HC Deb 29 November 2000 vol 357 cc1040-7
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2, 3, 12, 357 to 368, 370 and amendments (a) and (b) thereto, 371, 372 and amendments (a) and (b) thereto, and 373.

Mr. O'Brien

The amendments are designed to strengthen the independence of the Electoral Commission. Given the commission's wide responsibilities, including, in particular, for the controls on parties' income and expenditure, it is imperative that it should be seen to be scrupulously independent of the Government of the day and of political parties.

No electoral commissioner should have had a high-profile association with a particular party. The amendments will therefore bar from appointment anyone who is a member of a registered party; has, in the past 10 years, been an officer or employee of a registered party; has held a relevant elective office; or has been a donor to a registered party. Amendments will be made to schedule 1 to ensure that the restrictions will also apply to deputy and assistant electoral commissioners and, save in one respect, the staff of the commission.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I do not know whether the Minister was present in the Chamber earlier, when the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) pointed out that, under amendment No. 1, someone could resign their membership of a political party, tear up his political card one day and become an electoral commissioner the next. Similar provisions would not apply if he was an employee of or donor to a political party, when a 10-year cooling-off period will apply. Was the Minister's real intention to make it possible for someone to become an independent electoral commissioner by tearing up his party card on a Monday and becoming a commissioner on Tuesday?

Mr. O'Brien

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we cannot cover every single option in detail in legislation. We must allow at least for a semblance of common sense in those who are making appointments. We must also recognise that the way in which the appointments are made must command the respect and support of political parties across the spectrum. We believe that it is necessary to provide clear statutory guidance on our approach. However, in terms of ensuring that we get the best people for the job, we must allow for the common sense of all the political parties.

If somebody who is appointed to head the Electoral Commission or to take up a senior position on it is seen by a political party—whether it is the Scottish National party or any other—to be biased, that will cause serious concern across the spectrum. All of us must ensure that the Electoral Commission is above reproach. There are limits on how far legislation can go to achieve that, but we must ensure that the body commands respect. I do not think that we need to go as far as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) suggests, but we all have a vested interest in ensuring respect for the commission — respect that can be commanded by the people who hold the senior positions within it.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

What does the Under-Secretary believe to be an acceptable period between leaving a political party and being appointed to the commission?

Mr. O'Brien

To some extent, that will depend on the individual and the circumstances. Mere membership of a political party does not mean that a person forfeits his or her sense of integrity, professional judgment or ability to make a considered and fair decision. Membership of a political party, whether it is the Conservative party, the Labour party or any other, should not be seen as undermining the quality of a person. I am sure that, like me, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) can think of hon. Members on both sides of the House who are regarded with considerable respect. We must ensure that members of all parties and others outside the House can regard the people appointed to the positions as having integrity.

Mr. Brady

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien

I do not want to give way to the hon. Gentleman again. I should like to make some progress, after which I shall perhaps give way to one or two hon. Members if they want me to do so.

We have extended the bar on party membership only to the chief executive. As with civil servants, other members of staff will be able to be members of political parties, although I expect the commission to adopt appropriate restrictions on their political activities. In view of the fact that the commission's staff will have access to sensitive financial information relating to parties, it has been suggested that all staff should be subject to the bar on party membership.

I do not believe that there is sufficient cause to curtail the individual rights of staff in that way. Their position will be no different from that, for example, of Inland Revenue staff, who have access to potentially sensitive information about the financial affairs of individual politicians. Neither will their position differ from that of my Home Office staff, who deal with information from political parties. I expect the commission's staff to discharge their duties in a wholly impartial manner and with complete discretion, whatever their own political affiliations or persuasions.

In my experience with Inland Revenue and Home Office staff, that impartiality and discretion has been evident at all times. I have no idea what the political persuasions of those staff are, or, indeed, whether they have any. All I know is that I have seen nothing that would justify my making the suggestion that political persuasion would affect their ability to make proper judgments. A clear view on current political membership is needed with regard to one aspect of senior management in the Electoral Commission. However, there is then the question whether we should bar people from doing something that I hope most hon. Members would encourage—to become active in their society. I do not think that there are any grounds for preventing people from exercising their freedom in that regard.

We recognise that distancing the electoral commissioners from any active association with party politics means that they may not have ready access to experience of operating a party machine or campaigning at elections. Indeed, that issue was raised in previous debates on the Bill. Effective regulation requires the regulator to have a clear understanding of the supervised activity. That applies to the regulation of political parties just as it applies to the regulation of casinos, financial services or anything else.

To ensure that the commission has ready access to necessary information to enable it to make an impartial and independent judgment on the issue at stake, the new clause inserted by amendment No. 3 provides for the establishment of the Parliamentary Parties Panel. The panel will be composed of representatives of parties with two or more Members of Parliament who have taken the oath. Its function will be to submit representations or information to the commission about such matters affecting political parties as it thinks fit. The commission must give due consideration to any points raised by the panel, but will not necessarily be bound by them.

I emphasise that the panel is not in any sense an advisory panel. If we were setting up a formal advisory panel, its membership would have to be a good deal wider. It would, for example, have to include representatives of non-parliamentary parties and electoral administrators. I expect the commission to put in place its own arrangements for consulting those wider groups on particular issues as they arise. It will, of course, be open to the panel to comment as a panel on the commission's proposals. However, in such circumstances, its representations must be considered alongside any other comments received in response to a wider consultation exercise.

I believe that the Parliamentary Parties Panel will respond appropriately to concerns expressed about the operation of the commission. It will ensure that the commission is made aware when any of its decisions might undermine the ability of political parties to operate within our political system effectively and with integrity.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I expressed concerns about that point earlier. I trust that the procedure described by the Under-Secretary will not occur by way of a hole-in-corner operation. Will the Parliamentary Parties Panel be obliged to publish its comments or will the commission be required to do so on its behalf?

Mr. O'Brien

The Bill contains nothing that would oblige the commission to publish in a particular way. As hon. Members know, however, the Freedom of Information Bill was all too recently considered by the House and will change for the better the behaviour of many organisations and institutions, and create greater openness. The Electoral Commission and the Parliamentary Parties Panel must have regard to the way in which Parliament expects such organisations to operate—an expectation that is demonstrated by its support for the freedom of information legislation.

I commend the amendments to the House.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

There is much in the amendments that we can welcome. The Government have taken on board a number of points that were made at a much earlier stage in the Bill's progress, and reiterated in another place. We acknowledge that they have responded to our anxieties, and that the Bill has undoubtedly been improved as a result.

We are particularly pleased about the creation of a Parliamentary Parties Panel. That strikes us as a sensible measure—although I hope that the Minister and, perhaps, the Electoral Commission will note the pertinent comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). It illustrates the fact that, even at this late stage, it is possible to make improvements. We are also pleased about the decision to exclude the commissioner and deputy commissioners from membership of political parties. That too constitutes a lessening of what, at an earlier stage, struck us as a serious problem.

Nevertheless, we do not think that what has been done goes far enough. The Minister mentioned our amendments (a) and (b) to Lords amendments Nos. 370 and 372. Only yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) received an answer to her written question No. 80 about precisely this matter. The Minister made it clear that, while it was expected that the Electoral Commission would require its staff to discharge their duties in a similar way to civil servants, the way in which the commission had been established would mean that there was no requirement for them to do so.

Another point is noteworthy in the context of Northern Ireland. One argument advanced by the Government—reasonably, in our view—against the disclosure of donations was that even if disclosure was made solely to the Electoral Commission or to officers in Northern Ireland, there was a danger that the information would leak out. The Government were concerned about that—and, in the Northern Ireland context, they were extremely concerned about the personal safety of those who might be donors.

When, as it were, we come over to this side of the Irish sea we may hope that those who make political donations will not be the targets of assassins. Nevertheless, it seems extraordinary to us that staff may be members of the Electoral Commission—which carries out detailed scrutiny and checking of returns made by political parties—although they may be major participants in the activities of their local political associations. There is no restriction whatever on such membership.

It is not a question of slipping information to the press, or making use of that information to secure the open embarrassment of some other party. Doubtless the information will emerge, and people will discover who works for the commission. We are concerned about the possibility that a senior member of staff—not one who is currently banned—will be the treasurer of a local association, and could have access to information relating to Opposition or other parties' finances in the same constituency. If that happened, the system would be brought into serious disrepute.

In Committee, we spent a long time discussing the problems of disclosure. In particular, we discussed where the ceiling should be in relation to small or larger associations, and the danger that political parties might derive an unfair advantage from obtaining information about other parties while not disclosing information themselves. I can think of a telling example. Let us suppose that it became known—even if no harm resulted—that an officer in the Electoral Commission, carrying out sensitive work, could obtain access to information relating to political parties, not his own, and that it might be to his personal advantage simply to have that information at the back of his mind.

We think that the Government should have gone further. The Bill will leave the House and be given Royal Assent—that, after all, it is what will happen to it after this evening —in an unsatisfactory form. I regret that. I also regret the fact that, by virtue of the extraordinary way in which the amendments have been grouped, there is no possibility of putting the matter to the vote. Let me tell the Minister that if there had been such an opportunity, we would have availed ourselves of it.

8.15 pm
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

The Liberal Democrats also welcome the improvements in the Bill. We still think it is capable of further improvement, but we recognise that not too much will happen during the next five or six hours.

The balance between the purity and isolation of the commissioners and their knowledge of the real world must be struck carefully. In Committee, we said a fair amount about poachers and gamekeepers. I think there are some advantages in having commissioners who know what poaching is about: it may be a mistake to choose those who are pure as the driven snow and have no connection with the real life of political parties, to the exclusion of people with some awareness of the wool being pulled over their eyes. We should not necessarily seek to remove such people entirely from the political sphere.

I welcome the improvements making it explicit that commissioners must not have active and immediate party political associations. However, I do not regard it as a disadvantage for them to know what the real world of politics is about, as a result of their experience of voluntary and other work.

I also welcome the creation of the Parliamentary Parties Panel. It formalises, and perhaps makes more transparent, a process that in any event takes place to some extent in relation to the political parties collectively and the Home Office, in the context of electoral and boundary issues and a range of other matters relating to the exercise of functions by political parties.

The concerns of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) are probably misplaced in that regard, because we will have a more transparent and open system. I hope the Minister will not just concede that the Freedom of Information Bill may have a bearing on the matter, but be inclined to give an assurance that the Home Office will bear that aspect very much in mind when establishing the commission and looking at the commissioners' draft terms of reference and action plans. After all, the Minister and the Home Secretary will have to have regard to all those matters.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) spoke of the possibility of information leaking at local party level if we allowed people both to be members of political parties—perhaps office holders—and to work for the Electoral Commission. Only a few months ago, a party that I attended—not a political party—came to an abrupt, hushed halt when a perfectly normal member of the party-going population said, when asked what she did, "I am a VAT inspector". It changed the context in which discussions were taking place, and I suppose it is just possible that certain employees of the Electoral Commission might have the same effect. However, I am certain that the VAT inspector would neither have, nor for a moment consider using, information that was relevant in the wider world. Surely, the British experience of public service is that we are remarkably successful at walling off our professional duties from our social and recreational duties. No one supposes that income tax or VAT inspectors will be particularly prone to spook their neighbours, or to take unfair advantage of information that they come across. I would have thought that we might be able to rely likewise on employees of the Electoral Commission.

Again, I make the point about poachers and gamekeepers. I am not by any means advocating that most employees of the Electoral Commission should finish up as treasurers of one or other political party, but it is not necessarily wholly bad that the people employed by the commission know what the real world of political activism is about. Again, as we discussed in Committee on several occasions, the reality is that most politics is not big politics, carried out with mega-millions. It is carried out in people's back rooms with post office accounts, small trustee savings accounts and co-operative bank accounts. If the total income is in three figures, it is a success. For that world of political activity, it is wholly desirable that the Electoral Commission should have its feet on the ground and know where real party political activity takes place.

Therefore, we believe that the Bill has been improved. Some more improvements need to be made, but we need to recognise that, throughout its passage, there has been good co-operation between the political parties, both at this end of the building and at the other. I hope that future improvements—a new generation of the Bill—will in due course emerge, based on practical experience, but, in the meantime, we wish the Bill well in its move forward.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

I thank the hon. Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) for their indications that they believed that the Government had listened and moved. It is important, in so far as we can, to agree how to frame the legislation; it should have broad cross-party support.

I agree with both those hon. Gentlemen and with the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). The Electoral Commission will recognise that each of the main parties in the House has indicated—I am sure with the support of those from Scotland and Northern Ireland—that the operation of the Electoral Commission and, indeed, of the Parliamentary Parties Panel should be conducted in a way that has due and proper regard for the need for openness, so that those who may be interested in their affairs will know what is happening. I am sure that those bodies will read the text of the debate and recognise that that view is shared throughout the House.

Comments were attributed to Lord Bassam. If I recollect rightly, what he was saying was that, in relation to Northern Ireland, there would be a perception, because of the circumstances there, that the information that was given to a particular state organisation might get into the wrong hands; he felt that there would be a fear of that and a perception that it was likely, even though it may not be either likely or possible. As far as I am aware, he did not suggest that commission staff would act other than with appropriate honesty, integrity and impartiality.

Mr. Grieve

To make the matter clear, I did not welcome the Government's stance on Northern Ireland. Indeed, the whole thrust of the Bill is about disclosure, but it seemed that there was an inconsistency between the Government's viewing that matter with anxiety and not viewing the matter here with anxiety, in terms of staff getting hold of information that they should not have. I accept that staff may not misuse the information, but if there is a perception that there are members of staff working for the Electoral Commission who see sensitive material who are themselves officers in their local associations, it will bring the commission into disrepute. The Government seem to be anxious about that in the Northern Ireland context, even though, as I have stressed, in the Northern Ireland context, I am not happy with what the Government are doing about not having disclosure.

Mr. O'Brien

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The Northern Ireland context is, as with all too many issues, somewhat different and particular, but we have no reason to believe that an ordinary member of staff who happens to carry a party membership card for whatever political party is likely to behave improperly, any more than we have to believe that a civil servant is likely to behave improperly. Indeed, on all the evidence that we have, they are very unlikely to behave in that way.

To reassure the hon. Gentleman, a member of the commission staff cannot be an officer of a party. That is a high-profile position. He certainly cannot be a treasurer or a senior person who has responsibility for accounting the activities of a political party. It would be against the

restrictions that, I hope, the Electoral Commission will place—just as they are placed on many civil servants—on political activities. There is a distinction between someone who is in a lesser position and someone who is politically active; that includes being a member of a political party's official bodies—its senior bodies, a constituency association or constituency party—and being an officer of that organisation.

That is political activity. It seems to be straightforwardly political activity, but if someone happens to carry a party or an association membership card, that does not compromise their integrity. Indeed, in many ways, it suggests that that person has an active interest in ensuring that democracy is sustained and progressed. It should not be a disqualification for believing someone has integrity that they be a member of a political party; otherwise, hon. Members would have a lot of problems, which some journalists might say we do have. However, I suspect that most hon. Members would take the view that the House, by and large, behaves with much integrity, honesty and also political affiliation.

As I have said, we are not persuaded that there is any compelling reason to bar commission staff other than senior staff from being a party member. Barring them would be a large step and could come into conflict with the European convention on human rights, as was indicated by Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish during debates in another place.

Although I appreciate that, at first glance, the functions of the commission bring into sharp relief the question of the political affiliations of its employees, on reflection, I doubt that the issue is any more acute in relation to the Electoral Commission than it is in relation to the work of any number of Government Departments or other public sector agencies.

Under the civil service code, public. servants are expected to observe strict standards of probity and confidentiality in their work. It will be for the Electoral Commission itself to determine the standards of conduct that apply to its staff. However, I have absolutely no doubt that the commission's rules on participation in political activities and the duty to be impartial in the discharge of its functions will be at least equivalent to those applying to civil servants.

I therefore urge hon. Members not to press their amendments in this group.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 3 agreed to.