HC Deb 08 January 2001 vol 360 cc828-47 11.44 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek your clarification. The Order Paper says that the Speaker will put the Question not later than one and a half hours after proceedings begin and refers to Standing Order No. 16. As I read it, Standing Order No. 16 indicates that the Question will be put and presumably, therefore, a Division will be taken. Can you confirm, on the basis of the fact that the Order Paper refers to Standing Order No. 16, that the House may, if it chooses, divide at the end of the debate—after an hour and a half, or whenever it ends?

Madam. Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal)

If there is a challenge at the end of the debate, on this occasion the Division will tit deferred until Wednesday.

Mr. Forth

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have searched the Sessional Orders—the addendums to the Standing Orders—to see whether that would be the case, but obviously my powers are slightly failing me, due to the hour, because I could not find in the Sessional Orders any reference to Standing Order No. 16. I am sure that I am mistaken, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I would appreciate your guidance. We are in the early stages of these very peculiar proceedings, and I think that it would help the House if the matter were to be made absolutely clear.

Madam Deputy Speaker

If the right hon. Gentleman will give me time, I shall check on the matter and give him the appropriate reference. Meanwhile, we shall continue.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You say that you will reflect on the matter. Can we have your assurance that you will reflect on it now, today? It is extremely important—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I am advised that the Address will be the subject of a deferred Division. I fully intended to give an answer today to hon. Members.

Mr. Howarth

Further to that point of order. Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to keep pressing you on this, but it seems to be an important issue. I have a copy of the Standing Orders of the House, and Standing Order No. 16 does not state that there should be a deferred Division. I accept that the Standing Orders were printed on 25 May—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. May I explain perhaps to the hon. Gentleman that the matter is dealt with in the Sessional Order?

I call the Minister.

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

I beg to move, That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint as Electoral Commissioners:

  1. (1) Pamela Joan Gordon for the period of four years;
  2. (2) Sir Neil William David McIntosh KBE for the period of four years;
  3. 829
  4. (3) Johnathon Glyn Mathias for the period of five years;
  5. (4) Sukhminder Karamjit Singh CBE for the period of five years;
  6. (5) James Samuel Younger for the period of six years; and
  7. (6) Graham John Zellick for the period of five years;
and that Her Majesty will appoint James Samuel Younger to be the chairman of the Electoral Commission for the period of six years. The Electoral Commission was established by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. It will monitor compliance on the part of political parties and others, with controls on donations and on election and referendum campaign expenditure. The commission will also have a statutory duty to keep under review the law and practice in elections and referendums and will be a source of best practice advice for electoral administrators. It will also have a duty to promote public awareness of electoral systems and the arrangements for local and national Government. In due course, the commission will also take over responsibility for the review of parliamentary and local government boundaries.

Those are important functions. If the Electoral Commission is to discharge them fairly and impartially, it is imperative that the commission should be, and should be seen to be, as independent as our constitutional arrangements will allow. That meant independent both of the Government of the day and of the political parties.

The arrangements that we have established for appointment of the electoral commissioners are one of the key mechanisms by which the independence of the commission can be assured. The key point about the appointments is that they are not ministerial appointments. Although it is necessary for a Department—in this case the Home Office—to take charge of the mechanics of selection and appointments, the commissioners do not in any sense owe their appointments to the Home Secretary, and they will not be accountable to him. The Electoral Commission is emphatically not a non-departmental public body.

Mr. Forth

Will the Minister tell us who selected the names and on what basis he is offering them to the House?

Mr. O'Brien

I shall indeed do that. First, however, I should say that, with the Comptroller and Auditor General, the electoral commissioners will be appointed by Her Majesty on the presentation of an Address from the House. I am today moving a motion for that Address.

As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) suggested, the Address is the culmination of a selection procedure which process began in April 2000, with publication in the press of advertisements inviting applications to fill the posts. The Home Office received 223 applications by the closing date. They were subsequently whittled down to a shortlist of 16 people, who were invited for interview by a selection panel chaired by Sir David Omand, the permanent secretary at the Home Office. The other members of the panel were Elizabeth Filkin, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards; Sylvia Denman, an academic lawyer specialising in equal opportunity issues; and Nigel Varney, the head of the Home Office party funding unit.

The names in the motion are those that were recommended for appointment by the selection panel, but that was by no means the end of the selection process. To ensure the full confidence of the main political parties in the appointment procedure, section 3 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 requires that no motion for an Address may be made except with the agreement of the Speaker and after consultation with the leader of those parties with two or more sitting MPs.

I know that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—who sits smiling—does not necessarily run with the writ of the leader of his party and takes great pride in not doing so.

Mr. Forth

Too right.

Mr. O'Brien

We all heard that on this side of the House; no doubt many other Opposition Members would take that view of their leader as well.

I can advise the House that the Speaker has given his consent to the appointments. We have also consulted the leaders of all eight of the relevant political parties; I can again advise the House that none has objected to any of the appointments.

Let me now say a few words about the candidates for the appointments. The name in the motion for appointment as chairman of the Electoral Commission is that of Sam Younger. Mr. Younger is currently director general of the British Red Cross Society and was previously managing director of the BBC World Service.

As for the names of the other five putative members of the commission, the first, Pamela Gordon, has wide experience of local government, having been a chief executive. She is currently a member of the Local Government Commission for England, the functions of which will be transferred to the Electoral Commission from April 2002.

The second member proposed in the list is Sir Neil McIntosh, currently the convenor of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. Among the roles that he has previously undertaken is that of chief counting officer for the 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution. He is chairman of the Commission on Local Government and the Scottish Parliament, which reported in June 1999.

The third name is that of Glyn Mathias, who will be known to many right hon. and hon. Members as a broadcasting journalist who has worked for various channels. [Interruption.] His name is greeted with approbation by various Opposition Members. The fourth name is that of Karamjit Singh, who is currently a civil service commissioner and a criminal cases review commissioner. Finally, Professor Graham Zellick is vice-chancellor of the university of London, having previously held a number of other academic posts.

All six have recently confirmed that they are not barred from appointment as electoral commissioners by virtue of section 3(4) of the Act. These six will, individually and collectively, bring to bear a wide range of the skills and experience that will be necessary to establish the commission as an independent, authoritative and, I hope, respected arbiter of the controls on income and expenditure, as well as being a source of sound and practical advice on the political and electoral process.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

The Minister rightly confirmed that neither the leader of my party nor I have any objection to the nomination of the names before the House; indeed, we support them. Could the Minister explain the slightly unusual proposition that some of the nominations are for six years, some for five and some for four? What determines the length of time for each nominee?

Mr. O'Brien

The periods were recommended and it is right that we have a rolling process of appointment to commissions. These days, by and large, that is how we operate. It means that we are not trying to replace people all at once and that we are able to introduce new blood to a public body while retaining an element of experience. If some retire slightly earlier than others, we can bring in new blood, if appropriate, or renew the contracts for the posts, if appropriate.

The hon. Gentleman also asks why these particular people were chosen. I am acting on the recommendations of those who carried out the selection procedure. Because of the sensitivity of the posts, I have taken the approach that the less a political hand is involved—although obviously we are all responsible—the better. I have by and large accepted the recommendations of those who have advised me.

Mr. Forth

The Minister is trying to say, "Not me, guy", but it is he who has presented the list of names to the House, so I am sure he will be prepared to accept responsibility. He will also accept that it is now a House of Commons matter and the fact that party leaders have signed up to the list need not bind any independent-minded Member of Parliament.

Is it a coincidence that two BBC people have turned up on a list of six? Is not that strange, given that there are nearly 60 million people in this country? Will the Minister explain that?

Mr. O'Brien

The right hon. Gentleman rightly holds Ministers and the Government to account. BBC experience is not the criterion by which we judge the acceptability of candidates. If that were the case, many Members of Parliament would have something to say about it. The candidates were considered individually and interviewed properly. The selection panel was as reasonably non-partisan politically as we could make it. It so happened that two of those who came through the process have some background in the BBC. It is a matter more of chance than anything else. The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt express his own views on it.

I hope that the House will support the motion.

Madam Deputy Speaker

For the avoidance of any doubt, I confirm that if my opinion as to the decision on the question of the Electoral Commission is challenged, the matter will be subject to a deferred Division.

11.58 pm
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

The Minister's tone of sweet reasonableness would lead the House to suppose that nothing had ever gone amiss with this procedure, that everything had been straightforward up to now and that there was nothing in the motion to trouble the House, but that is far from the case.

My right hon. and hon. Friends will be interested to hear the small saga of what occurred just before Christmas. The sequence of events makes the position rather less happy for the Government than the Minister has just led us to believe. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) tabled a question on 30 November asking when the commissioners were to be appointed following the to enactment of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The reply was: We intend to table a motion for an Address to be presented to Her Majesty, as required by section 3(1) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referenda ms Act 2000, soon.—[Official Report, 13 December 2000; Vol. 359, c. 181W.] It was therefore with considerable surprise that we discovered that the Home Office issued a press release the following morning announcing the names of the commission members. No reference had been made to an imminent press release in the written answer given to my right hon. Friend only the day before, yet that press release listed the names that the Minister has put forward this evening—the names on the Order Paper—and said that they had been recommended for appointment; there was no question of die matter coming before the House. The Minister has said tonight that the appointments are a matter for the House, as indeed they are. Unfortunately, however, it appears that the Home Office had more than somewhat jumped the gun.

My right hon. and hon. Friends will be particularly interested in what happened next. In a letter, of which I have a copy, dated the following day—15 December—none other than the Home Secretary himself had to write what I can only describe as a grovelling apology to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). Indeed, he also sent a copy to the Leader of the House and to Mr. Speaker.

The Home Secretary's letter began: I am writing to apologise for the premature release yesterday morning of a Home Office Press Notice announcing the names of the Electoral Commissioners-designate in advance of the tabling of the motion for the Address as required by section 3 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Stinking fish.

Mr. Hawkins

As my right hon. Friend says, stinking fish indeed.

The letter goes on: As you will have seen, the motion was tabled yesterday afternoon and appears on today's Order Paper. I hope it will be possible to find time to debate the motion soon after the Christmas Recess and for the appointments process to be completed by the middle of January at the latest. So there was a very rapid volte face by no less a person than the Home Secretary, trying to cover the tracks of his Department's press release.

The right hon. Gentleman sent a further letter to the Government Chief Whip on 19 December, saying: The timing of the Address for the appointment of the Electoral Commissions— it should say "the Electoral Commissioners", but no doubt the Home Secretary was in such a hurry that he referred to them as "Electoral Commissions"— was dependent, first and foremost, on securing Royal Assent for the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. As you know this was not secured until the very end of the last Session and it was only then that it was possible to initiate steps to table the motion for the Address, although I agree that your Office could have been given a little more forewarning. While it was highly desirable for the appointments to have been made this side of Christmas it is not absolutely essential for this to happen and I am grateful to you for provisionally scheduling a slot for the Address to be debated when the Commons returns in January. Why was there all this panic? Why were the grovelling apologies made so quickly—within a day? Why, four days later, was a letter—which subsequently came into my hands—sent by the Home Secretary to his own Chief Whip?

All that happened entirely because of the perceptive interventions at business questions by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. On 14 December, she wisely asked: Why will the House have to wait until mid-January before the electoral commissioners are appointed, as the Home Office press release states? Surely we could debate that in the coming week and have them in place for the new year. Will the Leader of the House consider that because it is important and needs to be addressed? Will that decision not further complicate the implementation of the Bill's main provisions on donations and expenditure? It is interesting that my hon. Friend picked out the question of donations, which has recently brought the Government into such great disrepute, as early as 14 December. She continued: I hope that the Leader of the House will share my concern about the way in which the business has been handled and the disrespect it shows to Members of the House for announcements to be made without providing a written answer or an opportunity for us to discuss it. However, matters were worse still because the written answer received by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald was entirely misleading as no mention was made of the fact that a press release was about to be issued.

The Leader of the House tried to respond to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. She said: As for the Home Office press release, I am afraid that I am not familiar with precisely what was said or why … However, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill has been extensively discussed. I understand that the House is interested in who the commissioners may be, but I am not aware of a suggestion that we should debate those appointments. Indeed, successive Governments have not thought that there should be accountability, other than through Ministers, for appointments that are made through the proper public appointment process. However, that was not thought good enough because, as my hon. Friend said in a point of order at the end of business questions on 14 December last year, the Government had already promised a debate. The Government had apparently forgotten what they had promised in their own Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. During that point of order, my hon. Friend asked the Leader of the House whether she will reconsider her response to my request for a debate next week on the appointment of the electoral commissioners? Section 3 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums 2000 requires an address to the Crown from the Commons for the appointment of commissioners. Does it not therefore seem highly appropriate that the Commons should address the subject? In response, the Leader of the House said: it will not be easy for the House to find time for such a debate—nor, indeed, do I immediately perceive the necessity for one. That was said despite the fact that the Government's own legislation clearly stated that such a debate would have to be held and that the House would have to scrutinise the names.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) was right to describe this saga as a shambles. This is yet another example of the Government not knowing their own legislation, rushing ahead with press releases before any debate has taken place and showing utter contempt for hon. Members and the normal, proper constitutional requirements.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

As we are in a vein of transparency, openness and frankness, will the hon. Gentleman care to put on record the date on which the Leader of the Opposition agreed to the proposed names?

Mr. Hawkins

I have not yet dealt with the consultation on the names. I am simply setting out the very uncomfortable facts of the saga of the complete abuse of the procedures of the House and the Government's own legislation.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border has said, that saga has been a shambles. The Act was enacted on 30 November, but only now are we beginning to discuss the membership of the commission. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), for Penrith and The Border and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) will wish to express their own views, but it is particularly important to understand that the Government's handling of the matter has gone badly wrong. I hope that, in winding up the debate, the Minister will have the grace to apologise to the House for everything that has gone wrong during this appalling saga, even though he said nothing about that in his opening remarks, from which no one would guess that anything had gone wrong or that the Home Secretary had to send grovelling apologies to Mr. Speaker and leading figures in the main parties.

We must now consider some of the outstanding issues that arise from the Act. The Opposition have continually raised issues relating to the Act and its operation, and questions remain about the commission's membership. My right hon. and hon. Friends would want me to draw attention to those matters because they would also wish to raise them. Nothing in the legislation forbids the Electoral Commission's staff, as opposed to its members, being members of political parties. The official Opposition remain concerned about that because the duties in which the commission's staff may be involved could lead them to come into contact with many details of all political parties.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying rather wide of the motion that is before the House.

Mr. Hawkins

Of course I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall try to restrict my comments, but I hope that you will accept that the Opposition's concerns about the staff of the commission are issues that are affected by the membership of the commission. However, in the light of your ruling, I will not pursue that point.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are here to debate the motion before the House, which relates to the membership of the Electoral Commission.

Mr. Hawkins

In the light of that point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I deal with the official Opposition's concerns about the accountability of the commission's members? Parliamentary answers, particularly that at column 528W on 28 November in response to a question about the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, seem to imply that Members of the House have no ability to hold the members of the commission to account. However, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton at business questions, the Leader of the House said that successive Governments have not thought that there should be accountability, other than through Ministers, for appointments that are made through the proper public appointment process.—[Official Report, 14 December 2000; Vol. 359, c. 804–21.] Which answer is right?

The Act includes a provision to set up a special Speaker's Committee to oversee the work of the Electoral Commission. It will be needed to oversee the commission's finances and spending. I understand that the establishment of the Committee is under discussion, but can the Minister tell the House when he expects that the Committee will be established? It would be a matter of great concern to the House if members of the commission operated for a long time without the proper procedures to oversee their work being put in place. Has the Speaker's Committee been appointed yet? I am happy for the Minister to clarify that matter when he winds up the debate.

The Speaker's Committee will include five Members of this House who are not Ministers of the Crown. Even though—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I regret having to keep bringing the hon. Gentleman back into line, but we are debating whether the people named on the Order Paper will be suitable commissioners.

Mr. Hawkins

Once again I defer to your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. For the benefit of hon. Members, I was seeking to address the way in which the members of the commission will, we hope, at some stage be accountable to the House. However, I shall leave that point there.

I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will realise from the points that I have made that many matters of considerable concern remain. Although the members of the Electoral Commission have been agreed by all the main political parties, it is important to debate a number of outstanding questions. I hope that the Minister will deal with those questions after he has heard from my right hon. and hon. Friends.

12.13 am
Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

I welcome the appointment of the commissioners and hope that they will have time to get on top of their jobs in time for a possible spring election. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) upbraided the Government for jumping the gun; I congratulate them on getting on with the job. It is important that the commissioners should have the maximum amount of time to get on with the job that they have to do.

It is only five weeks and a few days until the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 comes into force on 16 February. From then, there will be only some 10 weeks until 3 May, the date that is constantly being mentioned as a possible election date. I myself have no information about that. The commissioners will need all that time and more to f familiarise themselves with the job. Indeed, I had understood that the motion might be brought to the House before the new year, but it was certainly important that Home Office Ministers were able to get on with the job of selecting candidates for nomination.

Mr. Forth

Following the hon. Gentleman's reasoning, if there were to be an election on a date in April which has been widely canvassed, dissolution would have to take place three or four weeks beforehand—early in March. Does the hon. Gentleman think that if the appointments take effect in February and the general election comes along so soon, three or four weeks will be sufficient for the commissioners to get up to speed and to do their job effectively?

Mr. Linton

There is no provision for the Prime Minister to have to take into account the implementation dates for the Act before deciding on the date of an election. Clearly, however, once that date has been chosen, the electoral commissioners will have to consider what measures can reasonably be implemented in time for that election. That decision cannot be made in the absence of any knowledge about when the election will be held. I merely make the point that the sooner the commissioners are allowed to get on with the job, the more they will be prepared for an election. The earlier the suggested date of the election, the stronger that argument.

Unlike the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, I was concerned by the stringency of the conditions for commissioners which were introduced in an amendment in the House of Lords in October or November. [Interruption.] That was nothing to do with membership of the BBC. The conditions were that commissioners could not in the past 10 years have been an officer of a political party, have made a recordable donation or have held a relevant political office. That may all be perfectly justifiable, but it may also mean that we have in these six people six political virgins with very little experience of the electoral process. It is true that experience in these matters is not everything, and I recognise that the single most important qualification is that the six candidates should have authority and respect as people above politics. They all seem to have that qualification.

The importance of having people whose impartiality can be accepted by all is very much underlined by the situation in Canada. In this country, political parties are not yet familiar with the power carried by the chief electoral officer. We have been spoilt by centuries of lax enforcement of electoral rules and, indeed, by a system of self-enforcement, in which rules are rarely enforced unless the political parties themselves report a suspected default. Since the parties may feel vulnerable on that point, they rarely report such defaults. Political parties in this country will get a rude shock when we have in place a commission with officials paid to check that they adhere to the law and to prosecute any party that fails to do so. Certainly in Canada, the chief electoral officers—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman a little leeway, but I hope that he will now come to the motion before the House.

Mr. Linton

I was merely trying to draw the attention of the House to the importance of electoral commissioners because Canada's commission, known as Elections Canada, performs a vital role during elections. The commission is personified by the chief executive, or chief electoral officer, but he answers to the electoral commissioners. I was merely pointing out that, in Canada, the power of chief electoral officers such as Jean-Marc Hamel, and particularly in Quebec—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps I did not make myself clear. We are dealing with the suitability of the people listed on the Order Paper; that has nothing to do with Canada.

Mr. Linton

I merely make the point that it is important that the six should be seen to be impartial and win the respect and the authority that comes from that impartiality, as has happened in Canada. I must follow your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If you feel that any parallel drawn with Canada—even one of electoral commission to electoral commission—is inappropriate, I shall not pursue the point.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have nothing against Canada. The hon. Gentleman is making general remarks; that is not the purpose of the motion.

Mr. Linton

I merely question whether the candidates are prepared for the role that electoral commissioners play. I hope that they are aware of its importance. I understand that the acting chief electoral officer, for instance, has been seconded from the Home Office. I have nothing against the individual concerned, but it is important that the electoral commissioners understand that, as a body, they need a completely different culture from the Home Office, which has been responsible heretofore for the conduct of elections, and that they need to stamp their own authority on the conduct of elections.

I think that this is the only country in the world where the main electoral authority—the Home Office—cannot even tell people the result of an election. It will simply refer people to a newspaper. In any other country—certainly one that has an electoral commission—the body would regard as one of its prime responsibilities the ability to provide chapter and verse on the result of elections.

I wish the six candidates well and emphasise that it will be vital that, if their appointment is agreed, they carry in their ability and, above all, in their impartiality the confidence of all parties represented in the House.

12.22 am
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

As I said in an intervention on the Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) had no objection on behalf of my party to the names before the House. Therefore, we will be supporting the motion—in both what I say and in any deferred vote.

It strikes me that there is a relevant question about the appointment process and the questions put to the six people when interviewed and asked whether they were ready to take up their posts. It relates to the timetable for their function, which could be exercised immediately.

The Minister will know that my colleagues and I supported the idea behind the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. We disagreed over some matters, but generally supported the process. We supported in general the recommendations of the Neill committee and, indeed, nominated somebody to sit on it who fully participated in the process. We also support the idea of an electoral commission. So, questions concern its practical functioning from now on.

I shall summarise the functions in order to preface my questions about the interviewing of the individual candidates. The electoral commissioners should monitor elections and election law; be the registrar for parties; receive and publish details of donations to parties and third parties in campaigns; receive and publish parties' accounts; choose the organisations to receive core funding in referendum campaigns; receive election returns from the acting returning officers; have the power to investigate parties and their accounts, especially in cases of alleged breach of rules; advise on election rules; and have an administrative role in support of all those functions.

Potentially that is a huge remit of work, and there is provision in the schedule for staff, for example. If the motion is approved tomorrow under the deferred voting procedure, the Address will go to the Queen and the Queen may approve the commissioners. It could be, as the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) said, that there will then be about two months before the next general election. There could be 14 months, of course. There are real questions about how equipped the commissioners feel they are personally to give time and commitment, to meet and sit and to do their job.

A matter of controversy recently, and rightfully, is one that the Act sought to address. It is no accident that everyone becomes excited about donations to political parties. There is huge interest in them, not least because everyone would like to have huge donations to his or her political party. Let us be honest about that. That is why regulation of the process was needed.

It is clear that until 16 February, the date when the new electoral register will come into force and the date when the Act will come into force, there is one procedure that does not require certain disclosure. From 16 February —there had to be a cut-off date—there will be another procedure. I do not want to have an argument about the legal propriety of saying something before 16 February and saying something after that date. We know what the rules are.

There are some fundamental questions that the commissioners might have been interviewed about, and I shall be grateful if the Minister says what commitment they gave to be able to deal with these matters before a prospective spring general election this year, which is the earliest possible date for it. First, what capacity will they have to ensure that donations given from 16 February until the beginning of an election, and from the beginning of an election to the end of an election campaign, are monitored properly, and that the public have confidence that they are able to do the job of reporting? How soon will they report? How soon will the public know of any donation given following the appointment of the commissioners?

Let us say that the commissioners take office next week. After 16 February, how soon will the public know that if a donation is made, it will be made public in the way that is set out in legislation? Is there a possibility that, before the coming general election, the commissioners might take a view about the wisdom of donations above a certain amount, irrespective of the fact that the legislation allows donations to be unlimited? There is no doubt about that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is using the motion to widen the debate beyond the commissioners. I would be grateful if he would think about that and come back into line.

Mr. Hughes

I shall be careful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall tie my remarks specifically to the questions that the commissioners may have been asked. The Minister said properly that he had a hands-off approach to the interview process. However, it is important to know what those commissioners said about how available they were to perform their role and what personnel back-up they said that they had or would expect to have if they were able to do their jobs properly. It is important to know also what freedom they would have in the recommendations that they might wish to make. I understand your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am trying to test the limits of the commissioners' powers in the context of discussions with them about how they will use the authority that is given to them by both the Act and appointment.

I do not intend to detain the House for long, but there are four questions that seem appropriate to ask. Do the commissioners have power to make recommendations before the election? They have power to make reports at any time. Do they have power to make recommendations about a change to the upper limit on donations? Was that discussed? Is it something that they can feel free to do? Secondly, would they have power—this is hugely important—to make recommendations about whether Members of this place or the other place should be able to make donations? There must be a potential conflict of interest. To make a self-evident point, there must be a potential advantage to a Back-Bench Tory, Labour or Liberal Democrat Member who might suddenly produce a huge sum for his party. He might regard that as advantageous to his Political career in this place. When a member of the Government gives a donation, there must be an issue as to how he is perceived thereafter.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying wide of the mark. He must discuss the motion, which refers to the commissioners—not other duties that they might undertake or wider issues.

Mr. Hughes

I am trying hard to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and shall seek to keep within that stricture when raising the final two questions.

In the interview process, was there a discussion with the six commissioners about whether they had a view, or would be willing to form one, on whether there should be any prohibition on awarding honours to donors and whether they would be able to make such a prohibition? Were the commissioners party to discussions, which we in this place were, about whether they ought to encourage small donations and, if that was the case, whether the tax process should be changed to enable that?

If the nature of the commissioners' powers and the freedom that they will have were discussed, it would be helpful for the House to know that because, like the hon. Member for Battersea, I think that on 16 February, the nation will suddenly realise that there is body to police elections. The public will expect that policing body to have teeth and they will be greatly disappointed if six perfectly eminent and respectable people are unable to be the tough policemen and policewoman that they and the House expect. Our electoral process will benefit from those people being powerful and effective. The question is: has that been discussed with them and will they be given the power, from 16 February or before, to be as tough and as strong as the public hope and expect them to be?

12.32 am
Mr. Gerald Howarth

There is no doubt that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is right that the appointees to the Electoral Commission will be extremely powerful, and I agree with the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), my colleague on the Home Affairs Committee, that it is important that there is public confidence in the individuals nominated to that responsible position. The commission will not have absolute power, in so far as the Speaker's Committee will, I understand, be able to review some decisions that it might make. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that, in the public eye, it will be an important and powerful focal point in policing the whole business of funding political parties and the conduct of elections in this country.

We are considering the names before us specifically as appointees to the Electoral Commission, so we must consider the context in which they have been submitted to us, to ensure that they meet the requirements of that particular context and their proposal for appointment. The hon. Member for Battersea and I were present when the Home Affairs Committee considered whether there should be an Electoral Commission I cannot recall that we gave the matter a great deal of consideration, but we did consider it and we recommended that there should be a commission. However, we made a number of other points in our conclusions and it is important to bear those in mind. Paragraph 147 of our report published on 10 September 1998 says: We have received no serious criticisms of the present work carried out by the majority of local authorities and electoral officers, and we congratulate them on their record. In a sense, we were saying that there is not a huge problem in this country, and that we should not get things out of proportion. We noted that there was dissatisfaction in some respects, and suggested that an Electoral Commission might be the way to deal with that. That is the context in which we are considering the nominations.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) pointed out that it is extraordinary that, out of 60 million people, there are two nominees who have a long history—they were not just passing through on a short stay—in the BBC culture. They have been deeply embedded in it. That strikes me as surprising.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way on that point. Even if, during the rather opaque selection procedure, it were deemed to be desirable to have some representatives of the so-called media, does he think that it might have been better to have had independent media people or representatives of the printed media, instead of representatives of the BBC?

Mr. Howarth

My right hon. Friend makes a good point about the media. The plural of media is mediae, is it not? Finding an independent journalist is difficult. Some of them hold themselves out to be independent, but they are no more so than the Minister is on his side or I am on my side. We all know it; the trouble is that the journalists do not know it, because they are not honest with themselves.

There is a serious question about the BBC people, which I shall come to in a moment. Among the nominees there are also two with long experience of local government. I accept that Pamela Gordon was president of SOLACE, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives—an organisation, incidentally, which, in its representations to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, did not think that there was a need for an Electoral Commission. It is curious that the immediate past president of SOLACE should have been appointed to a commission which her organisation did not think needed to exist. No doubt she will be able to explain that when she has read the report of our proceedings in the House tonight.

I am not sure that we will find that local government officers are necessarily the people best qualified to deal with all the issues that the commission will have to consider. It is not just the funding of political parties that falls within the remit of the commission. Nor is it merely a question of transferring the boundary commission responsibilities to the commission. The commission will have to consider a wide range of matters to do with electoral law. It does not seem that there is anyone with business experience among the nominees, for example. We have the names of six nominees before us. I understand that the Act provides for a possible nine. When the Minister winds up, he may want to tell us whether consideration was given to including some business men. Perhaps the Government could find no business men who had not contributed to the Labour party in recent years and thus disqualified themselves. I shall return to that point.

The names proposed by the narrow selection committee are, in turn, a narrow cross-section of British society. It would have been meritorious to include someone who had some experience of politics at the sharp end.

That brings me neatly to section 3(4) of the Act, which states: A person may not be appointed as an Electoral Commissioner if the person—

  1. (a) is a member of a registered party;
  2. (b) is an officer or employee of a registered party or of any accounting unit of such a party;
  3. (c) holds a relevant elective office … or
  4. (d) has at any time within the last ten years—
    1. (i) been such an officer or employee as is mentioned in paragraph (b), or
    2. (ii) held such an office as is mentioned in paragraph (c), or
    3. (iii) been named as a donor…
That does not stop someone who has been a member of a political party in the last 10 years being appointed a commissioner. If the public are to have confidence in the commission, they need to know whether any of those people has at any time been a member of any political party in this country. Membership of a political party in the last 10 years, unless the person concerned was also a substantial donor during that period, would not automatically disqualify him or her from membership of the commission. Hon. Members on both sides of the House sing the same song, and we all know that, when someone in a position of influence in a supposedly non-partisan body such as the BBC has had a political past, we are endlessly reminded of it. We remind the Government that Greg Dyke was a member of the Labour party and a big donor to it. The Government remind us that Christopher Bland was at one time a Tory councillor. We make a note of such things, but the public ought to be reassured that the six people whose names have been submitted to us tonight have not been members of any of the main political parties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) raised the question of staff. I shall not go down that road, save to say that that is a point that the Minister—[Interruption.] Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office could mention the Minister when he has finished to talking to his hon. Friends. I hope that the Minister will take on board what my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath said, as he made rather a good point.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if we are going to ask whether people have been members of political parties, it is also reasonable to ask, as is done on other public appointment forms, whether they have been supporters, active participants or campaigners during the same 10-year period?

Mr. Howarth

That is a good point. I should have thought that if someone had been a campaigner, activist or supporter, that probably meant carrying a membership card, but you never know: such a person could have been a Liberal Democrat in one of those front organisations, who did not sign up as a member but acted as a mole. Front organisations could be included as well.

I want to come back to the context in which we are looking at these six names. We are very much helped by the Minister's press release of 14 December, in which he announced the names recommended for appointment. Interestingly, the press release was headed "Implementation of party funding Act begins." That was the title of the press release—not "Distinguished names to serve on Electoral Commission"—which suggests that the Government are fixated on the business of party political funding. They have issued that press release at a time when the Labour party, not the Conservative party, is in the spotlight in relation to that matter. The Labour party has provoked deep dissatisfaction and unrest among its own members, including former distinguished occupants of the Labour Front Bench, at the way in which business men are falling over themselves to give money to the party.

In his press release, the Minister said: The new Electoral Commission will scrutinise electoral issues such as party funding and referendums and ensure the delivery of the Neill principles of integrity and openness. The Electoral Commission will play a crucial role in cleaning up British Politics— The Government themselves make that claim— and provide independent oversight of the new funding framework for UK political parties. Those are the Minister's words, and the emphasis that he has chosen to give the public in that announcement on recommended names concerns the issue of funding. I have no quarrel with the Prime Minister's comments on Sunday in so far as he said that without state funding of political parties in this country—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is now straying too wide of the motion. I should be grateful if he came back into line.

Mr. Howarth

I accept entirely your strictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Let me mention some other points which, according to the Minister, the Electoral Commission, which will comprise the six individuals whom we are discussing, will have to consider. It must monitor political parties' compliance with the controls on their income and expenditure; keep under review the law and practice on elections and referendums; promote public awareness of electoral systems; take over responsibility for the review of parliamentary and local government boundaries, and comment on the intelligibility of a referendum question. The final point is extremely important, and I shall conclude by considering it.

Section 104 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 states: The Commission shall consider the wording of the referendum question, and shall publish a statement of any views of the Commission as to the intelligibility of that question … as soon as reasonably practicable after the Bill is introduced, and in such manner as they may determine. I shall explain why that is important. Many of us who are, broadly speaking, Eurosceptics have been worried about the BBC's treatment of the whole European issue.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying way wide of the mark.

Mr. Howarth

May I submit to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that my point is not way wide of the mark—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman may not do that. He must either address the motion or complete his remarks.

Mr. Howarth

The Government propose that two people who have spent their careers in the BBC should be members of the Electoral Commission, which will be responsible for examining the "intelligibility—whatever that means—of a referendum question. The whole country knows that, if—and it is a big "if"—the Labour party wins the next election, and the nation is unfortunate enough to have a continuing Labour Government, it has said that it will hold a referendum on whether Britain should surrender its national currency and have it submerged into the euro.

The Electoral Commission, the membership of which we are considering tonight, will be charged with the responsibility of determining the intelligibility of the question. Yet two of the proposed members—a third of the nominees—have served their entire careers in the BBC. Several of us—not only me, but some distinguished Members of this House and the other place, as well as outside observers—have expressed grave concern that the BBC has not been impartial in its treatment of the euro and the whole European issue.

Mr. Maclean

If a Macpherson analysed the BBC nowadays, he would conclude that it suffers from deeply ingrained, institutional Europhilia. In those circumstances, anyone who has had a career in the BBC and is appointed to a commission, cannot, irrespective of other political associations, be regarded as neutral when framing a referendum question on Europe.

Mr. Howarth

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend, who makes a good analogy with the Macpherson report. We are considering an extremely serious matter.

We are entitled publicly to ask those who volunteered to have their names submitted for membership of the Electoral Commission, who have been chosen by a selection committee and whose names are proposed to us tonight, to tell the House and the British people that, if they are charged with the responsibility of dealing with a referendum question on the euro, they will ensure that their personal prejudices do not affect the rigour with which they examine the way in which the Government—if the Labour party is elected—frame the question. That will be crucial to the future independence of these islands.

Mr. Hawkins

My hon. Friend is raising important issues. Does he agree with me that it is crucial for us to know in detail about the Speaker's Committee which will supervise the members of the Electoral Commission if they are approved by the House and by Her Majesty in due course? The Speaker's Committee will enable the House to have some responsibility for oversight of the Electoral Commission. It is only through the Speaker's Committee, about which I asked the Minister earlier, that the Electoral Commission will be accountable to this democratically elected House.

Mr. Howarth

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

I shall conclude by expressing my severe reservations on that point, which I think is germane to the motion and is critical to the concerns of the people of this country. I am conscious that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has approved the names. Nevertheless, I hope that the Government will respond to the points that I have made.

12.51 am
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

I intend to be brief and raise only one issue, because other hon. Members wish to speak.

The selection process may have been impeccable, although the story that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) told us about Government incompetence rings true. These six people may be absolutely splendid, and I have nothing against any of them, but the question is whether they are suitable to do the job to which the Government propose they should be appointed.

One of the jobs of the Electoral Commission is to scrutinise electoral issues. That is a wide remit, and we all know that Committees tend to expand their remit. One of the complaints that I raised with the Prime Minister at column 636 of Hansard on 23 July 1997, and have raised on other occasions with other Ministers, is the disparity between the size of the electorates in Scottish and English constituencies, which I believe defrauds English electors. Bristol, West has an electorate of 85,000, whereas Hamilton, South has only 47,000. They are both inner-city constituencies, so neither of them is a depopulated area, which could give rise to an electoral disparity.

The proposed appointees include Pamela Joan Gordon, who sounds Scottish. Sir Neil William David McIntosh also sounds pretty Scottish. It has to be said that Mr. Singh does not sound Scottish, but Mr. Younger sounds as though he comes from the north of the United Kingdom. Two groups of people are interested in maintaining this disparity between the power of an English elector and that of a Scottish elector—the Scots and the Labour party. These six people include some who undoubtedly sound as though they are Scottish and who may be biased in favour of keeping a system that is unfair to English electors.

From answers that I have been given by Ministers in the past, the Government seem determined not to change a system that includes an Electoral Commission and boundary commissions for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, fossilising disparities which I believe are injurious to English electors. Will the commissioners' remit permit them to propose to the House that we get rid of the separate boundary commissions for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and have one boundary commission for the whole of the United Kingdom? In so doing, they would be ensuring that English electors were not discriminated against by the Government, as they were during the last election and as they will be in future elections under the Government's proposals.

Mr. Maclean

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I beg to move, That the House sit in private.

Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 163 (House to sit in private):—

The House divided: Ayes 0, Noes 19.

Division No. 36] [12.57 am
Tellers for the Ayes:
Mr. Gerald Howarth and
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed.
Connarty, Michael Linton, Martin
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Michael, Rt Hon Alun
George, Andrew (St Ives) Miller, Andrew
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Healey, John Pearson, Ian
Hendrick, Mark Savidge, Malcolm
Heppell, John Tipping, Paddy
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Wray, James
Jenkins, Brian Tellers for the Noes:
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Mr. Kevin Hughes and
Kilfoyle, Peter Mr. Tom Levitt

It appearing from the report of the Division that 40 Members had not taken part in the Division, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House

  1. WESTMINSTER HALL 40 words
  2. c846
  4. c846
  6. cc846-7
  8. c847
  9. HUMAN RIGHTS 49 words