HC Deb 13 March 2000 vol 346 cc33-42

—(1) The Commission—

  1. (a) may participate with any relevant local authority in the joint submission of proposals falling within section 10(1) of the Representation of the People Act 2000 (pilotschemes); and
  2. (b) shall have such other functions in relation to—
    1. (i) orders and schemes under section 10 of that Act, and
    2. (ii) orders under section 11 of that Act (revision of procedures in the light of pilot schemes),
as are conferred on the Commission by those sections.

(2) Where any scheme under section 10 of that Act falls to be implemented following the approval by the Secretary of State of proposals jointly submitted by the Commission and a relevant local authority as mentioned in subsection (1)(a) above, the Commission may, in connection with the implementation of the scheme, provide that authority with such assistance (except financial assistance) as the Commission think fit.

(3) In this section "relevant local authority" has the same meaning as in section 10 of that Act.'.—[Mr. Mike O'Brien.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 6, 7 and 131.

Mr. O'Brien

New clause 1 and amendment No. 131 will extend the functions of the Electoral Commission so as to include a role in relation to pilot schemes. Section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 makes provision for local authorities to bring forward proposals for pilot schemes for the purpose of testing electoral innovations such as early voting and electronic voting at local government elections. Section 11 of that Act also provides for the Secretary of State, in the light of the success of such pilots, to apply such electoral innovations to local government elections generally.

It is clearly right that the Electoral Commission should have a role here. The Bill already provides the commission with a broad remit in relation to electoral law and with a role in providing advice and assistance to other authorities in relation to electoral matters. It will also have an important role in promoting public participation in the democratic process.

Those functions clearly dovetail with the rationale behind the arrangements for the conduct of pilot schemes, and it would be a serious omission not to provide the commission with a clear role. Amendment No. 131 will amend sections 10 and 11 of the Representation of the People Act so as to spell out the commission's role. New clause 1 will add to the commission's functions under part I a power to participate with a local authority in the joint submission of proposals for a pilot scheme and to provide assistance to that authority in conducting the pilot.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Is there any way in which an individual or organisation can appeal if a local authority is refusing to undertake a pilot scheme in particular areas? I have it in mind that certain areas may have a heavy Labour or heavy Conservative vote. What is to stop the party that does not control the council making representations that the pilot area should be extended to other areas of the council?

Mr. O'Brien

We have not yet been able to approve pilot schemes, but we shall consult local authorities this week. The orders are being drafted, and I hope to be able to lay them before Parliament on Thursday, when we will be able to announce which pilots we are approving. We have, however, considered the provisional pilots and, where we have been informed of a substantive disagreement within various councils, such as Conservatives disagreeing with a Labour-controlled council, we have in most cases decided not to proceed with the application. I have had a few discussions through the usual channels to find out whether there are any particular problems.

At present, there are no means by which someone can introduce a proposal to extend the remit of a pilot scheme but, if the new clause is accepted, an obvious way to do so would be to ask the Electoral Commission to make the proposal and discuss it with the local authority so that, hopefully, the authority would then agree with the commission that it was worth approving the pilot.

Any scheme would then have to be fully evaluated to see whether it prevented personation and ensured that more people participated. If the Electoral Commission felt that it could endorse the scheme, it might then be rolled out nationally in local government elections only. As will become clear, our view is that any roll-out for parliamentary elections would have to be done by legislation.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

The Minister referred to UK general elections. Although we are dealing primarily here with local government, how will the legislation interface with the National Assembly for Wales, with regard to the Assembly's involvement with local government, which is obviously directly relevant, or with any wish by the Assembly to develop pilot schemes that are particularly relevant in Wales?

Mr. O'Brien

We would want to proceed with changes in the operation of electoral procedures in local government, or indeed in national Government, only after full discussion and consultation with the Welsh Assembly and Executive. Throughout consideration of the Representation of the People Act and this Bill, which deals with the organisation of political parties, we have sought to ensure that the views of parties in the Welsh Assembly are considered. We have also had several discussions with the Executive at different stages to ensure that, although our proposals might not have universal approval, they are at least broadly supported by parties in Wales.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to write to him about exactly how the procedures for local government elections will operate in Wales and to set out clearly how the measures will apply.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, if a local authority proceeds with a pilot scheme and decides that it is beneficial but subsequently changes its mind, its initial decision would be revocable?

Mr. O'Brien

A local authority could decide to undertake a pilot scheme and undertake it, but it would then have to submit a report on the scheme and, before it was able to repeat the exercise, receive the consent of the Electoral Commission—indeed, the Home Office would have to approve the scheme. Therefore, in the sense that the local authority could not undertake another pilot scheme if we were dissatisfied with the way in which the first one was conducted, its initial decision is revocable. The fact that an authority has decided to undertake a pilot scheme once does not mean that it would be able to do so in subsequent years.

Mr. Bercow

Or would have to?

Mr. O'Brien

The hon. Gentleman is correct.

Where the commission does not co-sponsor a pilot scheme, the Secretary of State will be required to consult the commission before making an order providing for the implementation of a pilot scheme proposed only by a local authority.

During the passage of the Representation of the People Act, several hon. Members, both here and in another place, stressed the need to provide for the independent and objective evaluation of the pilot schemes. For the first wave of pilot schemes in May, the task of evaluating such schemes will fall to the relevant local authority.

However, during debate of the Representation of the People Bill on Report in another place on 29 February, my noble Friend the Under-Secretary said that the Electoral Commission would have an important role in evaluating the operation of pilot schemes. Indeed, we envisage that, in future, such evaluation would fall to the commission. Amendment No. 131 would amend section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 to that end.

The commission would be expected to work closely with the relevant local authority, which would also be required to provide the commission with appropriate assistance in preparing the report. That assistance might, for example, take the form of seeking the views of voters, parties and electoral staff on the success of the scheme, and of providing information on the cost of the pilot scheme. The local authority would also be required to publish the commission's report in its area.

Evaluation of the outcomes of pilot schemes leads naturally to the question of the roll-out of successful innovations to local government elections generally. Section 11(1) of the Representation of the People Act provides for successful pilots to be rolled out by order of the Secretary of State. As recommended by the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation in another place, amendment No. 135 would amend section 11(1) so that the order-making power may be exercised only on the recommendation of the Electoral Commission. Our intention is that that new requirement will apply to innovations piloted this May, as well as to those successfully piloted in subsequent elections. It will therefore provide safeguards which I hope will satisfy all in the House. The new clause and amendment No. 135 will provide the independent Electoral Commission with a decisive role in the conduct, evaluation and wider application of pilot schemes.

Amendment No. 6 responds to the point raised in Committee by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who made the case for the Electoral Commission's reports under clause 5 to be published at the same time as they were submitted to the Home Secretary. In Committee, we said that we had no difficulty with the broad thrust of his argument, but that the question of publication should be left in the hands of the Electoral Commission.

Any reports produced by the commission under the provisions of clause 5 would, in effect, constitute expert advice to the Government of the day from an independent statutory authority. The commission will have ownership of that advice, and it should rightly be for the commission to publish it in the manner that it sees fit. The amendment makes the position clear. I should add that I would fully expect the commission to publish its reports in parallel to submitting them to the Home Secretary for consideration.

Amendment No. 7 adds to the list of delegated powers in relation to elections that may be exercised only by the relevant Secretary of State after consultation with the Electoral Commission. The Representation of the People Act inserted a new section 17A into the Greater London Authority Act 1999. Subsection (3) of it contains a power to prescribe, by order, the arrangements for a free mailshot during future GLA elections. There is already a requirement, under new section 17A(6), on the Secretary of State to consult with such bodies as he considers appropriate before making an order, but it is as well to recognise the particular role that the Electoral Commission will have as the principal source of advice on electoral matters.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. The Government amendments show the efficacy of proper scrutiny of legislation, whether in Committee or on the Floor of the House. Last week, by contrast, a guillotine was imposed on discussion of the Representation of the People Bill. The quality of legislation may suffer as a consequence of the quantity, but I hope that we shall make progress on the present Bill in the next two days.

We welcome the fact that the Government recognise the importance of the electoral process remaining untarnished by perceived or actual rigging of elections by party politicians. Amendments to the Representation of the People Act 2000 relate to the rolling out of the Secretary of State's powers in regard to future parliamentary elections.

I am delighted that the Government have taken the initial steps on a journey that we have been enticing them to make, both in this place and in another place, but there is still some way to go. It is a journey well worth making, as I hope the Minister will agree.

On 9 February, the Select Committee on Deregulation issued a report that proposed that changes to electoral law be made in consultation with the new Electoral Commission. The Government also accepted the recommendation that other sweeping powers relating to electoral changes to parliamentary elections require primary legislation. That was enshrined in the Representation of the People Act 2000, and we thank the Government for those changes.

The Neill report in October 1998 called for the establishment of the Electoral Commission and for the commission to be given a wide remit, including the review within six months of major elections and referendums. Recommendation 72 proposes that the Government should consult the Commission before making or proposing any changes relating to electoral law and administration. With regard to the commission and to electoral law and administration, I have some questions about the Government's new clauses and amendments.

We have enormous reservations about the make-up of the Electoral Commission, in view of the powers that it is to be given. We know that it will comprise between five and nine members, as recommended by the Neill committee. The Neill report further recommended that the commission should include no party politicians. That is a sound recommendation. The Speaker's Committee is to be established, on which politicians will serve. However, there is nothing in the Bill to prevent past or present party politicians being members of the Electoral Commission, and we hope that the Government will reconsider its composition.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) will comment on the timetable for the establishment of the commission and the pilots due to take place in May. Problems may arise because of the time lapse between the pilots and the setting up of the Electoral Commission and the appointment of the chief executive.

It is important that the changes are made and seen to be made by an independent body. A number of pilots have already been approved by the Secretary of State, and the new body must be given sight of the local authority reports when the pilots take place. Can the Minister say what will happen to those reports, given the time lag? I believe that the Home Secretary told our shadow Home Secretary in a letter that the commission will be up and running in November. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that. If that is the case, we hope that the reports will be made available in November.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

We will use our best endeavours, but I cannot provide a complete reassurance that everything will be in place by that date. However, we are doing our best to get things moving.

4.30 pm
Mr. Evans

I am grateful for that response. The Minister knows why we are worried about the matter.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire will also refer to the powers of the new chief executive, who will be appointed before the chairman of the Electoral Commission.

We have other anxieties. Several pilots will be up and running throughout the country and, when the new commission is established, it will not only have the power—indeed, the obligation—to consider their efficacy, but it will have to deal with representations from several other local authorities, which want to introduce pilots next year. The Electoral Commission will thus have a lot of work in its initial stages. We want to ensure that it will be an absolute success. Will the Minister therefore explain the way in which he envisages the Electoral Commission working, and comment on the fact that it will begin its work long after the first pilot schemes have been established?

Will the Minister also confirm that the Electoral Commission may also want to investigate the London mayoral elections, or will it have no power to examine them? After the rigged referendum in Wales, the Neill committee presented important recommendations on the publication of literature by the Government. The Electoral Commission may want to consider what happened in that referendum to ensure that future referendums are not rigged. It may also want to present proposals on the London mayoral elections.

As the Minister knows, the list of pilots was made available to bodies outside the House before the House knew about them. We have received written answers about that from him, and he has given explanations at the Dispatch Box. However, in the next roll-out in 2001, the Electoral Commission and local authorities will work together, and we are keen to ensure that the House will be informed of the pilots before the Press Association or any other bodies. We should be told at least at the same time as local authorities.

Let us consider Government amendment No. 7. There has been much controversy about the literature for the Greater London Authority elections. First, we were told that it would be impossible for any free literature to be made available to the electorate. We were then told that the costs of doing that would be prohibitive. However, we are now told that it is not only possible to produce such literature, but that the costs have shrunk dramatically. A hard-fought victory for democracy was won by the unelected House of Lords.

We know why the Government were not keen initially on free mailshots for the London mayoral elections. However, they will now be provided. Even Dafydd Elis-Thomas was heard to remark in the House of Lords that politics was a funny business, and that he never thought that he would vote in the same Lobby as Margaret Thatcher in defence of Ken Livingstone.

Why do the Government wish to retain power over future mailshots? A mailshot is assured only for the first Londonwide elections. Why cannot the commission have the same powers for mailshots as it has for rolling out further reforms for pilot elections? The Secretary of State no longer has the power unilaterally to introduce changes to elections; he has to do that on the commission's recommendation.

There is a suspicion that the Government want to retain at least a reserve power to stop mailshots, and act in cahoots with a more compliant second Chamber in future. The Minister may call me cynical, but my cynicism is bred from the stench of rigging and control freakery of which the former Soviet Union would be proud.

Will the Minister allay the House's suspicions and agree to reconsider whether the commission should introduce recommendations for future mailshots in London mayoral elections? If so, we will be reassured that the Government are not continuing to try to rig elections.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) asked me about the composition of the Electoral Commission. We believe that, essentially, members of the commission should be above party politics. Generally, that would mean those who were not recently actively engaged in the party political process. We would want to be sure that those who were appointed to the commission had the broad support of all the political parties in the House. We would not wish it to be thought that an attempt was being made to put in place a group of party political hacks, who might try to manipulate the situation to their own advantage. That is not the way in which the Neill report envisaged the commission operating, and it is not the way in which the Government want it to operate. I trust that we shall have the Opposition's support in ensuring that the process takes place in a way that is seen as above the fray.

Mr. Evans

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien

I will clarify the matter and then give way.

We have already discussed whether someone who had been involved in politics by standing as a candidate some time ago would be excluded from the commission. I would not necessarily exclude such a person, but it is not our intention to include him or her in the process. We do not have a particular view on who will be on the commission but, in due course, we shall be starting the examination of possible candidates. We hope that they will be of the great and good, but not too political.

Mr. Evans

I am grateful for that reassurance. Will the Minister therefore confirm that no current Member of the House of Lords will be eligible for membership of the commission? Given the number of hereditary peers who have left the House of Lords, does he envisage some of them being used for the commission? I hear what he says about consultation with leaders of political parties that are represented in this place by two or more Members. Will each political leader have a black ball to put against any names that come forward if he is unhappy about those people?

Mr. O'Brien

I hope that these things can be done by consensus rather than black balls. We do not want to get into black balls—that approach leads to the situation where one side blackballs, followed by the other. We want there to be a number of individuals who are seen to be above the party political fray, whom broadly everyone can accept.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether any Member of the House of Lords might be included in the process. Law Lords are able to sit in another place, and I would not wish to exclude individuals of that calibre from the commission. We need to ensure that we have a commission with which all parties with two or more Members sitting in the House are broadly satisfied. I hope that other political parties will be able to go along with that, to ensure that the members of the commission are of a high calibre and the sort of people who can be relied upon to reach independent and fair judgments.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien

I am not getting very far in responding to the debate, but I shall give way.

Mr. Stunell

Perhaps I might tempt the Minister to go a little further. The debate in Committee on this matter focused not only on where potential members of the commission might come from but on where they might go. The hon. Gentleman will remember that I moved some amendments to prevent members continuing in office if they were going to take up political activity. We should have some poachers becoming gamekeepers, but not gamekeepers becoming poachers.

Mr. O'Brien

I do not envisage these people subsequently deciding to become involved in politics. I suspect that those who are likely to sit on that body would not be likely to get involved in partisan politics or to put themselves into the fray but, if they did so, questions would have to be asked about whether they would continue in that role. We would want to be very careful about the types of individual who were members of the Electoral Commission and avoid that problem arising in the first place.

Let me answer some of the other points raised by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley. In terms of the pilots, there will be a time lapse before the Electoral Commission is in place. Subject to the Bill receiving Royal Assent by summer, we aim to establish the commission in November 2000, and its priority will be to put in place the arrangements for the reporting of donations and the controls on electoral campaign spending. We will therefore need to discuss with the commission the extent to which it can be involved in pilot schemes at the May 2001 elections. Any roll-out of such schemes to local government elections generally will be on the commission's recommendation.

A number of pilot schemes will be tested this year and we shall evaluate those tests, but I should be surprised if we were able to roll them out before the next election—although that would not be impossible, were there no controversy—and the time scale will probably be slightly longer. We would hope to have the Electoral Commission in place by then. We would also hope that it would be in a position at least to examine some of the possible pilots for next year. If we were to set up the commission in November, evaluation would probably have to take place in December and the time scales for the pilots for May 2001 would become very tight. We could leave the decision late, as we have done for parliamentary reasons this year, but that would not be desirable. We would like to tell the local authorities the pilots to which we had agreed before that.

The Electoral Commission's role would, to some extent, depend on its ability to deliver an evaluation. We would want it to be involved, but in the interim we would deal with these matters by ensuring that there was proper consultation between the political parties and a way of evaluating each scheme. We would not proceed where there were serious political objections, particularly during the next year. There is lots of speculation about various things that might happen next year and we would be particularly cautious about the way in which we proceeded with pilots then.

We would be able to evaluate those schemes. If we were disposed, without any great controversy, to agree to some extension of the electoral arrangements, that would be done by affirmative order. It would be fully debated in the House. Again, it would be in no one's interests—certainly not the Government's—to put electoral arrangements that are a matter of party political dispute before the people of this country. We are trying to move forward by consensus.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Electoral Commission would consider the mayoral elections, but they might have taken place a year previously by the time it got round to holding an inquiry, and it would have to consider party donations and perhaps evaluate some of the pilots before doing so. I cannot preclude that, and there may be good reasons for making such a decision-1 do not know—but that would be essentially a matter for the commission. It seems to me that the time scale does not easily lend itself to such an inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the announcement of provisional pilots. I hope that there would be more publicity about which pilots were being considered. I have been concerned that there has not been the lead-in time to enable some Members of Parliament to be fully consulted by their local authorities because of the way in which things have been done over the year, because of delays with the Bill and because of a number of issues in respect of which authorities would introduce pilots. Indeed, I pulled at least one pilot because Members of Parliament said not only that they had not been consulted, but that they would have disagreed if they had been. We did not want to get into a controversy even if it were internal and involved one political party, as in this case, rather than inter-party.

4.45 pm

The best way to carry out these pilots is for them to be as uncontroversial as possible, so that there is broad support. We should evaluate them properly, and the House should decide in due course whether to go further. Before we proceed on a broader basis, we should consider the recommendation of the Electoral Commission.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley asked about postage and payment for the distribution of electoral addresses for the Greater London Assembly elections. That brings us back to the debate that we had last week. The Conservatives want the distribution of their election addresses to be subsidised by the taxpayer. The Conservative party has financial problems owing to its lack of support in the country. The hon. Gentleman tries our patience by arguing that decisions on whether taxpayers' money should be spent on subsidising political parties in elections should be taken out of the hands of the House of Commons and given to the Electoral Commission. I am not easily convinced by that argument.

I suspect that, when the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have considered the proposal, they will not be able to endorse it. The House has always jealously guarded decisions on the expenditure of taxpayers' money. I suspect that most Tories would not endorse handing them over to an entirely independent and unelected body.

The Electoral Commission may, in certain circumstances, be prepared to express a view on that issue, which the House could consider seriously, but the decision on expenditure should always rest with the House.

Mr. Evans

Our view has nothing to do with the Conservative party wanting money to distribute our publications, but everything to do with the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone)—and everyone knows that, so the Minister's point is a smokescreen. It was a hard-won victory in the other place. We are keen to ensure that the Government take the Electoral Commission's views seriously if it says that it is vital to have free postage to ensure that the electorate are fully informed of the various merits and policies of the candidates.

I understand what the Minister says about giving another body responsibility for the expenditure of taxpayers' money, but he must accept that, for the full workings of democracy, it is important that all candidates can avail themselves of the opportunity to have their publications delivered to every house in London.

Mr. O'Brien

I am not sure whether this new clause is the appropriate place to debate that issue. I was a little surprised by the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that this was nothing to do with the Conservative party, and everything to do with the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone). The Conservative party's advocacy of this proposal now seems to have everything to do with its support for the hon. Member for Brent, East. I suspect that Steven Norris would be a little chagrined by the hon. Gentleman's view. The Conservatives moved from supporting Lord Archer to Steven Norris, and now they are supporting the hon. Member for Brent, East. That is a surprise.

The hon. Gentleman may recall that the Conservative party advocated this measure before the hon. Member for Brent, East indicated his intention to stand as an independent candidate in the London mayoral elections. I find his suggestion that this has nothing to do with the finances of the Tory party difficult to believe. In any event, I am grateful to him for his broad support for the Government's new clauses and amendments.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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