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Education About Electoral and Democratic Systems

Part of Orders of the Day — Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill – in the House of Commons at 10:45 pm on 14th February 2000.

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Photo of George Young George Young Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Secretary of State 10:45 pm, 14th February 2000

I return to an issue that I raised on Second Reading—the duties of the commission to promote. Clause 11 makes it clear that education is not an optional power for the commission, but a duty.

The Neill committee did not envisage that function for the commission, and the Labour party did not propose that function in its evidence to the committee. Chapter 11 of the Neill report, which recommends the establishment of the commission, identified five roles for it: monitoring and recommending; an executive role registering the parties; an investigative role if something went wrong; an advisory role, mainly for political parties; and a narrow administrative role in the conduct of elections and referendums.

The role allotted to the commission in this clause was simply not recommended by Neill. Indeed, the report goes further and warns the Government against dumping extra responsibilities on the commission. Paragraph 11.4 of Neill says: We would only make the obvious point that the Election Commission cannot, as some of our witnesses seemed to believe, solve all problems and be a panacea for all ills. It is tempting, but not sensible, to say whenever in difficulty, 'Leave it to the Commission'. That is an approach we have sought to avoid in this report. Government, Parliament and others have to accept their responsibilities. The clause is a major departure from the Neill report, and a measure that it warned against.

Despite all that, in paragraphs 2.17 and 2.18 of their White Paper, Cm 4413, the Government sought to extend the Electoral Commission's remit. Not only did they want the commission to take over the existing work of Government Departments, such as encouraging people to register and reminding them when to apply for postal votes—I have no objection to that—but the draft Bill in the White Paper places the Electoral Commission under a duty to promote public awareness of electoral systems and matters, and of systems of local and national government and of the institutions of the European Union. I understand that that is part of the Government's citizenship education proposals, but it is wholly inappropriate to place that duty with the commission. As drafted, the Bill brings the Electoral Commission—a fully independent body, free of any suspicion of political partisanship, to use the Government's own words—right into issues of the fiercest political controversy. That is why I am against clause 11. The public must perceive the body to be totally impartial, but it cannot control, monitor, assess and report at the same time as promoting matters of intense political controversy.

Let me go through the provisions of clause 11(1). One deals with the promotion of public awareness of electoral systems and matters. Recently, the Jenkins commission report recommended a new electoral system: AV-plus. The Minister might like to tell the Committee what has happened to the commitment to a referendum on first past the post and AV-plus—does it remain a pledge, or is it just an aspiration?

Is the commission's role to promote public awareness of AV-plus? I do not think that it should be, not least because the commission may be the referee in a referendum on that issue. If it had in advance of that referendum promoted awareness of AV-plus, it would clearly undermine public confidence in its neutrality.

Is the commission's role to promote public awareness of other types of proportional representation? Is it to get involved in the heated debate about closed or open lists? We are not talking about informing people about the existing system, so that they understand how we are all elected—I personally would not object to that, although it goes beyond the commission's role as envisaged by Neill.

The clause allows the commission—indeed, it gives it a duty—to promote awareness of electoral systems and matters generally. That invites it into sensitive political areas because some systems advantage some parties and disadvantage others. The job of informing and persuading the public about alternatives to the present voting system is not a matter for impartial public servants who sit on the commission.

Clause 11(1)(b) refers to systems of local government and national government Is the commission to promote awareness of regional assemblies? Is it part of its remit to roll the pitch for a possible referendum on the establishment of such assemblies in certain regions? As the Bill stands, it has a duty to do that. If it did that, how could it be neutral in a subsequent referendum on setting up a regional assembly?