the form of the poll card, and we have known for some time—since the debate in the House—that there will be poll cards. Can he tell us where, in the main body of the Act or in the order, it is stated that poll cards shall be issued in the election?

Mr. Howell

The matter is covered mainly in the schedule, but I shall check in detail and answer the hon. Member's question later. However, as I understand it, the matter is covered in the schedules rather than being specified in the Act, but I am open to question.

Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)

Before the Minister leaves the postal vote, will he say whether efforts will be made to contact people who have left Northern Ireland in the last 12 months for a number of reasons?

Mr. Howell

There will be considerable publicity in Northern Ireland, and those who wish to participate and vote and are on the electoral register, or are on after 15th February, will be entitled to a postal vote. If the hon. Member has in mind members of the Armed Forces, applications for postal votes are being distributed to various units so that those overseas can vote.

Mr. Stallard

I have in mind ordinary civilians who have left, and many have come to inner London, for a number of reasons: Protestants married to Catholics or those whose homes have been destroyed. They hope to go back. What efforts will be made to contact them?

Mr. Howell

They will be entitled to vote, if they wish, and to apply for a postal vote. But there will, of course, be no specific effort to contact each one; that would not be proper. But friends may contact them if they wish, and there will be an opportunity for people to have a postal vote.

I have touched on some details, and many more hon. Members will wish to raise points which I shall do my best to answer.

This poll will give the people of Northern Ireland their first opportunity for a number of years to record their views through the ballot box. It will be regarded by many people in Britain and abroad as setting a standard for democratic behaviour in Northern Ireland. It will be seen as of particular importance as the precursor of the local government elections which have been announced. I should emphasise that we are also taking unprecedented measures to minimise abuse. I hope, therefore, that all hon. Members will join me in expressing the hope that this poll can be conducted as a peaceful and orderly expression of opinion. In the light of that hope I commend the order to the House.

12.15 a.m.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

Over the last nine months since direct rule we have had a problem of procedure which still exists. The one and a half hours allowed for debate are proper for an order and proper following a Second Reading. However, even on this order, not because in essence it is as important as a Second Reading, there are many questions which we could, and should, ask, and we could do with more time, and at a different time of the day.

We made our points of principle on Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Bill. They were embodied in a reasoned Amendment. We have not changed our minds. Our view is that the plebiscite on the border will tell us what we know, that the questions are too narrow, and that the White Paper should precede the Border Poll Bill.

The order gives us in legislative form the date which the Minister reminded us we had known for some weeks. This was determined by the logic of events, and, as we suggested in early debates, the main premise in this logical process was the date of issue of the new register on 15th February which would give the chance to vote to the greatest number of people.

Nevertheless, the plebiscite will tell us only what we already know, and I could only wish that we were discussing the rules for a proper election in Northern Ireland, because increasingly as we move in this period of direct rule we shall have to determine what the people of Northern Ireland really think. Many of those who say that they represent the people of Northern Ireland were elected a long time ago and a lot of political water has passed under the bridge since then.

As to Article 7, we have observers under the Westminster Rules. All hon. Members know of the arrangements whereby observers are allowed into the polling booth as our representatives but by permission of the returning officer. Because there are no political parties it is clear that there have to be different rules.

Are the changes in the observer rules laid down in legislation going back to the 1949 Act and culminating in the 1969 Act made under Section 1(2) of the Border Poll Act which provided that the Secretary of State could make such further provision as to the conduct of the poll …as may appear to him to be expedient"? The Minister told us about observers from political parties in Northern Ireland and on behalf of the Secretary of State. He has assured us that arrangements can be made through the usual channels for hon. Members to go as well. Will there be any control on the type of person whom Members of Parliament from Stormont or here choose as their representatives?

Perhaps I can ignore the fact that we are going from here. But, as the hon. Gentleman has explained it, is it the case that any Westminster Member from Northern Ireland can nominate people to represent him at the polls? That is as I understand it. Does it mean that he can do so only in his own constituency? Or can he nominate persons to go to other constituencies in Northern Ireland? I am not asking that there should be control, but can anyone be nominated as an observer? This is germane to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) about the investigators from the Queen's University. Can a Stormont Member of Parliament nominate anyone he wishes to represent him in the polling booth?

Who will sign the observer's form? We here call the observer "polling agent". An observer will have to get a form signed, and it must be countersigned by the returning officer. He has to sign that he will not interfere, and so on. If there is complete freedom of action for Members of Parliament to choose whom they like to go into polling booths, this may not in certain circumstances be so easy to perform. Who, therefore, will sign the observer's form giving him or his nominee the power to go into polling booths?

Rev. Ian Paisley

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in Northern Ireland elections a polling agent has to take his form of declaration before a justice of the peace before he can be nominated, and then it must be certified by the election agent that he is appearing for a particular candidate?

Mr. Rees

It is the same under the Westminster Rules. The hon. Gentleman has asked my question in a much clearer form. It leads me on to the question of the Department of Political Science at the Queen's University. I will read a letter sent to me this morning by the Secretary of State. He said: In addition, I am accepting the offer from the Department of Political Science at Queens University, Belfast, to conduct a research project into the Border Poll; this is against the background that during the debate on the Bill the Government undertook 'to report to the House and to keep the House informed about the outcome of the poll'. Members of the project team will visit polling stations all over Northern Ireland, and be present at the central count, and will later render a report to me. In principle, and bearing in mind what the right hon. Gentleman promised us, I have no objection to this, but we must be clear about the purpose of the research project and that the Secretary of State will report to the House. If the project's purpose is to inform the Secretary of State about the way the poll was run, that is different from a research project to be published in learned journals and fussed and talked about over a period of years. It then comes into the question of the secrecy of the poll, which is something we have always been very careful to protect.

Postal voting provisions are contained in paragraph 6 of the order. As I understand it, postal voting is now divided into two under the powers we gave the Secretary of State in the Act. There is a new type of postal voting which is different from the postal voting under the ordinary Westminster Rules. Then there are the existing Westminster Rules on postal voting, which have grown up since the war years.

It is important to clarify our minds on this because postal voting on a very large scale in the context of the problems and lawlessness in Northern Ireland could cause very important problems. Is it the case that the rules that apply to Westminster elections for postal votes will apply here? There is Representation of the People Form 7 which applies to employment for the blind and for the physically incapacitated. There is the RPF 7(a) for journeys by air and sea, which might well be relevant in parts of Northern Ireland. There are RPF 8 for removals, RPF 9 for religious observance for the reserve and auxiliary forces, for the returning officer and his staff and constables, RPF 10 for civilian electors abroad and at sea, and RPF 11 for the elector's proxy. I presume that all these are available on the same terms here as for a Westminster election.

Proxy voting will be allowed, but will it be allowed for the new type of postal voting which the Government are organising for this plebiscite, or will it only be under the Westminster Rules in the way to which we have become accustomed over the years? Will there be proxy voting for the new general postal votes which the Government will permit.

Mr. David Howell

There will, of course, be proxy voting, and it is a little extended by the order. There will be the extended form of postal voting. The hon. Member is now asking whether proxy voting will be involved with postal voting, which is the point I cannot grasp.

Mr. Rees

I am making the point that if the Government had not decided to extend postal voting and all we had were the existing rules there could be proxy voting for the existing postal votes. It would be possible to have voting by proxy, even though the votes are postal votes. Will the same arrangements apply for the more general type of postal votes?

I welcome postal votes at elections, but I found when I was a Minister at the Home Office that they are open to great abuse. There was a particular case in the East Midlands, the details of which I have forgotten, but I am sure that such abuse is not unusual.

I have argued in this House on other occasions that in our parliamentary elections if there are to be extended postal votes the extension to individuals should not be at the whim of party organisations. Over the last 100 years we have given the vote to an increasing number of people, and the giving of the vote is organised by the registration officer in the parliamentary borough concerned. It is his job to seek our people to ensure that they get the vote. Unlike in the United States, there is the annual collection of voters lists. It is not a function of the political parties. The only thing in this country which is similar to the United States is the getting of postal votes. I know to my cost that in certain parts of the United Kingdom it is easier for one political party to get postal votes than for others. I do not refer to my present constituency. One has to know one's way about. One has to know one's way into doctors' surgeries. There is a certain amount of suspicion about it. But getting people to take a postal vote for parliamentary elections is a function of the political parties. The registration officer does not go running about except for the occasional advertisement advising people to take a postal vote. This is up to the political parties. What about getting people to use postal votes in Northern Ireland when there are no political parties playing a part in the plebiscite? I am reinforcing the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard).

Mr. Stallard

Will my hon. Friend include in his survey the postal votes of those who have been interned or detained but not convicted? Will they be entitled to a postal vote?

Mr. Rees

That is another most interesting point. I am sure that the Minister will be able to inform us of this either now or at the appropriate moment.

Mr. David Howell

The answer is "yes".

Mr. Rees

People who are interned will be able to vote. There could be abuse at the time of getting the form signed. It has been put to me, and it is as well to consider these problems rather than sweep them under the carpet, that there could he abuse of postal votes in those areas where there has been a large removal of the population, particularly in parts of Belfast. There are areas in Belfast from which populations have moved since the last registration took place in September-November last.

The question is how to make sure that there is not abuse. The Minister said that the Secretary of State had looked at the security aspect of the polling booths. I hope there will be liaison between the Housing Executive, the electoral authority and the postal authorities in these cases.

Within those areas where there has not been mass removal, where postal votes forms are to be delivered, the postman needs protecting.

Mr. John E. Maginnis (Armagh)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in many areas of Belfast the occupants of the houses are there as squatters? There are 5,000 of them. How will that work out?

Mr. Rees

What we are trying to do, now that the Government have decided to have a plebiscite, is to make sure that it is run in the best possible way. We are bringing these problems to the attention of the Government.

What about the penalties for abuse? I took a look at "The Conduct of Parliamentary Elections" which is a publication of Labour Party headquarters and is based entirely on the legislation to which the Minister referred. I find that there are two types of illegal practice in the Westminster Rules, and I presume that they will apply to this plebiscite. One is corrupt practice, which goes hack to the early legislation in the 1880s. The other is illegal practice.

These have to be taken into account in Northern Ireland. It will be a corrupt practice to vote as some other person, whether by voting in person or by post or as proxy. Bribery, treating and undue influence are corrupt practices. Making use of or threatening physical force or violence or restraint, temporal or spiritual injury, fraudulent devices or contrivances impeding or preventing the free exercise of the franchise of an elector, false declaration, incurring expenditure without authority—they are all corrupt.

There are a lot of things that are illegal. It is illegal to broadcast from outside the United Kingdom except by arrangement with the BBC or ITA. It strikes me that there could be a situation where people may be broadcasting from outside the United Kingdom, given the Northern Ireland question, when according to the rules it will be corrupt. The penalties for these offences are great. I hope that the Government will clearly publicise the penalties for illegal and corrupt practices.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that a Northern Ireland politician who made a broadcast about the poll from RTE in Dublin would be guilty of corrupt practice because the broadcast emanated from a place outside the United Kingdom?

Mr. Rees

I am not a lawyer, so I cannot comment on that.

Can postal votes be refused in the way they can be refused under the Westminster Rules? Article 6 refers to a time limit which is different from that under the existing rules. The article specifies that applications for postal votes must be received at least 23 days before the holding of the poll. The time limit for postal votes in England for local government elections is 14 days and for parliamentary elections 12 days. Why is there this difference?

For a normal Westminster election copies of the absent voters list are available and can be used for political purposes. I presume that there is an absent voters list already in existence in Northern Ireland under the old rules—

Mr. Rafton Pounder (Belfast, South)


Mr. Rees

Then I put it in the interrogative. Is there an absent voters list already in existence, and, if so, is it to be ignored? Will there be two absent voters lists, one under the Westminster Rules and one under the Whitelaw rules? Will the absent voters list be open to public examination, or is it to be for the benefit only of the registration officer?

The Minister has explained the verification procedure for postal voting and has said that a model form can be seen in Schedule 3. The form mentions ministers of religion and Members of Parliament, but I have been asked to point out that it does not mention Christian Science practitioners.

Mr. David Howell

If the hon. Gentleman will look at footnote 1(a) to Schedule 3 he will find that a Christian Science practitioner is included.

Mr. Rees

I am sorry to have wasted the Minister's time on that.

How will the result of the poll be notified? Will the procedure be similar to that which is used for the declaration of the result of an election?

I am still worried about the location of polling booths and so are hon. Members with much greater experience of this matter than I have. I hope we shall have firmer information to the effect that it will not be necessary, even for postal voting, for a person in a sectarian area to have to go through a sectarian area of the opposite view. That applies particularly in parts of Belfast.

As for the publication of results, I can understand why the Secretary of State intends to give a mass result rather than broken-down results. Once we begin to think of altering the border and of hiving off parts of Northern Ireland, it will be regarded as a sign of the failure of the Government's political initiative which we have supported over the past year. We know that a large number of people in Fermanagh, Armagh and Derry do not wish to be part of the United Kingdom, and if the results were broken up it would tell us how foolishly the border was drawn 40 years ago.

We regard the border poll procedure as foolish. It is not that we want to ignore the views of the Protestants, but that we believe the results will only tell us what we already know. I regard the Bill as administrative practice for the real election that is to come.

It would be idle to pretend that there is not some fear that there will be violence on polling day. We regard the Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Act as a hangover from last March, but we regard anybody who uses this occasion as an excuse for a day of violence as extremely foolish in terms of the long-term needs of Northern Ireland. It would be easy for somebody to use that day to "show off" by indulging in violence. Therefore, whatever view is taken about the poll, we hope that it will not be regarded as the occasion for violence.

I am reminded of an ancient clause which now stands as the first enactment on the roll of our electoral law. It dates back to 1275. The spirit behind it is that elections should be free. It reads: …the King commandeth upon great forfeiture that no man by force of arms, nor by malice or menacing, shall disturb any to make free election. We on this side of the House have grave doubts about the border poll, but we hope that there will be no violence on that day. Those who want to express their view about the poll should be allowed to go about their business. We hope that it will be the beginning of a step towards a proper election in Northern Ireland.

12.43 a.m.

Mr. Stratton Mills (Belfast, North)

I wish to echo the view put forward by the Minister of State and by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) that the poll should take place in a peaceful, dignified atmosphere to enable the people of Northern Ireland to express their view at the ballot box, and I hope that the poll will not be interfered with by any kind of trouble. I firmly endorse their view and join in their hope.

Nevertheless, I wish to seek an assurance that a sufficient number of the security forces will be used to ensure that the poll is made a reality. Perhaps my hon. Friend will tell us the Government's intentions about the number of troops, and so on. I hope the poll will be free from intimidation. We have been told that there are to be only 380 polling booths against the normal total of 900. I regard that as a wise move because one strongly hopes that people will be able to express their views free from intimidation.

In normal parliamentary elections there is a restriction on the spending of money by the candidates in a poll. It would appear that there is no such restriction on the spending of money in the border poll. There are a number of parties and political groups on this side of the House which support the right of Northern Ireland to remain inside the United Kingdom, but there might be one group which had more money than the others and might be able to put itself in a rather exaggerated position by giving the impression that it was the sole guardian of the Northern Ireland constitution. However, I leave it to my hon. Friend to give us some information about that.

The date of 8th March has been given for the poll. I assume, as does the first editorial in The Times today, that it is not intended to link the publication of the White Paper with the poll and that whether the White Paper comes before or after the poll will be an issue to be decided in isolation. Nevertheless, the experience of the border poll and giving people the right to self-determination might be linked to other ideas.

A number of people feel, for instance, that it is not enough to produce a White Paper and hope that it is sufficient, and that without in any way questioning the judgment or the right or the authority of the House so to do. However, if one has experience of a border poll and its mechanism, there is surely much wisdom—this is the point that I made in a letter to The Times the week before last—in giving the people of Northern Ireland an opportunity in a second poll to express their attitude to the forthcoming White Paper, for only if it has the support and involvement—which is doubly important—of the people of Northern Ireland has it a chance of sticking. If I develop that further, I shall be out of order, but I feel that experience of this poll may be of assistance in this respect.

I fully appreciate that holes may be picked in the concept of having a second referendum in Northern Ireland. One could equally pick holes in any of the other methods by which to proceed, and, therefore, the principle of involving the people in a second poll has much merit.

12.47 a.m.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

As many hon. Members wish to take part in the debate and time is limited, I shall not take long. I should like to deal briefly with a number of matters mentioned by the Minister.

He mentioned a reduction in the number of polling stations. A reduction of two thirds is not insignificant. A reduction from about 900 to about 300 is considerable, and that, I understand, is a reduction in the number of physical stations as such, and so the problems of conducting the poll will be considerable. I repeat the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees)—what will be the problems of people who have to cross rival areas in order to vote?

The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills) mentioned money and one party appearing to be "holier than thou" in its desire to create a united Ireland, or in its desire to retain the link with the United Kingdom. Sitting Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies in Stormont or in Westminster have the right to nominate observers. But in the past it has been not only the victorious candidates who have been able to nominate observers but people who have been representative of different points of view. Therefore, we are giving a right to what is already a vested interest and not to organisations which have not had representation in Stormont or in this House but which may, under the terms of the argument advanced by the hon. Gentleman and by my hon. Friend, be more representative of opinion in Northern Ireland at the moment than Members of this House or of the former Stormont. The Minister of State should look again at the right of people who are not members of political parties represented here or in Stormont but who are members of political parties to attend as observers at these counts. This is very important.

The next matter to which I wish to refer concerns the procedure for the count. It has been said that the count will be done purely and simply for the whole of Northern Ireland. That may be the case, but the count may be conducted in such a manner that the information which the Secretary of State is at present seeking to conceal from us in the sense that he wants a result for the whole of Ireland and not for a constituency or area may be available to the Secretary of State but not available to the remainder of the country.

In any constituency election, a box containing votes may be brought in to be counted. All the votes may be tipped together and mixed up and then examined for the way that people have voted and have spoiled papers before being counted. An individual box may be tipped out and examined for the way that people have voted and have spoiled papers. In that way there is a record of the way that people in a specific polling area have voted. Will that information be available to the Secretary of State, or will it, along with all the other votes, be thrown together into one huge table which will then have various facts extracted from it? This is important in recognising the bona fides of the way in which the count is to be held.

Then there are the terms of the rather surprising announcement which the Minister of State made tonight and which he revealed to my hon. Friend in a letter this morning about the Queen's University research project. What exactly is entailed in this research project? What will be reported to the Secretary of State, and what part of the report will in turn be presented to this House and to the people of the United Kingdom and of Northern Ireland? If it is just a matter of saying that 70 per cent. of the people voted in the Falls, that 100 per cent. in the Shanklin voted or that 200 per cent. in the Bogside voted, statistical information of that kind can be gained in any event. We can discover how many voted in the first hour, whether there was a big or a small turnout, what effect the weather had and what was on television earlier that night. If we are to have a research project, it must be into other matters—not just into the methods by which people voted or how they voted, but into what were their attitudes to the poll, how they voted in specific areas, and what was the relevance of issues which they regarded as being important in the vote. If we have a research project on these lines, we must have an undertaking that no part of the results of the project will be held back by the Secretary of State. It must all be made available to this House and to the people of Northern Ireland.

Secondly, and more important, we have to consider the position of the individual voter and the secrecy of his vote. It is all very well for people to say that this person or that signs a form and gives an undertaking not to reveal what he has seen inside a polling booth or anything that he has discovered. Conclusions can be drawn from reports about what a person has or has not seen. The secrecy of the vote can be affected in that way.

There are many ways in which it is possible, when the votes have been cast, for the information which the rest of us are not to get to be kept by the Secretary of State. I think that we ought to have certain undertakings from the Minister of State on this matter.

I am not necessarily against a research project. I think that the rôle of psephologists can be very important. But why on this occasion and for what particular reasons against a background where we have had no promise of a White Paper? Therefore, we do not know what the Government's intentions are. The people of Northern Ireland will be voting, and there will be a research project based upon that voting which might, after publication of the White Paper, be completely irrelevant.

Those are some of the points that wished to cover. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South, I know the answers. The questions are wrong. We are trying yet again to save the Prime Minister's face. He has stood on his head so often, but we might as well try to save him again. However, I suggest that there is no point in having the poll.

12.57 a.m.

Mr. John E. Maginnis (Armagh)

I shall be only a few minutes in making my remarks at this time of the morning.

First, will the Minister give us an assurance on when the new register will be available? This is the first time in the history of Northern Ireland that there has been a delay in the publication of a register. Most people are anxious to know when the new register will be available.

Secondly, will the hon. Gentleman make absolutely clear the position on postal voting? Most people feel that they cannot apply for a postal vote until the new register is available. I understand—I may be wrong—that one applies for a postal vote on the existing register and then the authority checks to see whether one's name appears on the new register. This is a matter which most people do not appreciate.

Following the question of postal voting comes the question of abuse. We all know that an address in the United Kingdom must be given. What precautions is the Minister taking to see that accommodation addresses will not be used extensively for postal votes? This can happen. Is he aware that 50 per cent. of the electorate may apply for postal voting? If so, are the postal authorities equipped to deal with that number of applications? During the last election large numbers of poll cards sent out to postal voters went astray.

Regarding security in rural areas, the Minister has stated that the numbers of polling stations have been greatly reduced. That means that people in rural areas will have to travel greater distances. This matter will have to be looked at very seriously, because security will be the main problem in the border poll.

I have always supported the holding of a border poll for Northern Ireland. We have heard stated tonight that the result will be a foregone conclusion. It is not the result which is the main question on the border poll; it is the right of the people of Northern Ireland to express their own views, because they can no longer express them through their elected representatives at Stormont. The border poll is a must because it will give the people of Northern Ireland the right to express their views on the border one way or the other because they have no representatives to do it for them. That is a point which must be forced home on every occasion. I hope, as the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills) and the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) have stated, that we shall have a border poll free from intimidation and free from violence of any description. It is the first opportunity the people of Northern Ireland have had for a long time of going to the polls. Sensible people will want to ensure that the poll is conducted in an orderly manner. I hope that most people in Northern Ireland will realise that the world is watching and that an orderly poll conducted with due dignity and decorum will go a long way in restoring Northern Ireland's position throughout not only the United Kingdom but the rest of the world.

1.1 a.m.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

I protest in the strongest possible way at the way this debate has been carried out and the short time that has been given to a matter of such importance. There are almost nine columns of modifications to existing electoral law, and I am certain that the hon. Members who are taking part in the debate have not had time to correlate the modifications with the existing electoral law. We have been given one and a half hours to discuss an issue of great importance to all the people of the United Kingdom. In making this protest I am certain that I speak for the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), who I hope will be fortunate in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, before the end of the debate.

Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East) rose——

Mr. Fitt

I will not give way. In the order there are some minor and some major modifications which necessitate a full day's debate. The most major modification on Article 6 relates to postal voting. The last date for the receipt of the application for a postal vote is to be 9th February 1973. That is 22 or 23 days before the polling date. Why did there have to be such a long lapse? Is it because of the sad experience that we had with the postal facilities over the Christmas period? If that is the reason, one can readily understand it. But it means that people will be limited to a great extent by having to adhere to that date. The register comes into operation on 15th February, and consequently people will have to apply for a postal vote on the number contained in the old register.

Mr. David Howell rose——

Mr. Fitt

Many people have had to change their address since September 1972, since the qualifying date, because of political disturbance. Both Catholics and Protestants have been affected, particularly the Catholic minority in Belfast.

Mr. Howell

There is a danger of confusion arising where there is really no confusion. All electors who believe themselves to be qualified to be on the electoral register will be entitled to apply for a postal vote if they wish. It does not matter as long as they apply before 9th February. If they turn out to be on the new electoral register they will qualify; if they are not, they will not.

Mr. Fitt

Many people have been forced to shift their residence, particularly in Belfast, and even at the time of the compilation of the register it was not possible for those who were preparing the register to go into certain streets and areas. What was done in those circumstances was to compare the register they were preparing with the existing register. Many people who prepared the new register were not admitted to the riot-torn areas of Belfast. There will be thousands of people in Belfast whose names will not be on the register.

If a person has to apply on the 9th February, when will the poll card be sent? Will it be sent out a week or a fortnight later? I suggest that the poll card should be sent out earlier so that people who are not sure whether their names are on the register will at least have the benefit of knowing that the poll card has been sent out. But if they wait until after they have made the claim, they do not know whether or not they are on the register.

The Minister has said that the Secretary of State will take powers to appoint observers, and that he intends to extend this facility to Members of Parliament, both here and in Northern Ireland. But many parts of Northern Ireland do not have MPs. In the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills), two Northern Ireland constituencies, Shankill and Woodfield, do not have Members of Parliament because they resigned when direct rule took place. Who will be the accepted voice of the people in those areas? What will be the criteria in appointing observers? There are many questions which one would demand to ask; because of the time limitation, this debate will be completely unsatisfactory.

There were nearly 1,000 polling stations, but now there will be only 380. This means that people will have to travel further if they want to record their votes, if they do not wish to use the postal facilities. Many people, particularly in the rural areas, have been used to voting at their local polling station, which was erected on the creation of the State 50 years ago. They will be unwilling to travel. It seems to me that the Secretary of State has taken this attitude for the administrative convenience of himself and his officers.

With my knowledge of Northern Ireland—the hon. Member for Antrim, North could probably elaborate at greater length—I know that some people will be deeply confused by the order. They have never had a postal vote in their lives; they are unsure whom to approach for the application, whether their names are on the register in Belfast or whether they are on the old or the new register. All this will make the poll completely invalid.

I have always thought that this poll will cause mischief and great danger in Northern Ireland, and I still adhere to that view. We all know the result. Carried out under this order, the poll will cause a great deal of inconvenience and possibly danger. Opposed to the poll as I am—I speak for my party—I know that many moderate people in Northern Ireland will have to boycott it and advise those whom they represent to do the same, because we already know the result. But I associate myself with the plea of the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) that, if and when the poll takes place, no one should engage in any way in violence with the intention of bringing about his own result.

1.9 a.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

As a representative from Northern Ireland, I must again register, in the strongest possible manner, my utter disgust at the way in which this matter has been presented in the House. It was the bounden duty of the Secretary of State to be present himself for this most important debate. The Act which the House passed gave us no information whatever. Now, in a draft order, we have been given other information, some of which has come as a bombshell to the House.

Over 900 polling stations are to be reduced to fewer than 400. That means that people in my area, North Antrim, will have to travel through areas which they never travel through. Parts of my area are strongly nationalist and other parts are equally strongly Protestant. It has always been the custom that in those areas with a particular political outlook the polling stations are located near where the residents live, so that they can use them at their convenience.

I am for the border poll. I was for it, and I suggested it before direct rule took place. But I do not want it to go out to the world that there was anything about the poll that could not be subjected to the closest possible scrutiny. At the polling stations in Northern Ireland I do not want to see vast numbers of Her Majesty's troops. The soldiers must certainly be there, because of security, but I do not want to see them with armoured cars. If that is what has been suggested by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills), that there should be such a saturation of troops on the day that it would be evident that the troops were there in abundance, it would give the world an impression entirely contrary to the proper situation.

The majority of people in Northern Ireland want to remain part and parcel of the United Kingdom. Even those opposing that desire admit that. I do not want it to go out to the world that because of the presence of British troops on that day the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom. I understand that there is a security problem. I freely admit that. But I want to ask the Minister some questions of vital importance.

I take up a question referred to by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). At the last election in my constituency five parties fought for the seat. Those parties have as much right as I have to have observers at this poll. They are just as much entitled to have a representative at the ballot boxes on that day as I am. Why should it be limited to the person who happens on the day to hold the seat? I make a plea to the Minister to look into this and see whether it would be possible for those parties which fought for the various seats at the last election to nominate observers. Otherwise what will people say? They will say "Oh, it was only the Member of Parliament who had the right to go in and see whether the poll was in order." I should like it to be done in such a way that no one afterwards could say "Only those who happened to be Members of Parliament saw what was going on." We must have the opportunity across the board for those who have also fought for the various seats, at least at the last election. We must limit it in some way in that they should have an opportunity to nominate agents to go in and see that the voting is done properly and an opportunity to question the presiding officer and to lodge any complaint. Who will lodge a complaint if they do not have access to the presiding officer? One cannot say to a presiding officer "Come outside." Everyone knows that he has to stay inside at the boxes. If someone has a complaint, how can he make it if there is no representative of his political group inside the station to make representations?

This is a very important matter. I am not at all happy about this, and I believe that I speak for a vast number of people in Northern Ireland who think that we shall be made guinea pigs for this Queen's University project. The electors in this country would resent such a project taking place at a General Election. This will not be acceptable in Northern Ireland.

Are these people to be allowed into the stations when legitimate political parties' representatives are to be denied access? Are people who have fought these seats for the past 50 years to be denied the right to have an observer in the boxes, whereas this team can enter and make investigations? What is the team to investigate, and what will be the result of the investigation? I think that this matter needs to be considered carefully. I plead with the Minister to make the strongest possible representations to his right hon. Friend to reconsider the whole matter because, as far as I know, no political party in Northern Ireland or no shade of political grouping there has ever been consulted about this provision, yet it is to be foisted upon us.

I want the border poll to take place. 1 advocated it before direct rule came about. It should have taken place a long time ago. I want it carried out in such a way that there can be no objections from any side after it is over. I want the poll to be conducted in such a way that everyone can see that it has been carried out in accordance with the best British traditions.

We have not had time to ventilate the strong feelings of this side of the House on this matter. The Minister must think carefully about some of the regulations that have been proposed, and especially those relating to the register, because if I apply under one register and then discover that I am not on the other that will lead to great difficulties.

1.16 a.m.

Mr. David Howell

I am the first to recognise the inadequacy of the opportunities that we have in this House to debate Northern Ireland matters under the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act. Indeed, it is precisely because my right hon. Friend and I recognise the inadequacy of the opportunities for debate that we are seeking to move towards a constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland that will allow for a happier and fuller discussion of this and other important issues. Let it not be thought that there is any complacency about the present position or about the desire and the need to improve the situation and move on to a better constitutional settlement.

Mr. McMaster

Is my hon. Friend aware that although some of us have been to great trouble to collect views on this order throughout Northern Ireland we have had no opportunity of putting those views to the House? In addition, we have been given no opportunity to amend the order. There are many details about which a number of people in Northern Ireland are not satisfied. They would like these matters to be considered by the Minister and amendments made to the order. There is no possibility of doing that, and I protest strongly.

Mr. Howell

I know that, and I shall try to answer some of the questions that have been asked and deal with some of the confusion that has arisen.

The first matter is that of the observers. The proposition is that any Member of the Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont or of the Westminster Parliament can nominate any number of observers for any polling stations that he or she wishes. There is no limit. This is obviously a matter to be worked out in the light of common sense so that my right hon. Friend can appoint those observers who have been nominated, but there is no question, as I said in opening the debate, of nominations being limited to the one nominee whom a Member of Parliament may place within his own constituency. The opportunity is there, within these rules, for observers from all parties involved in and campaigning in the poll to be appointed to the polling stations. There is in theory no limit to the number, but one hopes that common sense and a sense of responsibility by Members of Stormont and the House of Commons will ensure that there is a sensible limitation on the numbers appointed.

My right hon. Friend must reserve the right to apply some overall restraint should people deliberately try to abuse the system, though I am sure that they will not. The main point is that observers from all parties will be allowed to enter all polling stations, having taken the necessary oath of secrecy, to ensure that abuses are not allowed and that the poll proceeds in the way that they would wish.

There has been some misapprehension about the research project. The latter is, of course, confined to the method by which the poll takes place. It is not a project which would in any sense go into the motivations or reasons or into any other part of the voting process or into the private and secret way in which individuals vote or why they vote.

This project will be carried out with the object of describing and analysing the border poll, the arrangements for conducting it, its result, and any relevant events. We envisage that research will be done and published by Professor Lawrence, Dr. Elliott and Mr. Laver, all of the Department of Political Science of the Queen's University, Belfast.

I note the doubts expressed by hon. Members, but it is a sensible project which can greatly help to ensure that impartial observers are involved in the process of the ballot by ensuring that a report is available afterwards showing the impartiality and drawing important lessons from the poll. It will be a valuable and useful exercise.

The hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) asked me several questions, and I have not the time to answer all. He asked about those entitled to a proxy vote. The rules are the same as for Westminster with the addition for members of the reserve forces and the UDR who need one because they are on duty and so on. They will be entitled to a postal vote.

The hon. Member asked whether anybody can be refused a postal vote. No, provided that it is not a fraudulent application and that it is certified by those who certify postal votes.

The hon. Member asked whether their was a time limit for receiving postal votes. Applications must be in by 9th February. All those who believe themselves to be on the electoral register may take an application form from a post office, but if they are not on the register they are not entitled to vote. If they have not applied for a postal vote they will get a polling card entitling them to vote in person.

A number of points were made about the need to ensure that there was no intimidation, and that is recognised and accepted in the desire to see a considerable extension of the postal vote.

We have to look on the poll as one which will mean a great extension of the postal vote and which will thereby ensure that many people who might be intimidated or worried about going through hostile areas or worried about having to travel rather further than they normally do will be able to exercise their democratic right by a postal vote.

We accept that there will be a substantial postal vote and have made preparation for one. That was the valuable point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. Maginnis).

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) also asked about the reduction in the number of polling stations. That point has, I believe, been met by the considerable extension of facilities for postal votes.

The hon. Member, too, mentioned the point about Members of Parliament nominating observers. This is important, and I have made the point that a Member of Parliament can nominate as many as he may wish so that members of all parties can be at the polling stations.

A number of provisions have been made on forgery and fraudulence. Applications for postal votes must be made in person, and an acknowledgment will be sent to the address of the person making it and to his address in the electoral register to ensure that no application is being made for a vote without that person's knowledge. This provision will help. In addition there will be a number of spot checks to ensure that people who have signed applications are genuine and have made that certification which it is claimed they have made. That, too, will enable abuse to be minimised.

Mr. McNamara

Can the hon. Gentleman deal with the method of counting before he leaves the points I made?

Mr. Howell

I do not wish to elaborate on the method of counting, except to say that there will be central counting and that this will be done in the way described. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the dangers of a particular incident where a ballot box might be upset. I hope that he will be reassured that, if there are, as it is intended that there should be, a large number of observers at the count as well as at the polling stations, there will be safeguards. The hon. Gentleman may not be reassured, but the Government believe that with observers and the security provisions provided there is an adequate opportunity to ensure that these dangers are minimised.

There are a number of other issues, about which I will write to hon. Members. A great deal of publicity will follow to ensure that there is wide understanding of the considerable opportunities for almost everyone in Northern Ireland who wishes to do so to vote, either by post or in person, and I believe that this will enable a large poll to be registered and to be carried out in a helpful and democratic manner.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

There is concern about the Queen's University research project. To allay all the fears about it, will the hon. Gentleman make it clear that the report shall be to the Secretary of State and that there will be no publication, other than through the Secretary of State and to the House, before any decision is made about what happens to the material afterwards?

Mr. Howell

That worry has been expressed tonight. I assure the hon. Gentleman that any report made will be through my right hon. Friend.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 14th December, be approved.

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