§ The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Alison)
I beg to move,
That the draft Northern Ireland (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order 1981, which was laid before this House on 19 January, be approved.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. An hon. Member is addressing the House and other hon. Members must not stand this side of the Bar.
§ Mr. Alison
I am obliged to you, Mr. Speaker, for your protection.
This order seeks to raise the maximum amount which may be spent by candidates contesting district council elections in Northern Ireland. The increase will compensate for inflation since March 1977 when the limit was last fixed.
The current limit of £72 plus 1.5p per registered elector in the district electoral area will be increased to £110 plus 2.3p per elector. In percentage terms this will mean an increase of just over 53 per cent. This is closely in line with the increase in the general level of prices since March 1977. These, of course, are limits on expenditure by candidates and do not involve public funds.
I commend to the House this limited but important measure which will ensure that candidates in the local elections in May can more effectively put their case before the electorate.
§ Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)
Like most amending legislation, the draft order appears on the face of it to be limited in scope. Indeed, one could say that the changes are contained in the equivalent of one line of print in article 2, which substitutes £110 for £72 and 2.3p for l.5p.
An hon. Member accustomed to the normal electoral process might be excused for assuming that each candidate in each seat is permitted to spend up to the sum in the new scale. The order does not say that, if that candidate is joined by another of like mind and belonging to the same party, the two are not permitted to spend double the amount but that in that case the total sum must be reduced by one-quarter. If they should be joined or assisted in the battle by yet another candidate, the sum would be reduced by one-third. After that, woe betide any party that fields, say, five candidates in any one area. They would be forced to campaign on the lower scale of the three candidates.
Hon. Members do not realise that this crazy arrangement results from an equally crazy electoral system known as proportional representation, and it is to cope with that crazy system that we are discussing this order tonight. That system was introduced in 1973 with the object of "breaking the mould." That decision is the real reason why we have such a collection of political parties in Northern Ireland and why there can be no political stability in Northern Ireland until proportional representation is abolished.
242 In times past, it was perhaps easy for hon. Members to ignore the truth of what I have just said. But now that "mould-breaking" has become a sort of Limehouse pastime, is it not politically dangerous to maintain proportional representation in one part of the United Kingdom and refuse it to others which have not yet been cured of all sorts of fanciful notions, such as centre parties, coalitions and other such political monstrosities? Will not the two big battalions in this House feel very vulnerable when they are faced with a reasonable request from reasonable men for just a teeny-weeny bit of "mouldbreaking", just enough to get the centre party on to its feet? I hope that the two main parties will stoutly resist any such pressure. However, they would be in a much stronger position if the political itinerants were unable to point to a part of the United Kingdom that is forced to tolerate devices that are likely to be damaging to democracy in Britain as Britain has known it.
While giving a welcome of sorts to the order, I hope that this will be the last time that we make any sort of legislative arrangements for elections held under proportional representation. My party takes the view that the sooner we are done with it, the better.
§ Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)
The only argument that we have heard against proportional representation is that it makes the major parties vulnerable. On that basis we should welcome proportional representation, because anything that makes the major parties think about their policies and makes them realise that they are not on an easy ride into Parliament and into power provides a service to the community.
I should have thought that Northern Ireland is an example of how proportional representation has in one way enriched political life in the Province. By bringing forward people with different views, for example, on the Unionist side, the people have a greater choice and can pick and choose. No longer are they presented, as they were at election after election for years in Northern Ireland, with the choice "Vote for Official Unionist or you will hand the constituency over to a Republican." It means that the people can vote, and by exercising their vote they can make a choice between the different brands of Unionist. For that reason, I make clear in this House that proportional representation has contributed greatly to political life in the Province. Of course, the major party, for instance the Official Unionist Party, feels vulnerable because it has been shown to be a monolithic party that is more interested in keeping power than in working for the good of Ulster and the people of Ulster. I merely wish to place on record that proportional representation is not the dangerous ill that some make it out to be.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)
Order. Before that line is pursued too far, I should say that it is out of order.
§ Mr. English
Before the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) resumes his place, I wish to point out that the single transferable vote system in Northern Ireland is proportional on only one occasion in the European elections and that in other cases it is not a proportional representation system.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)
In briefly commending the order the Minister of State described the expenses allowable to candidates as being intended to assist them in presenting their case to the electors. I wonder whether he realises—I am sure that the House does not realise—that in the elections at which the order will first be effective, the local government elections in May, there will be no question of the candidates having electors to whom they present their views in the same sense as candidates at local government elections in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland is divided into wards for the purposes of the electoral register. It is not divided into wards for the purposes of elections. There are the same number of candidates as there are wards, but the candidates have no relationship with the wards. The candidates have no electors. The councillors who will be elected will have no specific electors of the ward who elected them, and that mutual responsibility of electors and elected is absent from the elections in Northern Ireland that will take place in May.
It is a mockery of the electoral system. It is a mockery that would not by tolerated for an instant on this side of the Irish sea. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) in hoping, and verging upon prediction, that before long the impossibility of maintaining in one part of the kingdom a non-democratic system that is rejected by the remainder of the system will have been seen and acted upon.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)
I am amazed at the contribution of the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux). His party was a part of the United Ulster Unionist coalition that put forward a Convention report. The report stated that the coalition of Unionists would accept a form of proportional representation but preferred the list system. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the report. That was the consensus of Unionists at that time.
We are dealing with expenses and the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman on the division of expenses are important. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) has talked about the differences between wards and how candidates stand. The candidates stand for areas and in the various areas there may be three seats or five seats. When those seats are being fought, naturally the candidates of one party run together. I want to know whether those candidates running together have the same opportunity of spending the same amount of money in their election as a candidate of a party which has only one contender in the area. In my opinion, they have not. But I should like that confirmed. I should also like to have the figures confirmed.
At the Convention election, there was a very broad coalition. Candidates running for different parties had similar advertising and joint meetings. The law was not rigidly enforced on that occasion, and the parties put in their returns in keeping with their own single-party candidates. That is a fact. We had better get this matter straight. If two parties with candidates running in an area have a general agreement on coalition, what is the position with regard to those candidates?
I agree with the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) who spoke about proportional representation. 244 We have been over the question of the single transferable vote. It does not affect me. I had an outright majority in the European election, anyway. I would rather have the first-past-the-post system, for one reason—that it is in keeping with the rest of the United Kingdom. I do not like this system which lines us up with the Republic of Ireland. I never did like it. But there is much strength in what the hon. Member for Down, North has said, because it means that the vote of any party is not decimated. If I am a Unionist, I can transfer my vote and I can see that at the end of the day a Unionist will get my vote. I am not forced, as we have been forced in Northern Ireland, to vote for a particular candidate under the threat that "If you do not vote for us, the Republicans will take the seat". That has been the main threat that has been held over us.
That system was introduced by the enemies of Ulster, not by our friends. But they overstepped themselves, and instead of hindering Unionism, I believe that the thing that they had planned for its destruction was its salvation. So far as I am concerned, if one has a majority one will be elected anyway.
§ Mr. English
As one who comes from a party that has just decided its policy by choosing motions by single transferable vote, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I feel rather deeply about the issue. Does he realise that two successive Republic of Ireland Governments of different parties have recommended that the single transferable vote system should be scrapped in the Republic because it is so disproportionate, and that in the last four elections, on two occasions the party that gained votes lost?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman is tempted to answer that interesting question, I remind him that the order has nothing to do with the voting system. It relates to the limits of candidates' election expenses.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
But it has, in a measure, to do with the system, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If we were to go by an ordinary system, we should not have the ridiculous nonsense that we are discussing tonight about how to split candidates, because every candidate would be entitled to that amount of money.
But that is not what is happening. That is not what is before the House tonight. Therefore, in a sense, although I shall not stray into this area, I must point out that when the legislation was going through the House we hammered the Government on that point. We told them that the Republic wanted to be rid of the system, but they would not listen to us. So, of course, they are hearing it again this evening.
The Minister must come clean and spell this out clearly so that candidates will know the amount of money that they can spend and whether, if they run in a broad coalition, they are entitled to claim that they are spending money only within their own parties and that the others who are with them, but not of them, can spend the same amount. That is the matter to which the Minister must apply himself and spell out clearly. Perhaps he will tell us why, if that is the law, it was not observed in relation to the Convention, and why the then Government closed their eyes—not just one eye, like Nelson, but both eyes—on that occasion.
§ Mr. Alison
I should like to start by replying to the specific point made by the hon. Member for Antrim, North 245 (Rev. Ian Paisley) in relation to the split of the allowable individual candidate's limit of expenditure. I am advised that the law provides that where there are two joint candidates—that is to say, candidates who share staff, have the same committee rooms or publish a joint address the maximum expense which each may incur is threequarters of the maximum for a single candidate, and where there are more than two joint candidates, the maximum for each is two-thirds of that for a single candidate.
The hon. Gentleman referred to something which goes rather beyond the concept of common staff, common committee room and a joint election address. It was a somewhat looser coalition. Perhaps he will allow me to take notice of that wider question and advise him in writing as to exactly how the legal point would affect it. However, my advice at present is that this is a fairly tightly specified joint candidature in the way in which I have described it.
§ Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Scunthorpe)
Perhaps my hon. Friend can help me on a point of clarification. Does joint staff include the same agent, or is it specified anywhere what joint staff means?
§ Mr. Alison
Again, I must ask my hon. Friend to allow me to take notice of that and advise him in writing. However, at first sight it is anything which could be considered as paid or remunerated staff, agent, sub-agent or assistant agent. I shall certainly verify that.
For the rest, I have attempted to take brief notes of the points made by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux), the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) and the hon. Member for Antrim, North. The notes that I made were brief and succinct—against PR, pro PR, against PR and pro PR. That seems to be about the sum total of the contributions. I thought that the hon. Member for Down, North came down slightly ambivalently but with some slight sympathy in regard to the PR arrangements which exist in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Alison
I take that point. The measure is a modest one. It has no profound significance other than that of trying to catch up with inflation. I hope that the two pillars of Hercules, if I may so describe the representation of Northern Ireland on both sides of the House, will allow us to navigate this small, modest craft through the debate in order to make this offset compensation for inflation which will be in the public interest.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ That the draft Northern Ireland (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order 1981, which was laid before this House on 19 January, be approved.