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Reviews of Electoral and Political Matters

Orders of the Day — Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 14th February 2000.

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Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Conservative, Penrith and The Border 8:45 pm, 14th February 2000

I beg to move amendment No. 37, in page 4, line 6, at end insert— '( ) Any report submitted to the Secretary of State under subsections (1) and (2) shall be—

  1. (a) placed in the House of Commons Library on the same day as it is presented to the Secretary of State; and
  2. (b) debated in the House of Commons within one month of the day it is presented to the Secretary of State.'.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 38, in page 4, line 7, leave out subsection (3).

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

Amendment No. 37 requires little explanation. Reports made by the commission are vitally important. Clause 5 states: The Commission shall keep under review, and from time to time submit reports to the Secretary of State, on the following matters, namely—

  1. (a) such matters relating to elections to which this section applies …
  2. (b) such matters relating to referendums …
  3. (c) the redistribution of seats at parliamentary elections;
  4. (d) if any functions are transferred by an order under section 16(1) …
  5. (e) the registration of political parties and the regulation of their income …
  6. (f) political advertising in the broadcast and other electronic media;
  7. (g) the law relating to the matters mentioned in each of paragraphs (a) to (f)."
Those are not light matters. The commission will report on matters crucial not only to the House but to the whole democratic process. The commissioners will be paid according to the recommendation of the Speaker's Committee, which is supposed to have general oversight of their work. Yet the commission will report not to the House, but to the Secretary of State.

Much as I respect the Secretary of State for the Home Department—and his predecessor—I believe that the commissioners should have some regard for the House of Commons. We are passing the Act that will create them, and the Speaker's Committee will have general oversight of their functions. I do not suggest that we should take charge of the commission, or tell it not to report to the Home Secretary. I merely ask that a copy of its report should be placed in the Library of the House of Commons so that we may read and debate it. Is that too much to ask?

The Minister may say that that will happen anyway. However, it will happen only after the Home Secretary has considered the report, which he will not do on the day on which the commissioners rush it in. Any report to the Home Secretary will be received and carefully scrutinised by his civil servants before a submission is sent to him summarising it, making observations and recommending certain actions, most of which are legal and laid down in statute. It will take time before the Home Secretary reads the report, considers it, meets his civil servants and decides to publish it and place it in the Library.

My amendment suggests that the independent and totally impartial commission, over which the Home Secretary should have no influence, should simultaneously give the House of Commons a copy of the report. I should be surprised and disappointed if the Minister rejected that.

Sometimes, there are good reasons why the House should not get its grubby fingers on a report before the Secretary of State does. If the Secretary of State had set up his own committee of inquiry—his own commission, quango or investigation—then of course he should receive the report first. We would hope that he would not leak it or spin it to the media before the House received it, but it would be perfectly legitimate for him to hang on to it until he was ready to publish it.

However, the commission would not be the Home Secretary's creature. It would not report directly to him. He would not be in charge of it and would not dictate its terms of reference or what it should do. Indeed, clause 2 is supposed to give that responsibility to the Speaker's Committee—although it is a pretty flimsy responsibility. That may be an argument for another place and another time. None the less, the Bill attempts to give the Speaker's Committee a general oversight of the workings of the commission, but the Committee will not have sight of the report until the Home Secretary is ready to pass it on.

Mr. Lord, I have made the point; I shall not attempt to repeat it or to rephrase it, because you would accuse me of tedious repetition, as you have had occasion to do in the past—perhaps on a Friday. I urge the Minister to let the Library receive a copy of the report at the same time as the Home Secretary receives it.

Furthermore, I suggest that we should debate the report within one month of its receipt. There is nothing magical about the period of one month; I should be happy to accept six weeks or two months. However, I should not be happy for the report to lie on the shelf gathering dust. The House should debate such reports expeditiously, while they are still fresh from the printers and the commission.

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

I happily give way to my hon. Friend; I hope that he will make the point that I anticipate.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Perhaps I shall go further than my right hon. Friend. If, as he says, those reports are critical to the House, why should they not be delivered to the House, rather than merely placed in the Library? I hope that my right hon. Friend will point out that the House has as much right to see the reports as the Secretary of State.

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

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I was trying to be clever, if I may say so. I was moving an amendment that I knew the Minister would have to accept. He would appear to be dishonourable and a bounder if he did not accept my modest amendment. However, if I went as far as my hon. Friend suggests, the Minister might have an excuse—on advice—not to accept it.

I admit that the amendment is not momentous. It will not change parliamentary history; it is a modest little mouse of an amendment. That is why no Minister could possibly reject it without appearing foolish.

The point that debate should take place in the House is also important. I mean that the debate should take place in the Chamber. I do not want a commitment from the Minister that the Government would be happy to have the matter debated within a couple of months in some other funny establishment. I do not want it debated in the bongo-bongo parish council chamber above the cafeteria; I want it debated in the proper Chamber of the House of Commons—not in that funny thing across the Corridor. I do not want it debated in that semi-circular Chamber, which is not attended by anyone who has a proper job to do, although it is chaired admirably by senior Members of the House. Such an important report must be debated in the proper Chamber, not in the plastic one. I am sure that the Minister would agree that, if he were minded to accept the amendment, this Chamber would be the proper place for the debate.

Amendment No. 38 would delete that part of clause 5 that prevents the commission from reporting on the distribution of Short money in the Scottish Parliament, or the holding of referendums by the Scottish Parliament, or by the Welsh or Northern Ireland Assemblies. Given that those functions would involve money allocated by the Treasury, why should the commission be prevented from reporting on them, or the House from debating them? I know that the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly may wish to hold their own debates, but that money comes from the United Kingdom Treasury, and in those circumstances surely this Parliament—still a Parliament of the United Kingdom although it may be unbalanced because of the constitutional changes that the Government have made—has the right to debate these matters.

9.15 pm

It is vital that the Electoral Commission, with its responsibility to report generally on the conduct of referendums in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland and the conduct of the elections there, is not prohibited from debating the allocation of Short money in those countries of the United Kingdom. I find that prohibition inexplicable. I shall not labour the point—I am about to conclude my remarks—but I should like to know the Government's reasoning.

It is useless to read the explanatory notes, which simply say that the provision prevents consideration of the Short money. I can figure that out for myself, but I want to know the rationale. What political judgment led the Minister to ask his officials to instruct the parliamentary draftsman to prevent the commission from reporting on the Short money?

Amendment No. 38 is exploratory and aims to discover the political thinking underlying the Government's phraseology in subsection (3). Amendment No. 37 is a modest little amendment, which would simply give the House sight of reports that the commission that the House is establishing may make. Although I am certain that the Minister will not be able to accept amendment No. 38, I look forward to his acceptance of amendment No. 37 in due course.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Scotland)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) has done the Committee a good service because it is difficult to imagine how the Minister could resist amendment No. 37. I assumed, perhaps rather blithely, that I might have tabled a similar amendment to the effect that any report to the Secretary of State would immediately be placed in the Library. However, I must accept that, these days, one does not necessarily go with the other. We know from events in the past two weeks alone that the publication of reports to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is delayed for a week until the time is thought to be more opportune for them to be given over to the public—something which, at the time, I found very difficult to accept.

As I cannot conceive of any grounds for failing to make such a report available to the House immediately, I am sure that the Minister would agree that amendment No. 37 or something very similar should be acceptable. I am afraid that the Minister does not look all that hopeful, but perhaps he will provide me with some reassurance about that in a moment. If not, I believe that the Committee is entitled to know why not, because, if there are no good grounds, it is far better that that should be spelt out than that, at some subsequent date, a Secretary of State—of whichever party—should come up with an ingenious argument as to why that information should not be made available. I am sure that the Minister will also agree that the principle of debating such a report is a good one.

I found amendment No. 38 far more challenging. I confess that my first reaction on reading it was that it would impinge on devolved matters. However, dare I suggest to the Minister that it might be possible to view that amendment as capable of being split into two parts? It appears to me that subsection (3)(a)— the funding of political parties under section 97 of the Scotland Act 1998"— is clearly capable of being differentiated from subsection (3)(b), which follows it. Subsection (3)(b) obviously relates to matters that have been devolved and, 1 believe, would create problems concerning the devolution settlement. However, I am bound to tell the Minister that the funding of political parties under section 97 of the Scotland Act 1998 appears to be in a rather grey area. I have a copy of the Scotland Act 1998, section 97 of which says: Her Majesty may by Order in Council provide for the Parliamentary corporation to make payments to registered political parties in the Scottish context.

Where does that provision stand in terms of devolution? It is at least arguable that if, as my right hon. Friend has said, the money comes from here, it must be capable of scrutiny by the Public Accounts Committee. Where precisely does the dividing line run? If the matter is not fully devolved but pertains to moneys that have been passed over, it is at least possible to argue that the House should retain control. Whether it follows that the Electoral Commission should be a legitimate subject of inquiry is a matter that I want the Minister to clarify.

Because the holding of elections, including elections to the Scottish Parliament, will be subject to the Electoral Commission's scrutiny, it is odd that the provision of Short money, which does not come out of the block grant, is not also subject to its scrutiny. If there is an explanation for that, I should be grateful if the Minister would provide it. Otherwise my right hon. Friend's questions on that matter—as opposed to those about clause 5(3)(b)—will have considerable force.

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

I do not disagree greatly with the spirit at least of the first limb of amendment No. 37. In establishing the Electoral Commission, the Government have consistently stressed their desire to establish a body that is directly accountable to Parliament rather than to the Executive.

Nevertheless, I question whether the amendment is necessary or even appropriate. There can be no great objection to the proposed requirement that a report submitted to the Secretary of State be deposited on the same date in the House of Commons Library. However, given that the Secretary of State has to form a view on the report, it might help the House to hear his view when it receives a report. That need not take more than a few days, and even that might not be necessary. On a technical matter, the Secretary of State may not need to express a view. Those are the issues that we must consider.

I tend towards the view that the Electoral Commission should itself determine the extent and means by which its work is made available both to Parliament and to the wider public. In practice, I fully expect the commission to publish any reports that it produces in accordance with clause 5 and to make them freely available, including to the House of Commons Library. That is my approach to the matter.

Reports from the Electoral Commission may on occasion cause concern and may even concern matters of public controversy. It would not be in the interests of the Executive to hold up their publication and, in those circumstances, the Electoral Commission might take the view that a report should be published immediately. We have no problem with that.

In principle, I do not disagree with the point made in the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). However, given that the nature of the reports may vary, we should leave it to the Electoral Commission to decide when to publish them. On some occasions, it may not want to publish immediately or it may want to send a report to the Secretary of State so that he can form a view. It will then publish it within a prescribed time. On technical matters, it may decide to place a report in the Library of the House of Commons because the number of people who want to read it may be very limited.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Does the Minister differentiate between the House of Commons Library and the House itself? Any important report should be deposited not only in the Library but in the Vote Office so that it is available to all Members of the House straight away.

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

There is certainly a distinction, as we saw with the report on the Stephen Lawrence case. The Secretary of State had to publish that report to Parliament in order to get it published, and there was a great deal of public interest in it.

We can, to some extent, leave it to the Electoral Commission to ensure that reports are made available in an appropriate way. If it thinks that a report is extremely important because it has been the subject of public controversy, it will tell the Secretary of State that he can have the report on a certain day and ask him to publish it immediately, in which case it should be available in the Vote Office. Other reports may be so technical in interpreting a particular clause of the electoral procedures that although they would no doubt be of great interest to electoral registration officers they would not be a matter for great debate even by Members of Parliament.

I have no problem, in principle, with the reports being published immediately, if that accords with the view of the Electoral Commission and its advice to the Secretary of State. However, I have more difficulty with the proposal that each and every one of the reports should be the subject of a debate in the House within one month of its being presented to the Secretary of State.

It is possible that, once the commission gets into its stride, it will frequently report on various matters. Some of those reports may concern matters that are absolutely central to the workings of this place and the electoral system, but others may, as I have already said, be so technical that the people who would be seriously interested in debating them may be limited to one or two in the country.

Requiring those reports to be debated by this place—in the Chamber, no less—may be going over the top in seeking accountability for the commission. Some of the reports will be merely administrative and I doubt that many Members, with the exception of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), will want to debate them. I suspect that that right hon. Gentleman can find a great deal to debate about most matters, and is proud of it, too.

The best approach is that the House should decide on a case-by-case basis, through the usual channels, whether the commission's reports merit a debate. I do not anticipate any need for the House to wait long to debate any of the reports.

As to amendment No. 38, clause 5(3) places a number of matters outside the commission's remit. I remind the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border that the matters specified in the subsection are devolved, and as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) indicated, it is for the appropriate devolved bodies to keep those matters and the related law under review. It is possible that, in doing so, those authorities may seek advice or guidance from the commission. Clause 8 provides for the commission to respond to a request for such advice, so it may well then take those matters on board at the request of the devolved authority. It would be contrary to the principles governing devolution to place a duty on the commission to keep those matters under review.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about section 97 of the Scotland Act 1998, but the spirit of the Act is that this should be a devolved matter. That point would arguably be moot in legal terms, as he suggests, but where the spirit of the legislation shows that this should properly be regarded as a devolved matter, that should be the case.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Scotland) 9:30 pm, 14th February 2000

I was afraid for one moment that the Minister was going to skate over that issue and not to provide an answer, so I am grateful to him for doing so, but it raises a difficult issue, as he may agree. I appreciate the spirit behind the measure, but we are talking about money for which, ultimately, the UK Parliament is responsible.

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

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but part of accepting devolution is accepting that matters need to be decided by the devolved bodies. Although it is true that some of the funding that goes through the devolved bodies and is expended by them comes from the House of Commons, it should be the devolved body, rather than the House, that allocates some of that funding. The spirit behind section 97 is that it was and is regarded as a devolved matter. Although the money comes through this place, it should be dealt with as a devolved matter.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Scotland)

To make the point clear, we are not suggesting that the UK Parliament should usurp the role and tell the Scottish Parliament how to do it. All we are saying is that the Electoral Commission should be entitled to comment.

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

The Electoral Commission would be entitled to comment should the devolved authority decide to refer the matter to it under clause 8, so there is a provision that would allow the commission to become seized of the issue, report on the matter and then refer it back to here, but what we need to do, particularly as we are in the early stages of devolution and the development of a constitution along those lines, is to have a little respect for the prerogatives of the devolved authorities and to say that, although the House created those authorities, we respect their ability to run their own affairs. We interpret section 97 of the Scotland Act in that spirit.

I hope that, having heard my points, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

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

I have listened carefully to the Minister, who has been kind and courteous as usual. He will be familiar with the words in Hansard of 11 February, column 568, when he said—I paraphrase: "We have had very helpful interventions, in this case, from the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst and for Penrith and The Border, which we respond to with gratitude. We are grateful for their assistance and concern." Those words were uttered on Friday; you had left the Chair by that stage, Mr. Lord. I had hoped that the Minister would repeat those words in the debate on my amendments. However, he has come close to doing so.

I am disappointed with the Minister's response to amendment No. 38. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) has made some valid points. We are not seeking to usurp the rights of the Scots or anyone else. All we are seeking to do is to ensure that, when the UK Parliament has made the financial allocation, the Electoral Commission should have the right to comment without the Scots saying, "We will allow you to comment on this one." The Electoral Commission should have that right of itself, without having to seek permission from the body getting the money.

On amendment No. 37, I accept the point about debating reports in the House. I will happily not pursue that part of the amendment. On the first part of the amendment, I was delighted to hear the Minister say that he accepted the spirit of it and what it sought to achieve. Then he said that his preferred approach would be to leave it to the commission. On some occasions, it may wish to give a report to the Home Secretary. On other occasions, it may wish to give it to Parliament and the Home Secretary, or to publish it. It may think that it is boring technical stuff, so it should be sent to the local government boring technical fellow to deal with.

I accept that as a principle. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will tell me that he will be back with an amendment to put that in the Bill. As he was speaking, I thought that, in that case, we simply should amend the first lines of clause 5. It says: The Commission shall keep under review, and from time to time submit"—

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

Let me finish my point. I merely suggest that, instead of stating: The Commission shall … submit reports to the Secretary of State", the clause should read, "the Commission shall publish as it sees fit" those reports.

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

The right hon. Gentleman persuades me that we might do well to table an amendment. I do not think that there is much of a difference between us in principle: he has accepted my argument and I have come half way to meet him. I hope that he will leave the matter with me and allow the Committee to proceed on that basis.

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

I am overwhelmed—absolutely overwhelmed. There are some cynics who believe that, when my right hon. and erudite Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and I propose amendments, we are trying to damage Government legislation. Yet, on Friday, the Minister accepted the spirit of our amendments and, tonight, he is doing the same. We are all working together in an inclusive Government. I happily beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.