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Commission to Be Consulted on Changes to Electoral Law

Orders of the Day — Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:30 pm on 14th February 2000.

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Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 9:30 pm, 14th February 2000

I beg to move amendment No. 25, in page 4, line 30, after 'Commission', insert— ', and secure its approval'.

The Second Deputy Chairman:

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 26, in page 5, line 10, after 'Commission', add— 'and the Commission's approval has been given'.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Shadow Spokesperson (Wales)

The amendment deals with the powers and functions of the commission and addresses the question of what constitutes a consultative role, a role of making recommendations and a role of giving approval.

I refer the Committee's attention to recommendation 72 of the Neill report, which states: The Commission should have a duty to advise the Government on the modernisation and revision of electoral law. The Government should consult the Commission before making or proposing any changes relating to electoral law and administration. The thinking behind that recommendation is set out in paragraph 11.5(1), which states of the commission's roles: One will be its monitoring and recommending role. As Dr. David Butler and others have pointed out, we lack at the moment in this country a body charged with monitoring the conduct of elections and referendums and with making recommendations concerning their future conduct, including any necessary changes in the law. In this connection, the new Electoral Commission would play roughly the same role as the existing Law Commission. It adds: In our view, the Government should be required to consult the Commission before itself bringing forward any proposals for changes in electoral law and administration. Our amendment goes further, stating that, after consulting the commission, the Government should secure its approval, or wait for the commission's approval to be given, before proceeding.

We do not believe that the Government or the Secretary of State should have the power to consult the commission and then dismiss its views, nor that the Government should be able to listen and then act according to their own whim or view of their duty. During debates on previous amendments, we have stated our belief that there should be a powerful and independent commission. The key is to make the approval of the commission necessary before the Secretary of State lays before the House recommendations of his own. The commission should not be regarded as a purely advisory body.

The commission is not, in this context, an executive body; although it has executive roles in other respects, it does not in any way supersede the powers of Parliament. It is not the Government, nor does it stand above Parliament. However, it should be the commission, through the Secretary of State, that makes recommendations to Parliament. Therefore, we believe it is important to strengthen the role of the commission by amending the Bill as we suggest.

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

The hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) prays in aid the Neill commission; in fairness to the House, he told us that the Neill commission merely said that we should consult on these matters. The hon. Gentleman rightly told us that the amendment would give the power to get the agreement of the commission.

There is a distinction between clauses 6 and 7. I direct the Committee's attention to clause 6, which deals with matters on which the commission must be consulted. Under clause 7, a Minister may proceed only on the recommendation of the commission. If the amendment were accepted, there would be little difference between the provisions of the two clauses, and the need to obtain the recommendation or the approval of the commission.

The matters set out in clause 6(2) are ones on which Ministers should proceed, as a last resort, even without the approval of the commission. For example, subsection (2)(a) covers regulations relating to European parliamentary elections. Clearly, we must have European elections. Some hon. Members may argue strongly against them, but we must have them. It is right that Ministers should consult, but even if there is disagreement with the commission, they should have the power to lay the necessary order.

There is ample precedent throughout our legislation for a duty to consult. Consultation implies considerable expectations of the Government. If they consult, they are under an obligation to consider the views expressed. Moreover, any order under clause 6 would have to be brought before the House. Once the commission had been consulted, hon. Members would be entitled to ask why Ministers' views were at variance with its views.

There is an opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny, but ultimately the elections will have to take place. It is therefore appropriate for Ministers to consult and to make the order with the advice of the commission. I hope that that explains the difference between clauses 6 and 7, and that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Shadow Spokesperson (Wales)

I hear what the Minister says. He suggests that we should be content with the existing wording. He referred to the subsection relating to the European elections in clause 6, but clause 7 also contains a subsection relating to the European elections, with regard to the limitation of expenses.

I am not entirely convinced by the Minister's arguments about the difference between clauses 6 and 7 in terms of the powers of the commission, but, mindful of the fact that we need to make progress, and that there may be more pressing amendments ahead of us this evening, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.