Electoral Office: Rural Ulster 'treated disgracefully', says MP
Rural communities in Northern Ireland are "being treated disgracefully" in terms of their electoral office provision, according to a DUP MP.
It follows a move by the Electoral Office to close two of their offices in Newtownards, County Down, and Ballymena, County Antrim.
The office plans to centralise many of its services in Belfast.
North Antrim MP Ian Paisley criticised the move at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster.
Addressing Northern Ireland's Chief Electoral Officer Graham Shields, Mr Paisley said: "You wouldn't close Belfast, but the rest of Ulster can go and get stuffed".
He suggested that "rural Ulster [was] being treated disgracefully".
However, Graham Shields rejected Mr Paisley's assessment: "I don't accept that, with all due respect," he said.
Mr Shields told MPs that a business case surrounding the two offices had been carried out.
He said the Electoral Office was on course to have a £350,000 overspend and the closure of the two offices would cut costs by over £40,000.
North Down MP Sylvia Hermon said staff in Newtownards were unhappy about the closure.
Graham Shields told the committee that his budget had been reduced over the years and he accepted that change is never easy.
"I do realise there is a personal sense of loss," he said.
'First class service'
He said people from Newtownards will move to Belfast and "will continue to provide a first class service".
Mr Shields was questioned by the committee at Westminster for 90 minutes and much of his evidence centred on the budget his department has to spend on services.
Mr Paisley was very critical of the figures presented, suggesting that the Chief Electoral Officer had "made [them] up to close these offices".
Mr Shields said he would provide the North Antrim MP with a breakdown of the precise figures.
Independent MP Lady Hermon also raised the costs of car parking at the Electoral Offices' premises in Belfast.
Graham Shields confirmed that car parking costs in Belfast were annually between £10,000 and £12,000.
Lady Hermon said that figure "plays very badly" with staff in Newtownards.
Graham Shields said car parking costs in Belfast were likely to fall in the future.
South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell raised the issue of voter registration and wanted to know what more could be done to see more people on the register.
Mr Shields said it was "a hugely difficult area" and that there was "a significant rump of people out there who don't want to engage in the process".
The Chief Electoral Officer's evidence came as his office and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) released a consultation paper on the provision of electoral services in Northern Ireland.
Voters in Northern Ireland would be able to register electronically for elections under new plans.
A joint consultation by the NIO and the Electoral Office will also consider giving councils more involvement in the running of elections.
The legislation to introduce electronic registration will be presented to parliament next month.
Consultation on the joint paper from the NIO and the Electoral Office ends next January.
NIPSA has condemned the consultation document, describing it as "an offence to the public".
NIPSA official Dooley Harte said: "This document provides no options, but rather is a blatant attempt by the NIO and the Chief Electoral Officer to lead the Northern Ireland public right up the path to a worse service that we could end up paying for.
"The consultation document is unabashed in its promotion of devolution of electoral services to local councils without providing the necessary detail about what exactly will be devolved and how it will be paid for."