§ 3.38 p.m.
§ The MINISTER of STATE, NORTHERN IRELAND OFFICE, (Lord Melchett)
My Lords, I shall, with permission, repeat a Statement about the representation of Northern Ireland in another place, which is now being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:
"A Conference was set up last July under your chairmanship, Mr. Speaker, to consider, and make recommendations on, the number of Parliamentary constituencies that there should be in Northern Ireland. The Conference reported in February of this year and its report was published as Command Paper 7110. I express the gratitude of the Government to you, Mr. Speaker, for presiding over that Conference, and to those right honourable and honourable Members who served on it.
1172 "The Conference recommended that the number of Parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland should be 17, but that, in order to be able to overcome practical difficulties, the Boundary Commission should be given power to vary that number, subject to a minimum of 16 and a maximum of 18.
"The Government accept these reccommendations and, as Parliamentary circumstances permit, will introduce a Bill to make the necessary amendments to the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1949. I should add that the time required to carry out the statutory procedures of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland, to fix the new constituency boundaries, is such that the next General Election will take place on the existing basis."
My Lords, that completes the Statement.
§ Lord BELSTEAD
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating this Statement and for accepting the recommendation of the Speakers' Conference, which incidentally was given by a majority of 22 members to one of the Speaker's Conference, that Northern Ireland should have increased representation at Westminster. But I am bound to say that I have considerable misgivings that the noble Lord on behalf of the Government was not able to give a straight undertaking to introduce a Bill to increase Northern Ireland representation at Westminster during this Session of Parliament, and I am mystified as to why Parliamentary time has not been reserved for this electoral issue. After all, the Speaker's Conference was set up with agreement between the Parties, and in the knowledge that Northern Ireland is underrepresented, four months before the opening of this Session. So the Government knew perfectly well that Parliamentary time was going to be needed.
On the grounds of size of electorate or areas of constituencies Northern Ireland is not just under-represented, it is grossly under-represented compared with England, Wales and Scotland. I would ask the Government seriously to reconsider the Parliamentary timetable in this matter. If the noble Lord on behalf of the Government is telling the House that while the Government can find time for devolution Bills for Scotland and Wales, which are already more than adequately represented 1173 at Westminster, and yet they cannot give any definite offer of Parliamentary time to implement the report of a Speaker's Conference for Northern Ireland, where there is neither devolution nor proper Westminster representation, then that is most unsatisfactory.
That, and the Statement made by the noble Lord, leads me to ask one fundamental practical question. When do the Government intend to introduce a Bill to give effect to this report? Even allowing, as the Statement says, for the pressures of the Parliamentary timetable, none the less when is it the Government's intention to do so? Do the Government accept the evidence which was given to the Conference that, following a Parliamentary Bill, the Boundary Commission could well take as long as four years to complete its task? If that is the case, then I really do think that your Lordships this afternoon ought to be told whether by delaying now it is the Government's intention to be content to allow not one but probably two General Elections to pass before Northern Ireland is adequately represented at Westminster.
§ Lord WIGODER
My Lords, we on these Benches would also like to thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. We are not so grateful for the contents of the Statement, but, as the noble Lord will be aware, reports of Speaker's Conferences almost invariably fill my noble friends on these Benches with unwanted gloom. May I ask the noble Lord three questions. First, when the Government come to legislate, will they bear in mind that both Houses of Parliament have now recognised that in order that the minority in Northern Ireland can be fairly represented at the European Assembly, a form of proportional representation is necessary? Secondly, will the noble Lord agree that it is essential, for the prospects of long-term peace in Northern Ireland, that the minority should feel that they are fairly represented in the Westminster Parliament? Thirdly, if so, what do the Government propose to do about it?
§ 3.44 p.m.
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their comments on the Statement. I did not, of course, say that the Government would 1174 not be introducing a Bill in this Session of Parliament. The Statement which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made says that the Government will do so "as Parliamentary circumstances permit". Noble Lords are aware that this is a constitutional Bill; although it will be a short amending Bill, it will be a constitutional matter which will take -up time on the Floor of another place. It is not a simple Bill to take through both Houses of Parliament. Added to that, it is quite clear that it would not affect the holding of the next General Election whether the Bill is taken through Parliament in this Session or the next, because it is bound to take longer than the time that there could possibly be between now and the next General Election to get the boundaries redrawn by the Boundary Commission and to go through the procedures that have to be gone through. Nevertheless, the Government would not accept that it is likely to take as long as the time the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, quoted, four years. Our information is that it is likely to take about two years for the Boundary Commission to complete its work, even with the maximum number of objections to its proposals, which in the normal course of events would be a maximum of two, as I understand it, on the particular proposals.
The noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, asked me about a favourite theme of his Party, if I may say so, proportional representation. Certainly the Government have recognised, and all Parties have recognised, the need for and the desirability of holding elections by proportional representation in Northern Ireland. But it has also been the view taken by the major Parties at Westminster that it would not be desirable to have elections to another place in some parts of the United Kingdom held on one basis and in other parts held on a different basis, and that remains the position. I would certainly expect that the additional seats which will be going to Northern Ireland will assist both the minority Party and the majority Party to be better represented at Westminster, and that is clearly desirable. But it is also the policy of Her Majesty's Government, and as I understand it of other Parties at Westminster, that the best prospects for long-term peace and stability in Northern Ireland lie in achieving a devolved administration 1175 in Northern Ireland itself which is acceptable to the minority and majority populations; that remains the Government's policy.
My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether there is any precedent for delaying implementation of a recommendation of a Speaker's Conference? Is it not the case that on all previous occasions when a Speaker's Conference has made a recommendation the Government in power have said that they would implement it as quickly as they could?
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, that is what this Government have said about this Speaker's Conference recommendation.
§ Lord HARMAR-NICHOLLS
My Lords, surely the noble Lord would not want to dispense with precedent quite as casually as that. I should have thought my noble friend's question was very relevant. It is not the first time we have had to alter boundaries. Particularly at this time in this House what representation should he to be fair is a very sensitive subject. I should have thought that a more detailed answer ought to be given to my noble friend's question in order to satisfy all of us who have listened to it.
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, I am at a loss to know in what way I have suggested we are not following precedent. The Government have said that we will introduce this measure as soon as there is time in Parliament for it to be carried through. I am not aware of precedents in the past deviating from that, and the Government are not deviating from precedent in this case.
§ Lord BELSTEAD
My Lords, my noble friend's question could easily have been answered if, instead of saying that "as Parliamentary circumstances permit" the Government will introduce a Bill, this Statement had said "as Parliamentary circumstances permit and as soon as possible". That is what the Statement does not say.
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, I have now said that we will introduce this 1176 measure as soon as possible and as Parliamentary circumstances permit. I really do not think we are carrying the discussion very much further forward.
§ Lord HAILSHAM of SAINT MARYLEBONE
My Lords, I was greatly reassured to hear from the noble Lord that the Government have not abandoned the hope of a devolved system of Government for Northern Ireland, because I personally—and I speak only for myself in this matter—believe that there will never be peace there until that is restored. May I ask the noble Lord to give this assurance to the House, therefore, based on that assumption, which I gather we share, that despite what they propose to do in this Statement they will not cease to endeavour to create a situation in which devolved Government is introduced and is the norm for Northern Ireland?
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, certainly that remains very firmly the Government's policy. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has repeated on numerous occasions to all representatives of both communities in Northern Ireland, and indeed to others who take an interest in Northern Ireland, that that remains very firmly our policy. The proposals which my right honourable friend put to the representative political Parties in Northern Ireland remain on the table. Discussion has not been closed on those proposals as far as we are concerned, and it is our earnest hope that representatives of both communities in Northern Ireland will come together and agree proposals which are acceptable to all parts of the community.