PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

First Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

DRAFT PARLIAMENTARY CONSTITUENCIES (NORTHERN IRELAND) ORDER 1995

Tuesday 31 October 1995

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1

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr John Maxton

Allason, Mr. Rupert (Torbay)

Ancram, Mr. Michael (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)

Barnes, Mr. Harry (North-East Derbyshire) Canavan, Mr. Dennis (Falkirk, West)

Congdon, Mr. David (Croydon, North-East)

Day, Mr. Stephen (Cheadle)

Forsythe, Mr Clifford (Antrim, South)

Fry, Sir Peter (Wellingborough)

Gapes, Mr. Mike (Ilford, South)

Hood, Mr. Jimmy (Clydesdale)

McAvoy, Mr. Thomas (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

Skeet, Sir Trevor (Bedfordshire, North)

Spicer, Mr. Michael (Worcestershire, South)

Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend East)

Wicks, Mr. Malcolm (Croydon, North-West)

Wood, Mr Timothy (Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household)

Worthington, Mr. Tony (Clydebank and Milngavie)

Yeo, Mr. Tim (Suffolk, South)

Mr. M Hennessy, Committee Clerk

2
3 First Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Tuesday 31 October 1995

[MR. JOHN MAXTON in the Chair]

Draft Parliamentary Constituencies (Northern Ireland) Order 1995

10.30 am

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Parliamentary Constituencies (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. The order was laid before the House on 16 October 1995. Its purpose is to give effect, without modification, to the recommendations made by the boundary commission for Northern Ireland in its fourth periodical report on parliamentary constituencies, submitted to my right hon and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 21 June this year under section 3(1) of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. The draft order also gives effect, without modification, to the recommendations made by that commission in its second supplementary report submitted to my right hon and learned Friend on the same date under section 28(2) of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. The reports were laid before Parliament on 16 October with this draft order in accordance with section 3(5) of the 1986 Act and section 28(4) and (5) of the 1973 Act to apply to the supplementary report. The commission's main report recommends, in line with the provisions in schedule 2, paragraph 1(4) of the 1986 Act, that Northern Ireland should be divided into 18 constituencies for parliamentary elections. In its supplementary report the commission recommends that five members should be returned to the Northern Ireland Assembly from each of the 18 parliamentary constituencies, increasing the total membership of an Assembly from 85 to 90. The commission published its provisional recommendations on 20 January 1994. As a result of representations received, five public local inquiries were held between May and June last year. By January this year the commission published its revised recommendations which propose that there should be 18 constituencies. Those revised recommendations are the commission's final recommendations embodied in the draft Parliamentary Constituencies (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 before us this morning. My right hon and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is satisfied that the Northern Ireland parliamentary boundary commission has carried out its 4 statutory remit most thoroughly and with proper regard to the representations made to it. On that basis I commend it to the Committee.

10.33 am

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): The Opposition do not oppose the order. The boundary commission has conducted its work in a thorough and time-consuming way. It has had what I suppose one would call the courage substantially to revise its initial proposals after conducting five local inquiries. Whether one is satisfied with the current position depends on one's perspective on Northern Ireland. I should like to take this opportunity to ask the Minister about the conduct of the procedure that led to the report. The boundary commission asked the Secretary of State to consider some changes to future procedure that would help it in its work. Those are found on pages 31 to 34 of its report. First, the boundary commission asked that the Director General of Ordnance Survey should in future be there not as a guest but as an assessor. That seems eminently sensible. The boundary commission needs the presence of that office holder so should not it be formalised? Secondly, and this is probably the most important point about the future conduct of the boundary commission's work, it fears that unless action is taken by the Government the various boundary commissions will get into a wrong sequence. The boundary commission rightly believes that the local government boundaries commission and the district electoral areas commission should have completed their work before it conducts its next review. That is obviously sensible but because of the 1992 Act affecting the boundary commission, the frequency of its review is greater than the frequency of reviews by the local government boundary commission and the district electoral areas commission. They will get out of sequence, unless action is taken. Has the Secretary of State accepted that the original sequence should be reaffirmed? The third issue is the status of district electoral areas as building blocks. There is controversy about that. Some people believe that the district electoral areas are too big to be used as building blocks for the boundary commission's work. What is the Minister's view? There are two further points. First, to an outsider—to someone coming to the issue for the first time—it would seem that there is a clutter of boundary commissions. We have the local government boundary commission, the district electoral areas commission and the boundary commission itself. On an initial look, there would seem to be one too many bodies. Does the Minister have a view on that? My final point is a small, but important one. At the moment, people have one month in which to respond to reports by the boundary commission. It has been suggested that that is too short a period and that it should be two months statutorily. That would seem to be sensible. Does the Minister agree?

10.36 am

5

Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South): I do not oppose the order, but I should like to make a few comments. The subject is of interest to all colleagues from any constituency in the United Kingdom. Everyone is interested in one's own constituency and in working out whether the figures are fair or unfair, according to them. I suppose that each Member of Parliament considers himself or herself to be an expert on such matters. I have a particular interest. I was the organiser for my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) in the old South Antrim constituency, before I came to the House. The old South Antrim constituency was split up into two and a half constituencies. Therefore, I have a great interest in the figures and the logic of how the constituencies are arrived at. I decided, along with my friends, to study the number crunching that is supposed to be done when such an operation is carried out. I decided to carry out a completely unbiased assessment before the first provisional recommendations came out, basing my calculations on the figures and taking Northern Ireland as a whole, which, when one reads the report, seems to have been the intention of the commission. There are various things that one must study when making such an assessment. Lough Neagh is in the very centre of Northern Ireland and everything revolves around it. At some stage, if there are too many voters in a certain area, one must go either to the north or the south of Lough Neagh. Then one encounters the River Bann, which is a geographical boundary. One must either go to the north or the south of Lough Neagh if one is going to change the boundaries, depending on where the voters are. We also studied the depopulation of Belfast. Belfast had four seats, but there were not sufficient voters to merit four seats. We studied where the excess voters were and they were found in the general area of South Down and Lagan Valley, which is to the south of Belfast and Lough Neagh. There were surplus voters in the west, in the Foyle and Londonderry, East constituencies. Therefore, there had to be a crossing of the River Bann somewhere, either to the north or to the south. We had to take into account the earlier decisions of the local government commissioner. The local government commissioner considered the wards and the district electoral areas, after which the constituencies could be considered. The commissioner decided that the Belfast boundary should remain as it was and that the changes should be made in the wards. The geography and depopulation of Belfast also had to be considered, and all the factors clearly suggested that there should be three seats for Belfast. If expansion were to be considered for Belfast, the natural barriers of the M2 and the Cavehill and Black mountain range of hills and the closeness of the three Antrim seats would have to be borne in mind. I remind the Committee and the Minister that Antrim, North was 11.1 per cent. over quota, Antrim, South was 6 4.6 per cent. over quota and Antrim, East was 11.5 per cent. under quota. That suggests that on grounds of closeness to quota, quite apart from geography, a shift to the north of the Province would be impractical. The same applies to crossing the River Bann to the north. The logic dictated that if Belfast had to be expanded—which I do not believe, because having three seats worked extremely well—the expansion would have to be the east, south and west of Belfast, which would have re-established the old Belfast boundary. Such a move would have meant crossing the River Bann to the south of Lough Neagh, thus allowing the excess voters in County Down and Lagan Valley to be taken into account. The commission accepted the logic of its instructions and of the figures and concluded that there should be three seats in Belfast and 17 seats in all. There was not much comment and most people seemed to accept that the commission had done a good job. The commission congratulated itself on getting within 7 per cent. of quota and most people seemed reasonably happy. There was not much argument, except from one political party, which cried foul and reckoned that the old South Down seat, which had been changed in a logical way that took account of the excess voters, should be changed so as to create a chance of unseating a Member of Parliament. Surprisingly enough—although perhaps it should not surprise us in the context of Northern Ireland—it was not only the Social Democratic and Labour party that was annoyed about the division of the 17 seats on the logic of the figures; the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the Dail were annoyed. I do not know why they should have been, but they were, and the matter was debated in the Dail on 22 February 1994. I also understand—from colleagues, not my own memory—that a joint statement issued after an Anglo-Irish intergovernmental conference meeting indicated that the subject had been debated for 30 minutes. I believe that the commission should be independent, without political pressure of any kind. Constituencies should be decided on logic, figures, voters, fairness and geography. But, after reasonable local acceptance, we were faced with no fewer than five local inquiries; not just one or two areas of discussion, but five. Even in Antrim there was an inquiry into the three seats which, taken together, amount to just that: three seats. That inquiry seemed to me a waste of money, but I attended it as the representative of my party's boundary committee.

Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen): Can the hon Gentleman tell us whether the quota based on the ratio of parliamentary seats and the electoral population of Northern Ireland is nearer 17 or 18?

Mr. Forsythe: The quota of 17 is quite fair, but we will always accept, and will not complain about, an extra seat for Northern Ireland. If we had 19 we would accept, and 20 would be so much the better, but the original 17 were quite acceptable according to the commission's logic and instructions. 7 I attend the Antrim inquiry and was amazed to find that the inspector, in his initial statement, wondered whether we would consider 18 seats. That also happened in Belfast and at the other inquiries. The lead came from the chair in asking those giving evidence whether they had considered 18 seats. That gave a fair indication of where the process was leading. When the first recommendation of 17 was presented, most people, with the exceptions I have mentioned, were happy, as was the commission.

Mr. McAvoy: I am grateful to the hon Gentleman for giving way and promise not to interrupt him again. He has twice implied that only the SDLP objected. Did not the Democratic Unionists also object?

Mr. Forsythe: Basically, there was reasonable acceptance of 17 seats. If someone says, "You seem reasonably happy with 17 seats, but have you thought of having 18?", the natural response is to consider having 18 seats. My party believed that the logic of the situation meant following the figures, and that was fine. I say again that we would accept 18, 19 or 20 seats, but that is by the by, Mr. Maxton. When we eventually received the reports back from the assistant commissioners, the figure had changed to 18 seats. Magically, the old South Down seat was roughly the same, at least in general character and principle. So the protests that were made seemed to have borne fruit—I say "seemed to" because no one can say for sure. However, from a position of 7 per cent. on either side of the norm, we went from 11.5 per cent. below it to 11.1 per cent. above. The percentages will change if there are 18 seats.

Mr. David Congdon (Croydon, North-East): I have been listening carefully to the hon Gentleman's argument. What will be the net effect of the changes in terms of the average size of a seat in Belfast compared with the rest of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Forsythe: One has no argument: if we change to dividing by 18 instead of 17, we get the correct answer each time. It does not matter how many seats there are and what the code is because that is the basis on which the figures are worked out. I am simply commenting on what has happened. It is not my job to instruct the commission on what it should or should not do—it would not listen, anyway. The logic is that dividing the total by five or six will give the correct figure at the end. The difference between Belfast and North Antrim for instance, has been considered. Whether we divide by 17 or 18, we will obviously arrive at the right answer. However, refusing to divide district electoral areas, wards or—in the case of North Antrim—district council areas, is bound to lead to a discrepancy between such areas and Belfast or anywhere else. The figures show quite clearly that that is the case. I make no comment about what did or did not happen and where changes were or were not made. However, to 8 clear up a few points, I have some questions for the Minister. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) has already covered some of these points in parliamentary questions, but I must put them on the record in this Committee on behalf of the party. Was this matter discussed by the secretariat at Maryfield? If so, who raised it—a political party, a Government official, or a politician, such as a councillor or a Member of Parliament? What conclusion was reached? Did the Republic of Ireland Government or politicians put direct or indirect pressure on the Northern Ireland Office, bearing in mind the discussion that took place in the Dail about the constituencies? Was the matter discussed in Anglo-Irish intergovernmental conferences under article 5(a) of the Anglo-Irish Agreement? My final question is a technical one. If an assembly election was called before the next general election, but 14 days after Her Majesty had given assent to the order, would it be based on the current 17 or the new 18 constituencies? The Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, section 28(6), is ambiguous on that point. The provision for Westminster is simple. It states: "The coming into force of any such Order shall not affect any parliamentary election until a proclamation is issued by Her Majesty summoning a new Parliament". That is clear. A constituency will not come into being until a general election has taken place. The provision for the Northern Ireland Assembly states: "The coming into force of any such Order in Council shall not affect any election to the Assembly before the next general election to the Assembly or affect the constitution of the Assembly then in being." There is no assembly. There will be no general election to an assembly. In the circumstances that I described—before a general election but after the order is effected—on what basis will an assembly election take place? What constituencies will apply? I want a definitive answer for our constituencies.

10.57 am

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) for putting his questions clearly and concisely. I shall deal with his points first, and then answer the questions of the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington). To answer the last question of the hon. Member for Antrim, South, I am told that a general election—which would affect parliamentary constituencies—which took place in the circumstances that he outlined, would use the new 18 constituencies. Section 2 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 make it clear that. "The coming into force of any such Order in Council shall not affect any election to the Assembly before the next general election to the Assembly". 9 The reason for that is simple. If a by-election had to be held, it would take place under the old dispensation. Otherwise, chaos would ensue.

Mr. Forsythe: I understand what the order says but I have not received an answer to my question. If a general election is called 15 days after the order comes into force, will it be based on 17 or 18 constituencies?

Mr. Ancram: As I said, the new 18 constituencies would apply. The hon Gentleman asked about consultation. No consultation about the boundary commission report took place with the Republic of Ireland Government. However, the matter was raised at the intergovernmental conferences and at Maryfield. On each occasion, the Government representatives made it absolutely clear that it was a matter for the independent boundary commission. It was not a matter that we were prepared to discuss. That is right. It is important to accept that the commission is, rightly, an independent body. Therefore, it would not be right for me to discuss the merits of that body's decisions. I cannot go beyond the reasons given in the commission's report. The information available to me is contained within that report. The hon Gentleman can make his own assessment of it, as I can. It is important within our parliamentary democracy that we respect the commission's independence because that is part of how our democratic system works. I do not know whether the hon Member for Antrim, South was trying to make suggestions, but it is important that certain matters are on the record. As he suggested, there were five inquiries, not least into the question whether there should be three or four constituencies within Belfast. Those inquiries were not called at the whim of the commission, they were a statutory requirement. It is incumbent upon the commission, in certain circumstances, to call inquiries under section 6(2) of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which states: "Where, on the publication of the notice under section 5(2) above of the recommendation of a Boundary Commission for the alteration of any constituencies, the Commission receive any representation objecting to the proposed recommendation from an interested authority or from a body of electors numbering one hundred or more, the Commission shall not make the recommendation unless, since the publication of the notice, a local authority has been held in respect of the constituencies." Thus there is a statutory requirement to hold inquiries in those circumstances. The commission received some 300 submissions in response to provisional recommendations. In the main, it opposed proposals to reduce the number of constituencies in Belfast from four to three, to divide Omagh district council between constituencies, to create a Newry and Mourne constituency and to do away with the Newry and Armagh and South Down constituencies. The boundary commission received a great many representations and submissions and in those circumstances they were required to hold the inquiries to which the hon Gentleman referred.

10

Mr. Forsythe: Does the Minister therefore not think it would have been a good idea, when there was a change from 17 to 18 constituencies, to hold further public inquiries to enable those who objected at that time to 18 seats to have their say?

Mr. Ancram: The hon Gentleman must be guided, as I must, by the statutory requirements incumbent upon the commission. Those statutory requirements were pursued by the commission. As the hon Gentleman knows, all the main Northern Ireland political parties attended the five inquiries. It was not a matter of only one or two parties attending. They had ample opportunity to express their views and to cross-examine and challenge counterproposals. In its report, the commission paid tribute to the work of the assistant commissioners who conducted the inquiries. I am sure that the hon Gentleman is not suggesting that there was anything other than the most proper conduct of the inquiries by the assistant commissioners. I pay tribute to work of the commission. In response to the hon. Gentleman's last point, I can tell him that the commission's revised recommendations attracted significantly fewer representations than the provisional ones. Four of the 30 representations received were from local authorities expressing support for the revised recommendations. The commission explains in chapter 7 of its report why it was unable to accept any of the representations. The commission considered that some of the representations dealt with issues that had already been considered at local inquiries. There was little or no evidence in other representations to show how representative were the views advanced. For example, the commission received no petitions. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the commission carried out its duties properly. Constituency boundaries are a difficult matter, as the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie said in his opening remarks. We all feel sensitive about our constituency boundaries. None of us would suggest that the hon. Member for Antrim, South was not right to make the points that he made, but I hope that he accepts that the commission, which had a difficult job to do, has done it properly, even if he is not happy with the outcome.

Mr. Forsythe: I make no comment on the outcome, as every sitting Member of Parliament will probably win his seat if he is selected, nor do I make any personal comment. I am speaking on behalf of my party. The protests and objections directed at the commission had nothing to do with the way in which it carried out its duties but concerned the point that the largest political party in Northern Ireland—I do not want to detain the Committee, but I have the letter that was sent to the commission—wanted the commission to consider whether, because of the root and branch change from 17 to 18 seats, a public inquiry should be held. If that is not sufficient—

The Chairman: Order. Interventions should be brief.

11

Mr. Ancram: I can only say to the hon. Gentleman—I say it in all sincerity—that the commission's independence is important and I can be guided only by the information in the report and in the recommendations. The commission carried out its duties in pursuance of its statutory requirements and appears to have done so in an entirely proper and admirable way. Such matters are never easy, but it is important for us to respect the commission's independence and the way in which it has done its job.

Mr. McAvoy: I am sure that the Minister will understand the suspicion that must have been aroused in certain sections of the Northern Ireland community when it was discovered that the Republic of Ireland Government had raised the subject of a boundary commission report in intergovernmental discussions. How forcefully did the United Kingdom Government tell the Republic of Ireland Government to mind their own business?

Mr. Ancram: We made it absolutely clear that the commission was independent and that the Government were not prepared to discuss the matter with anyone. We said that it was for the commission to carry out its own work, as it has done. Suspicions about boundary commissions are also part of the democratic process, but I am sure that when the hon. Gentleman reads the report and the recommendations and sees how much care and attention the commission has exercised in what are inevitably difficult and emotive circumstances, he will, on cool reflection, pay tribute to the work that it has done. 12 I come now to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, who referred to the other recommendations. The Government have already accepted that the period for the receipt of representations should be extended to two months. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will consider the appointment of the Director General of Ordnance Survey as an assessor to the commission, the timing and sequence of local government and constituency boundary reviews and the review of boundary procedures, bearing in mind the review that was announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. It is important to take that review into account along with our own consideration of what are important matters. The form and composition of the review have yet to be decided but all matters recommended by the Northern Ireland boundary commission will be considered as that review takes place. I hope that I have managed to reply to all the questions and assertions made by hon. Members in this debate and I commend the order to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Parliamentary Constituencies (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.

Committee rose at nine minutes past Eleven o'clock.

THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Maxton, Mr. John (Chairman)

Allason, Mr.

Ancram, Mr.

Barnes, Mr.

Canavan, Mr.

Congdon, Mr.

Day, Mr.

Forsythe, Mr. Clifford

Fry, Sir Peter

McAvoy, Mr.

Taylor, Sir Teddy

Wood, Mr.

Worthington, Mr

Yeo, Mr.