Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

The Speaker's Committee

Orders of the Day — Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:45 pm on 14th February 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Question proposed, That this schedule be the Second schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

We can now look back reflectively on the matters that we have touched on. Here we have the answer to at least one slight mystery. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I were discussing the Bill earlier and were wondering why the purposes of the Speaker's Committee were buried in such a modest way in schedule 2, instead of being right up there in the early part of the Bill, even before clause 2.

Be that as it may, schedule 2 says what the Committee will do. At least, that is my guess, because it is the only mention that I can find. That great and august body, containing extraordinarily important and no doubt distinguished people, will, according to the schedule at least once in each year, make to the House of Commons a report on the exercise by the Commission of their functions. On the face of it, one might not only think that that is a fairly light work load but dismiss it as not of any great importance. I beg to differ.

We know that the commission's responsibilities are potentially highly political; they are not just about political matters but they could be very political in the sense that they could bear directly on electoral systems, for example; what the commission is charged with doing is mentioned in some of the substantive clauses that outline its responsibilities. The highly political Committee—it can be no other; it will be composed of politicians—will report on the exercise by the commission of its functions. It is not too fanciful a flight of imagination to suggest that the commission may look to the Committee for guidance on what it does. If the Committee chose to give political guidance on, for example, electoral systems—their desirability or whatever—one could find that it developed in an alarming way.

One then asks, "What about the membership?" The schedule gives further hints on the questions that we raised on clause 2 stand part. It says: An appointed member shall cease to be a member of the Speaker's Committee if … another person is appointed to be a member of the Committee in his place. In other words, a member can be sacked. That is how I read it. It effectively says—in charming parliamentary language, I agree—that it is possible for a member of the Committee to be dismissed by the appointment of another in his place.

That worries me, too. I would have wanted some reassurance of some independence of the Committee through the security of its membership, but, apparently, we do not have that reassurance. A difficult or troublesome member can obviously be removed. That carries with it all sorts of implications that we may want to consider.

Paragraph 3(1) states: The Speaker's Committee shall elect a chairman from amongst its members". We are then given what I guess the Minister will tell us is some reassurance: but the members of the Committee mentioned in section 2(2)(b) and (c) (Home Secretary and Minister for local government) shall not be eligible for election as chairman. That still means that the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, for example, will be eligible for election as Chairman. I have already suggested that, in most Parliaments heretofore, that individual has been a member of the governing party. If the Committee is indeed going to be able freely to elect its own Chairman, there is the distinct possibility that it may end up with a member of the Government as that Chairman.

8 pm

Now we are getting to the real substance of the schedule. If the Government were serious in their intention to reassure the Committee and the House of the absolute integrity and independence of the Speaker's Committee—let alone the commission—I should have expected there to be in the Bill some sort of mechanism stronger than the one offered. For example, the Bill might have stated that the Chairman shall not be a member of the party that has a majority in the House of Commons, or words to that effect. However, it does not say that, so we are left with the suspicion—I put it no higher than that—that the Speaker's Committee, with its oversight of the work of the commission as set out in paragraph 1(1), might in some circumstances exercise disproportionate influence over the commission when it is discharging its responsibilities of reviewing and making recommendations on electoral procedures and systems.

All those possibilities are present in schedule 2. Clause 2 provides no reassurance—the Minister has now come clean about the fact that he meant to refer to the Public Accounts Commission, not the Public Accounts Committee, which makes an important difference—and the debate has not reassured us about the independence, integrity or freedom from Government influence of the Speaker's Committee and, by implication, of the Electoral Commission itself.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can provide far more in the way of reassurance and insight as to the way in which he believes the process will work. For example, he should say more about the chairmanship of the Home Affairs Committee—a crucial matter, given that the Chairman of that Committee might be eligible to be Chairman of the Speaker's Committee. He should say a lot more about how he, representing the Government, expects the Speaker to think about appointments to membership of the Speaker's Committee. I do not suggest that the Minister tries to pre-empt or trammel the Speaker in any way, but it is normal practice for the Minister to be able to give the Committee considering a Bill an insight into his thinking and that of the Government. We need to know more about the expected composition of the Committee and to be given reassurances that there will be no in-built Government influence.

I make my remarks against the background of recent allegations of cronyism in the context of the reform of the other place. We need to be reassured that there will be an absence of cronyism in respect of the Speaker's Committee and the Electoral Commission. They are bodies that have the potential to shape our future political mechanisms and electoral processes—our constitution, no less. It is the Committee's job to elicit from Ministers reassurances and guarantees that there can be no cronyism, no bias and no undue influence on those bodies. Until those reassurances are provided, I shall be extremely reluctant to support the schedule.

Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls Conservative, Teignbridge

My concern is that, although the body is called the Speaker's Committee, it is that in name only. The membership of the Committee is the key, yet the Bill has nothing to say about any obligation, discretion or desire to appoint anyone other than those whom Her Majesty's Government of the day—be they Labour or Conservative—want.

People in this country who know little about the political process know that certain things are axiomatic. The first is that politicians are frightful and cannot be trusted, and the second is that Her Majesty's Government of the day can be trusted even less. I would not seriously depart from that order of priority: usually, when one asks people whom they hold in less respect than politicians, the answer is Her Majesty's Government pro tern.

However, the moment the Speaker is mentioned, people are, to a certain extent, lulled into a sense of security: they know that if the Speaker is involved in something, it is bound to be okay. It seems to me that the Committee is the Speaker's in name only. The Speaker has nothing more than a formal role in the making of appointments to the Committee. The Bill places the Committee entirely in the hands of the Executive.

I expect the Parliamentary Secretary—a persuasive, courteous and genial gentleman—to say that my fears are founded on no more than the paranoia produced by being in opposition after so many years on the Government Benches. If he does, fine, but I would say in return that Ministers come and Ministers go, and sometimes Ministers go very quickly indeed. It may be that the assurances he gives the Committee will barely be archivable before he suddenly finds that a different Minister—one who has a different agenda—has taken his place. We need assurances in the Bill because we cannot rely on the Minister, much though we like him.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

The Committee has touched on these matters once already, it is debating them again now, and I dare say that they will be raised again later in the course of our deliberations. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) have made some interesting points. I am grateful for the words that the hon. Gentleman tried to put in my mouth, but I shall make my own response.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst rightly states that schedule 2 spells out in short shrift the power and role of the Speaker's Committee. I am sure that he has already read the explanatory notes which, on page 9, fill out some of the details of the role of that Committee. As well as having a strategic role of approving a budget and a five-year corporate plan, the important feature of the Speaker's Committee is that it will provide a political reference point for the Electoral Commission.

As has been acknowledged during our debates today, the concept of the Speaker's Committee did not emerge directly from the Neill report. However, there was a view that parliamentarians should have some input into the process; that is the genesis of the Speaker's Committee. At times, the commission will be able to seek soundings and circulate ideas among a group of Members of Parliament.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is right to say that, under paragraph 2(2)(b), members of the Committee can be appointed in place of other members. A member might resign for any number of reasons: for example, he or she might be promoted, or want to do new and different things. I would not read anything suspicious into that part of the schedule; it is simply a necessary mechanism whereby a new member can be appointed if one resigns.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

Does the Parliamentary Secretary accept that, as things stand, the Speaker's Committee might be seen as a creature of the Government? It will be robbed of all validity and all reputation for impartiality if that impression persists. The hon. Gentleman said that he will come back to that issue. Will he ensure that, when he does so, that point will have been properly addressed?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because he reminds me to remind the Committee to check the record. Earlier in our proceedings, I agreed with the hon. Gentleman that the Speaker's Committee has to be unique, responsible and beyond reproach. During our earlier exchanges, I undertook to engage in further discussion on that matter and I shall use his point as the cornerstone of that discussion. He is right to say that the Speaker's Committee must be the product of consent and that it must have respectability.

Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls Conservative, Teignbridge

I am grateful to the Minister. I need to make sure that I understand what he is saying. Either he is being helpful, or he intends to be helpful but is not being so.

I note that paragraph 2(3) states: An appointed member may resign form the Committee", and that paragraph 2(2)(b) states that another person is appointed to be a member of the Committee in his place". Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the appointment procedure comes into play only if a member resigns?

As I read the provision, the Government can use their majority to dismiss a member of the Committee. Obviously, there must then be a mechanism to appoint someone else. If the Minister is saying that the appointment procedure only comes into operation following a resignation, that may be reassuring.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

The position on membership is clear. There are to be two Ministers of the Crown, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee—whom I acknowledged earlier is usually a member of the governing party, but not necessarily so—and six members appointed by the Speaker.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and the hon. Member for Teignbridge have both asked me how the Speaker will appoint those members. I am not privy to the Speaker's mind on these matters. The Speaker has her own views and will consult her deputies. These are her appointments.

In an earlier debate, I pointed out to the Committee that it was important that there were six places for Back-Bench Members, rather than three, as that provided the opportunity for members of parties other than the big three to be appointed.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge chides me that it is a Speaker's Committee in name only. I remind him of the absolute assurance that I gave the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) that there will be further discussions with the Speaker on these matters. What unites us across the Chamber is the need for a Speaker's Committee that works and commands respect. I have heard the points that have been raised, and I have given an undertaking that discussions will be held.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am, as ever, grateful to the Minister. He has been patient with us. May I press him on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge?

Can the Minister tell us categorically whether he is saying that only when a member of the Committee resigns will the provisions of paragraph 2(2)(b) come into effect, or whether he is saying that it is possible—he may say that it is unlikely, but it is possible—under paragraph 2(2)(b) for another person to be appointed by the Speaker as a member of the Committee in the place of someone, thus displacing the original member?

That is an important point. It is one thing to say that a member of the Committee may resign and be replaced; we all understand that. It is a very different thing to say that there is the possibility of someone arbitrarily—no, I withdraw that—after consideration being appointed, and thus displacing someone who does not want to be displaced. Can the Minister clarify that?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

It is absolutely clear that the Speaker holds the reins in the matter. Apart from the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Minister for Local Government who gain access to the Committee by virtue of their posts, as is the case with the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the other members are appointed by the Speaker. The Speaker will make an appointment only if there is a vacancy. With that clarification, I hope that the schedule will be agreed to.

The Chairman:

The hon. Gentleman may certainly address the Committee, but the Minister has sat down.

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

We are exploring an interesting point. The Minister moved the debate forward when he said that the Speaker would appoint a replacement only when there had been a resignation. That seemed to be the assurance that right hon. and hon. Members sought. Would that be the case, however, in the immediate aftermath of a general election? That is what I thought the provision was intended to cover, until the Minister gave his assurance. As far as I can see, the Speaker's Committee is not limited to the life of one Parliament. If that is the case, and if there were a significant change in the membership of the subsequent Parliament, it would clearly be appropriate for the members appointed by the Speaker to reflect more accurately the membership of the new Parliament.

For the avoidance of doubt, can the Minister satisfy me that, in the event of a general election, there would be an opportunity to restructure the Committee in accordance with the new shape of the House?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

Sub-paragraph (4) of paragraph 2 makes it clear that a member of the Committee is a member for the lifetime of the Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 2 agreed to.