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Establishment of the Electoral Commission

Orders of the Day — Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:19 pm on 14th February 2000.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Shadow Spokesperson (Wales)

I hope that in our deliberations in the Committee of the whole House, the spirit of co-operation that existed in Committee upstairs will persist. As I stated on a number of occasions in that Committee and on Second Reading, the Bill is based on the Neill report, the spirit of which is strongly supported by the Opposition.

Clearly, if we support the Neill report, we must support the basic tenet of clause 1, which is the establishment of the Electoral Commission. However, we have a number of concerns with regard to clause 1, on which we seek reassurance from the Minister.

Recommendation 77 in the Neill report states: The Commission should consist of five part-time members". However, the clause states that there should be at least five and up to nine commissioners. Therein lies a deviation on the part of the Government from the Neill report.

At paragraph 11.27, Neill reports: It was suggested to us in evidence that the Election Commission should, among other things, assume the responsibilities of the present Boundary Commissions. This proposal falls outside our terms of reference, and we have neither taken evidence bearing on the point nor considered it in detail. We would only offer the thought that the existing system for the revision of parliamentary boundaries seems to work reasonably well and that to transfer it to the Election Commission might seriously overload that body, whose responsibilities, it seems to us, will be onerous enough as it is. We are not inclined to recommend change. Why have the Government felt it necessary to deviate from Neill's inclination not to recommend change?

The second and more probing question concerns timing. The establishment of the commission seems to be a relatively straightforward procedure. However, a letter sent by the Home Office constitutional and community policy directorate on 17 January to the nominating officers of all registered political parties states in paragraph 6: Subject to when Royal Assent is given to the Bill, we aim to have the Electoral Commissioners appointed and Electoral Commission functioning by November 2000. As soon as possible thereafter (and we are tentatively looking at. December 2000)— that is key— it is proposed to bring Part II into force so that the transitional arrangements set out in clause 30 can come into play. There will then be a six-week period during which existing registered parties will need to notify the Commission of the name of their registered treasurer and deposit a scheme setting out their financial structure. Following this six-week transitional period (ie. in February or March 2001) the accounting requirements and the controls on donations and on campaign expenditure, set out in Parts III to V, will then come into force. The next paragraph is telling. It states: This is a demanding timetable, not only for the Home Office in establishing the Electoral Commission but also for all registered parties, who will need to prepare themselves for these significant changes to the way they operate. The Electoral Commission, which clause 1 sets up, will be responsible only a few weeks after its establishment for taking over the register of political parties. I have a copy of the register, which shows that there are approximately 100 political parties in this country. Many of them have fanciful names, ranging from the Alternative Labour List and the Caring party to small groups such as the Hull Independent Labour Group, well-known names such as the Official Monster Raving Loony party, and a couple that appealed to me: the Tax-Avoid for the Self-Employed party and the Walked-Over-Women party.

Those 100 registered political parties are to be made aware of the Bill's provisions—the commission will have to make them aware—in a short period so that by March 2001 all the procedures will be completed and the scheme will be up and running. What are the timetable's implications for a possible election in spring 2001? I hope that the Minister will give us some guidance on that.

May is popular with incumbent Prime Ministers. If an election were to take place in May 2001, the commission would have to implement quickly the Bill's provisions not only for a register of political parties, but for their expenditure, donations to them and the specific rules that apply in an election campaign, which are different from the rules that normally apply.

The commission will be new and fresh and the political parties will be new to the regulations. The major political parties will probably have their systems in place and therefore be reasonably comfortable. However, I fear that chaos might reign among some of the smaller political parties. Some of them are represented in the House, and they may find the timetable onerous. I seek the Minister's guidance about the practicability of implementing clause 1.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

This is an exciting moment for those of us who are new to the Bill and have been unable to participate in the proceedings hitherto. The debate gives us an opportunity to turn our attention—in, I hope, a focused way—to the Bill's comprehensive and complex provisions. I am pleased about that, and about the fact that the selection list gives us ample opportunity to probe, examine and analyse the Bill.

Clause 1 gives us an opportunity to put our discussion in context. On first reading the clause, I thought that it was relatively straightforward. It is a standard clause, which we have come to expect in the sort of measure that we are considering; especially its provision for the commission to consist of electoral commissioners, who should number not less than five, but not more than nine". However, I began to worry about that when I read on—as I hope you, Sir Alan, agree one has to in this context—to the commission's general functions and the proposed number of members.

4.30 pm

Very much in my mind was the thought that to discharge its functions adequately the commission may have to appoint sub-committees of its members to give proper attention to the various responsibilities given to it by the Bill. I ranged quickly over the general functions, such as preparing and publishing a report after each election and referendum. It must also keep under review, and from time to time submit reports to the Secretary of State on … such matters"— that is a very general remit— relating to elections … such matters relating to referendums … the redistribution of seats at parliamentary elections". That in itself is an enormous responsibility, but as we know, the block transfer of the boundary commissions' responsibilities to the new commission will take place later and we find that it is to be consulted on changes to electoral law.

There is another catch-all responsibility in clause 8: The Commission may, at the request of any relevant body, provide the body with advice and assistance as respects any matter in which the Commission have skill and experience", which, of course, we assume will be very wide indeed. However, I shall not go into detail at this stage. This is simply a broad review.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Conservative, Penrith and The Border

Before my right hon. Friend completes his general introduction to clause stand part—

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Conservative, Penrith and The Border

Indeed. Before my right hon. Friend completes his introductory remarks, I remind him that he has not mentioned the fact that the Bill applies to the whole United Kingdom. The nine commissioners—at most—will have to deal with four separate legislative systems as the Government continue their policy of disintegrating the United Kingdom. How can nine commissioners possibly deal with the Northern Ireland legislative system, Scotland, the Welsh Assembly and what remains of the United Kingdom Parliament?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, because he has reinforced the difficulty in which I find myself on being asked whether the clause should stand part of the Bill. In normal circumstances, I confess, I would argue for the membership to be at the lower end of the numbers so as to establish a compact body capable of making good decisions, but quickly. On this occasion, my worry is the reverse, and I wonder whether nine is sufficient.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw the Committee's attention to the fact that the commission would face a bewildering array of electoral arrangements—not only our traditional and excellent first-past-the-post system, but a number of different proportional systems will have to be considered; and what may seem, on the face of it, to be the routine responsibility in clause 4(1) to prepare and publish … a report on the administration of the election or referendum", which would appear to be a standard process in normal historical circumstances, will take on an altogether new character. The different systems of proportional representation in the different parts of the United Kingdom are in their early stages and it is possible—I think it is a certainty—that the reports that we would expect from the commission on those matters would have to be much more detailed and much more considered than might otherwise be the case.

I hope that the Committee and the Government do not accept that we have had the last word on whether the proportional systems that have been introduced up and down the United Kingdom are the final versions. The commission may recommend that we return to the first-past-the-post system, and I hope that it will. Even in that seductively simple provision in clause 4 we already see that the commission might have an extremely complex and demanding series of responsibilities, and clause 5 refers to the redistribution of seats at parliamentary elections". We are beginning to see the real possibility of the "not more than nine" electoral commissioners having to cover an awful lot of ground. To do so, they may have to constitute themselves into a series of working committees or sub-committees—hon. Members may call them what they will.

At that point the question arises whether nine commissioners could remotely be sufficient. One could have in one's mind's eye a sub-committee of even three or four members setting out to fulfil the responsibilities put on the commission under any of the clauses that I have mentioned—clause 4, clause 5, which has a number of different requirements, the consultations under clause 6, or the giving of advice under clause 8. Some matters will be continuous, whereas others will be ad hoc and refer to specific events.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The right hon. Gentleman has gone through a number of clauses. Has he directed his attention to clause 13, which enables the electoral commissioners to appoint deputy electoral commissioners?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Indeed, I had cast my eye over clause 13. The hon. Gentleman may think that he is solving the problem that I have set out, except that it says in clause 13(3): The functions of a Deputy Electoral Commissioner are limited to serving as a member of any Boundary Committee to which he is appointed. I do not think that the deputy electoral commissioners will solve the problem. I concede that they will solve part of the problem. They may take the burden of the responsibilities of the hitherto boundary commission—now boundary committee—but that still leaves all the others. I accept that the hon. Gentleman intervened in a spirit of helpfulness, but he has solved only a small part of the problem.

We have this peculiar mix of a continuity of responsibility, purpose and process, and the specifics that will arise from each election and referendum, to which the commission will have to turn its attention.

At this early stage in the proceedings of the Committee on the Floor of the House, I am beginning to wonder how much thought has been given to this matter. I cannot judge that in detail at this early stage—although the opportunity will arise over the following hours to do so. One has to merely glance at clause 1 and out come tumbling all these questions about whether this proposal has any chance of working properly. As it is fundamental to our constitutional and electoral provisions, surely the Government should have given it more thought than they obviously have done.

The Minister may think that nine commissioners will be able adequately to discharge the responsibilities that the Bill gives them, but I shall take an awful lot of persuading. The Minister will have time to do his persuading at the end of this part of the debate, but he will have to be pretty good to convince me that nine electoral commissioners can do justice to the enormous responsibilities that will be laid on the commission under clause 1 and the following clauses in this part of the Bill.

I confess that a Bill which I hoped would have general agreement and would be relatively straightforward seems already to be in trouble on clause 1. The Committee has its work cut out to examine these provisions properly and to come to proper conclusions. I say that as a preliminary observation, Sir Alan. You would not want me to go further at this stage. We shall mercifully be able to examine many of these matters in detail.

I am uneasy about this process. I am not satisfied that the Government have given this legislation proper consideration. I am grateful to my right hon. and hon. Friends whose amendments have been selected, because that will enable us to scrutinise this matter thoroughly. It may be that the Bill should not be rushed on to the statute book in its present state, because if it were, the Committee and the House might be making a serious mistake. I hope that we shall do our job properly and seriously and with due diligence.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

In view of the remarks that have been made, I just wanted to put on record the view of the Liberal Democrats that the Bill is overdue, and that the material it contains is broadly and properly in line with the Neill committee recommendations.

The first reading of clause 1 by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) was more accurate and to the point than his subsequent divertisements on the subject. We should consider the principle that is being established. It commands the support of the Liberal Democrats: we should have an unfettered and independent body that is undertaking careful supervision of one of the most fundamental and precious aspects of our democratic system. The general shape of the Bill and the particular shape of this clause should be supported.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Clause 1 gives effect to the Neill committee's recommendation that an Electoral Commission be established. Indeed, establishment of an independent Electoral Commission lies at the Bill's heart. Creation of a commission will represent an important step in the modernisation of our constitution, and in ensuring public confidence in the integrity of our electoral arrangements.

Many commentators have argued or supported the case for the establishment of a single body with a remit to oversee the United Kingdom's electoral machinery. The Government share the view of those commentators that there is a clear need for a body with a broad role to play in the conduct of elections and of referendums. The role should extend beyond policing the income and expenditure of political parties, to the broader matters of electoral law, increasing voter participation and defining electoral boundaries. The authority of that body should be grounded in its neutrality and independence from both political parties and the Government of the day.

Subsections (1), (2) and (3) provide for the establishment of an Electoral Commission which will consist of between five and nine electoral commissioners. The Neill committee recommended that the commission should consist of five members. The intention was that the five commissioners should be appointed in the first instance, but that a further four should be appointed when the functions of the various boundary commissions transfer to the Electoral Commission.

Subsection (4) specifies that the electoral commissioners may be appointed by Her Majesty. The appointment procedure is described in more detail in clause 3. However, the key point is that the commissioners will not be appointed directly by a Minister.

The Neill committee recommended that the commissioners should be part-time appointments. However, the Bill does not specify whether the commissioners should serve on a part or full-time basis. Until the body is fully established, it is perhaps difficult to be certain about how far the commissioners' work load will merit part or full-time appointments. That point is perhaps partly related to the point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

The Government would expect initially to appoint a full-time chairman, but the four other commissioners on a part-time basis. However, it seems unnecessary for the Bill to make explicit provision on the point. Some flexibility in meeting future arrangements would seem to be desirable.

The hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) asked various questions. On the boundary commission, we said in the White Paper that the first priority was to put in place controls on donations and campaign expenditure. Accordingly, the commission would not take on the boundary functions until 2002 at the earliest, and perhaps not until 2005, after the fifth general review of parliamentary boundaries has been completed. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Neill committee did not examine the matter in any great detail. We see considerable advantage in bringing all electoral matters under one roof. Various efficiency gains would also be realised if the functions of the parliamentary and local government boundary commissions were merged in one body.

In its comments on the draft Bill, the Neill committee did not raise any objections to vesting the boundary functions in the commission. Indeed, on Second Reading, the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), who is a member of the Neill committee, welcomed the proposals.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Shadow Spokesperson (Wales)

Earlier, I quoted the Neill report, which referred to the boundary commission. The report said that to transfer that work to the Election Commission might seriously overload that body, whose responsibilities, it seems to us, will be onerous enough as it is. We are not inclined to recommend change.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The Neill committee took an initial view, and we expressed to it our view that there would be advantage in bringing the work under one roof. As I understand it, the committee broadly accepts the approach that we proposed. Therefore, while the committee may have taken the view that such change would not be helpful, we have described to it the way in which we are proposing to go forward, and it has made no objection to that. We would not want to bring in the boundary commission recommendations immediately, but in the longer term there will be advantages. This is the proper body to bring all the matters together.

4.45 pm

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the commission starting in November 2000 and the clause 30 provisions coming into play. He rightly said that the timetable was demanding, but the public demand that political parties get our act together. They are fed up with a flexibility in party funding arrangements that amounts almost to a public scandal. They want the issue sorted out. Many of us want to address the public concern about what the media have called sleaze in politics. There is a lack of proper controls and of systematic ways of dealing with party funding. Passing the Bill would address much of that public concern. That is why we want to ensure that we do so as soon as reasonably possible.

I do not resile from the views that Home Office officials have expressed about the timetable being demanding, but it is not unrealistic. We can achieve it. The hon. Member for North Dorset fears that chaos may reign among smaller parties. No party is immune from public concern. Some of the smaller political parties may not yet have been the focus of the keen eye of the media or public concern, but without systematic regulation they could have problems if they receive more careful attention.

We need to ensure that the public concern is addressed as soon as possible. That is part of the process of restoring public confidence and trust in our constitutional and parliamentary system. It is an important task of the Bill. We can debate the details, but there can be no doubt about the urgency of responding to public concerns. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is asking whether we are able to meet the timetable. We have looked at the issue with great care and have been assured by those who will be carrying out the task that it is possible to get the administrative systems in place. We are going to proceed step by step, trying to ensure that the important areas of public concern are addressed first, then moving on to more administrative—although still important—issues such as parliamentary boundaries. We can create the structures that will enable us to deliver.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst believes that we need more commissioners and perhaps a body that can provide lots of working parties. I know that he is interested in who gets the commissioner roles. He clearly wants to create lots of opportunities for people to apply for such jobs. Neill did not see the commission as a job-creation scheme for long-winded politicians. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not have any interest in that. He can be assured that the Neill committee looked at the matter with a great deal of care and wisdom. When we put the wisdom of the right hon. Gentleman against that of the Neill committee in the divine balance, I expect it to come down on the side of the Neill committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause I ordered to stand part of the Bill.