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
I beg to move amendment 86, page 4, line 2, leave out from '3A' to end and insert 'Nominated Commissioners'.
Copy and paste this code on your website
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 87, page 4, line 3, leave out from beginning to 'be' and insert 'A "nominated Commissioner" shall'.
Amendment 88, page 4, line 5, leave out '(a "nominated Commissioner")'.
Amendment 89, page 4, line 7, leave out from 'with' to 'at' in line 8 and insert '15 or more parliamentarians'.
Amendment 90, page 4, line 9, leave out from 'appointment' to 'whose' in line 13.
Government amendments 31 and 32.
Amendment 91, page 4, line 19, at end insert—
'( ) In subsection (2) a "parliamentarian" means a Member of the European Parliament, a Member of the House of Commons, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, a Member of the Welsh Assembly or a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.'.
Government amendment 33.
Amendment 92, page 4, line 26, leave out subsection (7).
Amendment 93, in clause 6, page 4, line 46, leave out 'nine or ten' and insert
'one or two more than the number of nominated Commissioners multiplied by two.'.
The amendment, which unites all the minority parties in this House, stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend Angus Robertson and other colleagues across the House, and it should also include signatures from the Democratic Unionist party. We, the minority parties of this House, are in effect and in fact the Governments of the different legislatures across the United Kingdom. The amendment is self-explanatory. We want the Electoral Commission, in regulating across the United Kingdom, to recognise the new reality of the UK in 2009: the multi-party, multi-legislature UK that we currently experience. It is no good for it simply to reflect this House—the old tired Westminster solution of the two main parties, with the Liberals acting as a sop for all the other minority parties. The amendments try to define that new system.
Let us take a cursory look around the United Kingdom. In this House, we have a majority Labour Government; in Scotland, we have a minority SNP Government and in Wales and Northern Ireland, we have coalitions of different parties. Different parties are in power throughout the United Kingdom. In fact, the only two parties involved in this debate who are not in power anywhere in the UK are the Conservative and Liberal parties, yet they will have a political commissioner nominee for the new commission. That is totally unacceptable to us.
If the Bill were just about this House, I would accept that what it proposed was the right way to proceed, given that we in the SNP are seven Members out of 646 Members of this House and all the minority parties combined amount to little more than 28 Members. If it were just about this House, having one political commissioner between the four parties would seem to be fair and reasonable, but the Electoral Commission has a remit beyond these green Benches. It serves all the legislatures, Parliaments and Assemblies throughout the United Kingdom, and the appointment of those political commissioners should adequately reflect and represent that.
Let us look at the situation in Scotland a little more carefully. We are described as a minority party in this House, and I accept that with seven Members out of 646, that is the case. However, it is not the case in Scotland. We are the largest party in Scotland by seats and by votes. We are the Government of Scotland. If we look at the last two by-elections in Scotland, we find that the Labour party won one—I see that Lindsay Roy is in his place—and the SNP won one. The Conservatives narrowly held on to their deposit in one seat but lost it in the other. The Liberals lost both their deposits. Those parties are quickly becoming minority parties in Scotland, yet they will have a nominated political commissioner, who will be involved in regulating electoral law for the Scottish Parliament, while the party of Government in Scotland will not have such an appointee.
That is clearly absurd, unfair and bizarre, and it is totally unacceptable to us. It is as if we were to say to the Labour party, "Let's have politically nominated commissioners, but you can't have one." That would be totally unacceptable to the Minister and his colleagues. I would wager that it would be unacceptable to the Conservatives were they to be told, "We're going to have politically nominated commissioners. The Labour party can have one, but sorry, Conservative party, you can't have one." I am sure that had the Labour and the Conservative parties been allowed to have politically nominated commissioners and the Liberal party had not, that would be totally unacceptable to the Liberals. They would be standing with me, full of indignation about what had been suggested. This debate is about fairness and what is right.
I want to dispel the notion—we debated this in Committee at some length; I remember discussing it with Mrs. Laing, who I am sure is paying attention to everything that I am saying—that these politically nominated commissioners have nothing to do with the parties that are nominating them. What a lot of nonsense to suggest that they are somehow above politics and will be nominated by political parties only to give us the benefit of their experience and of their years in this House—"Aye, right", as we say in Scotland. They are there as political nominees from those political parties, and they will have a role to play for those parties.
I am indeed paying close attention to every word that the hon. Gentleman is saying, many of which he said when we considered the matter in Committee. He is right to reiterate his argument now, but that does not make it any more correct than it was then. The fact is that if people of seniority, experience and wisdom are appointed to a body such as the Electoral Commission, they are not there to serve narrow party political interests, and to suggest that they are is to suggest that the entire political class is incapable of rising above party politics and acting for the common good and for the sake of democracy, which is what we really want.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. We have been round the houses on this issue. I challenged her on that point in Committee, and I challenge her again, because this is the key choice for all the political parties in the House. If it does not matter whether or not it is a Conservative Member who is nominating these political commissioners, I am sure that she will bypass her opportunity to nominate. I am sure that Labour Members will say, "If it's just a bit of experience they want, we'll not bother nominating anybody", and the Liberals will do the same. I offered them that opportunity in Committee, and—surprise, surprise—they were not prepared to take up my generous offer, because they know, as I do, that we are talking about party political representatives on the Electoral Commission. They will all have one; we will not. That is the key to this issue. It is about fairness and ensuring that all the political parties get their right to nominate a political commissioner.
What is being proposed—I note the amendment also tabled by Sir Peter Viggers—is that all the major political parties, Labour, Conservative and Liberal, will be allowed to nominate two candidates for political commissioners, who will all have, as is right, a place on the new commission. There is a fourth place reserved for all of the minority parties. How on earth the Social Democratic and Labour party and the SNP—Plaid Cymru and the Democratic Unionists cannot be with us tonight—can decide about how we should nominate one commissioner for the Electoral Commission is beyond me.
These other minority parties are not only very different but happen to form the Governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of that fact. I will come to that point, which is a good and powerful one.
I would not know how to organise and delegate for one commissioner from all those four very diverse political parties from different legislatures throughout the United Kingdom. Thankfully, however, it will not be left to me but to the hon. Member for Gosport, and I have no idea how on earth he intends to do it. According to the Bill, each of these four political parties—any party with more than two Members is constituted as a political party within the House—will be allowed to nominate two potential commissioners and then pass those nominations to the hon. Gentleman's Committee—the Speaker's Committee—to decide who that one commissioner will be. I have no idea what the criteria will be, or how that commissioner will be determined. I am interested to see how that matter will be resolved.
We have absolutely no problem whatsoever about working with the other minority parties in this House. In fact, we work together very effectively on a number of issues, but when it comes to the regulation of elections in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, how on earth can a political commissioner from Northern Ireland have the knowledge, background and experience to look after elections in Scotland? It is just not possible.
Is it not the case that the electoral systems may be different? I am not sure whether the electoral law is identical, but the level of knowledge that would be required to cover at least three, possibly four, different legislatures would be extraordinary.
My hon. Friend is right. Northern Ireland has a very different political system of proportional representation from Scotland, and any political commissioner representing all the minority parties would have trouble ensuring that the different systems were represented effectively.
I come back to the issue of how the fourth commissioner will be decided upon. I do not envy the hon. Member for Gosport in that task, and I look forward to him giving even a scintilla of a hint of how the matter will be determined. If a former Member from Northern Ireland, for example, was to be a political commissioner, what on earth would they know about the Scottish parliamentary system and Scottish politics? I would have very little knowledge of what happens in Northern Ireland if that task were ever to fall on me, so I look forward to learning how the matter will be determined. It is almost an impossible task, so we have a serious problem.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the key issue is how the matter will be perceived by the public? We know that the public hold Parliament and parliamentarians in contempt at the moment—[Hon. Members: "Some of them."] In general, as a collective body—not as individuals, of course. Each of our constituents love us as MPs and trust us, but they hold the body of Parliament in contempt. They have never before held us in such low regard in my lifetime. We have to look at how this matter is perceived by people out there, because that is the issue, but, yet again, we are failing to do so.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I am sorry to disappoint him, but UKIP does not qualify. It has only one Member in this House.
The independents are not even recognised as a political party in this House, and that also applies to Mr. Galloway, whose Respect party would not qualify for the arrangement for appointing a political commissioner.
The process is nonsense and is unworkable, given that there is no clear method of determining who will be the fourth commissioner. We must address that issue as a priority, which is why I have introduced what I consider to be an elegant solution to this problem and conundrum. It takes us beyond the green Benches and the shadow of Big Ben to all the other legislatures in the United Kingdom, because that is the basis on which we should start. It takes account of the fact that there are not just parliamentarians in Westminster, but in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Electoral Commission must recognise that reality.
I have put forward what I consider to be measured and sensible amendments, even if I do say so myself, which set a threshold of 15 parliamentarians across the United Kingdom, which means that if a party has 15 parliamentarians, it should be entitled to nominate a party political commissioner to the Electoral Commission. The number of 15 parliamentarians is not excessive, and it is fair.
I support the principle behind the hon. Gentleman's amendment, but I do not think that the solution is as elegant as he makes out. His threshold of 15 is too low because in practice it would mean four electoral commissioners for Northern Ireland, and five for the whole of Great Britain. If he wants our support on amendment 89, he would have to increase the threshold.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I can see that 15 may seem a bit of a low threshold, but I am a reasonable guy and I would be prepared to reconsider it. We have to establish the principle that all Parliaments and all legislatures are important, and that they should be counted when it comes to determining such important tasks and roles. It is not good enough for the Electoral Commission to be the plaything of this House, because it belongs to all the legislatures of the United Kingdom. The amendment that I intend to press to a vote would put in place a system that involved parliamentarians from all the political parties. I would be grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support for that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if his proposal is not taken up, it will, sadly, look like a shoddy carve-up from Westminster once more?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend who, as usual, makes an important and powerful point. The legitimacy of the Electoral Commission is at stake, not just as a thing of Westminster, but as a proper organisation that reflects all the legislatures in the United Kingdom. That legitimacy will be put to the test by my amendments. The commission has to be seen to be serving every single Parliament and Assembly in the United Kingdom, and it is not good enough for it just to serve this House. That is why we have to vote this evening; we have to acknowledge that all the other legislatures and Parliaments are important and that they should be taken into account when the political commissioners are appointed.
An example of that complexity is that the legislative competence of the Welsh Assembly is determined by this place, by devolving individual powers through the wonderfully named legislative competence order arrangements. If the Minister gives me a concise, 100-word explanation of the legislative competence order provision and the 27 steps thereof, I will happily support the Government if the amendment is pressed to a vote; otherwise, I shall support my hon. Friend Pete Wishart.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I can see the Minister itching to get to his feet to explain that, and waving to his civil servants to assist him in that task.
We are in a difficult situation and I do not envy the position of the hon. Member for Gosport. I would, perhaps, give him one little bit of advice, if he does not mind. The largest minority party in this House is the Democratic Unionist party, with nine Members of the House of Commons. Next, comes the Scottish National party with seven, then we have the SDLP and Plaid Cymru with three each. If I were the hon. Gentleman, my first port of call when deciding who the fourth commissioner should be would be the largest party. I know, as an SNP Member that if I were in the largest minority party and it was passed over for that role, I would be very disappointed. We would expect it to be a job for the largest party.
What is likely to happen? If the hon. Member for Gosport is approaching this matter as I know he will—diligently and with due care and attention—that position should be given to the Democratic Unionist party. There is no other way to deal with the matter than to award the role to the largest party. But what a shoddy way to do it—to award it to that party just because it is the largest. We would expect a member of the Democratic Unionist party, from another Parliament, to be our representative on the Electoral Commission. That is not good enough. It is nonsense, and an alternative must be addressed as a priority by the Minister.
At stake is the credibility of the Electoral Commission to do a job that reflects not just this House, but the reality of a multi-party, multi-legislature United Kingdom. That is the task and the test of these amendments. We will press the matter to a vote, and we encourage hon. Members who believe in fairness and who think that the whole UK should be recognised to support us. I am sure that if hon. Members consider the matter properly and carefully, we will get that support.
As Pete Wishart knows, the commission has resisted the idea of any political party making nominations to the commission. However, like the Government and others in this House, I think that the commission got that wrong. It is right in principle that we include people with experience of political parties. They do not have to have been Members of Parliament, but such people should be members of the commission. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point that because someone on the commission is a Labour or Liberal appointee, they will act as a Labour or Liberal party person. That is not how the system will operate in practice.
Perhaps I have stopped the hon. Gentleman in mid-flow, but would he be happy to see a commission without a Labour representative or a Labour appointee?
Quite frankly, if there were only two or three, it would not be earth-shattering. Having said that, I think that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire made a good case about the difficulty in appointing the fourth commissioner. There is no question about that. I must confess—perhaps this is a dangerous thing to say—that I had assumed that the fourth commissioner might well be a nationalist, either Scottish or Welsh. However, it is obviously not intended that it always would be, and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire made that case very well. Obviously Northern Ireland is a very important part of the UK, and inevitably it must be represented. He has encouraged us to consider the matter, and I hope that the Government will listen. There could be a commissioner from Northern Ireland, which is very different from the mainland in some respects.
There is a case for considering the fourth commissioner, because with due respect to Sir Peter Viggers, who will state his position shortly, if Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberals are going to have representatives, it seems difficult to imagine how one person can represent the minority parties. An interesting case has been made about that.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I was my predecessor's election agent from 1983. I was astonished by the lack of knowledge of electoral law at the Electoral Commission. Not one of its representatives had stood as a candidate, been an agent or understood the basics of local funding of political parties. Not one of them understood how returns were filled in or the need to complete them within 28 days. I saw a shambles in Bathgate on the night of the electoral count, when we had to abandon the count at 5.30 am and recommence it at 12 o'clock. That was totally under the control of the Electoral Commission. Surely it is time that we got some real political knowledge and insight on the commission.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We could go over the history of the matter, and as I said earlier, if we go back far enough it was all under the auspices of the Home Office. As has been said, we now have a hotchpotch of electoral systems in Scotland and elsewhere, with different ways of voting in different elections. There is considerable merit in being prepared to consider the matter constructively. As we know, power devolved is power retained, and this is not just about the House of Commons. As my hon. Friend says, it is about practicalities and how we conduct our democratic affairs. We do that, of course, through the parties.
The point made by Mr. Devine about the lack of real life experience in the Electoral Commission is all the more important because the election he mentioned was won by Angela Constance of the SNP. Likewise, the Scottish Parliament counterpart of Lindsay Roy is Tricia Marwick of the SNP, and that of Dr. Strang is Kenny McAskill of the SNP. That is all the more reason to back up the suggestion of the hon. Member for Livingston that there should be a proper, fair distribution of experience as well as of party. The example that he gives from the May election is absolutely right and justifies what my hon. Friend Pete Wishart said.
We had an unfortunate experience in Edinburgh, East, too. We had the highest number of spoiled papers, and various difficulties arose. I hope that we can consider the matter constructively, because it is not just about the Westminster Parliament. It is about Parliaments throughout the UK.
As I said in Committee, I have a great deal of sympathy with the position taken by Pete Wishart. The fundamental difficulty results from the lack of devolution of powers on electoral matters. There is a Boundary Commission for Scotland—that matter is devolved—but no Scottish Electoral Commission that covers the electoral law that applies to the Scottish Parliament. The situation is similar in Wales and Northern Ireland. The long-term solution is further devolution of those matters. In the meantime, we have to agree about what to do about the various anomalies that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's long-term hopes, goals and ambitions. As we know, in the House of Commons "long term" really can mean long term. In the meantime, for the practical purposes of the debate, does he not agree with my hon. Friend Pete Wishart? We need fairness, that is all. We do not want a system that is cooked up in Westminster; we want fairness.
I do agree that that is necessary, and that the Electoral Commission's credibility in carrying out its task, which covers elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, depends on its having a spread of people with intimate knowledge of what is going on in those elections. Not only fairness but effectiveness is needed.
The point about electoral systems has been well made. The systems used in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland are entirely different from those used for this House—more's the pity, in the case of the Northern Ireland system. That shows the variety of problems that the commission faces. More than that, we are dealing with different political cultures. It is not just how people are elected that is different in this House from the Scottish Parliament, Wales or Northern Ireland. The multi-party nature of those assemblies makes politics different. We cannot understand a place's electoral politics unless we understand the culture of its politics. That point is fundamental.
We must therefore consider how to deal with the current situation, which I hope is temporary. The principle suggested by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire is right: the law must recognise the existence of the other parliamentary assemblies. We in this House are not the only relevant people. I am absolutely with him on that, and I am glad that he wishes to press to a Division the amendment that makes precisely that point, but I am afraid that I am with my hon. Friend Mr. Reid on the exact mechanism and numbers that the hon. Gentleman has chosen. If we were to require an unweighted number of 15 parliamentarians for a party to be represented, we would end up with nine political commissioners, four of whom would represent Northern Irish parties. One of those would be Sinn Fein, and it would be interesting to see whether it took up its position.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that this is not an example of the Liberal Democrats slipping away from fairness on a technicality.
Not at all. On the basic principle proposed by the hon. Gentleman's party, we will be with him in the Lobby. However, we must consider the practicalities of the numbers involved and the balance between the various parts of the UK. We need to find a practical way forward that recognises the principle of producing an Electoral Commission that is not excessively weighted in one direction or another.
As the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said, we must recognise the multi-party, multi-parliamentary nature of our country. The Government's proposal harks back to the days before the radical policy of devolution, of which the Labour party ought to be proud. They now need to understand the consequences of that policy right across the board, including in the Bill.
I wish to speak about amendments 31, 32 and 33, which I tabled as the hon. Member who speaks on behalf of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission. The Justice Secretary then signed them, which technically makes them Government amendments, and the Minister needs to move them formally at the end of the debate.
The purpose of the amendments is to reduce from two to one the minimum number of candidates that the leader of one of the three major UK-wide parties is required to put forward in order to nominate a commissioner with a political experience. They have been tabled on behalf of the Speaker's Committee, which, under clause 4, will be responsible for the procedure for appointing all electoral commissioners, including the four commissioners whom the leaders of political parties nominate.
The Speaker's Committee is of the view that it should not be required to choose between names put forward by the three main parties, for two reasons. First, a party's leader is the person best placed to choose who should represent that party. Secondly, the choice between two candidates might prove to be a false choice, with the dice deliberately loaded in favour of one candidate. If a party leader wishes to nominate more than one person, nothing in the amendments would prevent that, but the Speaker's Committee sees no reason for requiring multiple nominations. The Speaker's Committee takes the view that its role should be to assess a nominee's suitability to be an electoral commissioner and, on that basis, to approve or reject him or her.
The amendments do not affect the position on nominations made on behalf of parties other than the three main parties. In any case, it differs from the position on the main parties. It is greatly hoped that the other parties' leaders can reach agreement between them on a single nominee. If they cannot, each one will have the right to put forward one or more names and, in circumstances in which more than one leader of a minor party chooses to exercise that right, the Speaker's Committee will have to choose between the nominees.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but from where I am sitting—I am sure that it applies to many other people, not only in Scotland but throughout the UK—the proposals look like Westminster games as usual. I am sorry to say that.
The Speaker's Committee agrees. That is why it has concurred with the Government's proposals to have electoral commissioners with political experience. It believes that the best way of appointing such people is for party leaders to nominate a person who would be approved or not by the Electoral Commission. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point and the Speaker's Committee has shared the view for some time that the Electoral Commission would benefit from direct party political input.
How does the Chairman personally envisage the Committee going about making the choice? Let us assume that all the numerically minor political parties nominate sensible, qualified people. It beggars belief that there is some fair way of choosing. Frankly, a lottery would be fairer and it would have some logic. How does the hon. Gentleman envisage approaching the matter? I am genuinely bewildered and fascinated to know how, under his stewardship, he would choose between the Democratic Unionist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and so on. How would he do it?
First, the Chairman of the Speaker's Committee is technically the Speaker. He is not always present, but he is technically the Chairman of the Committee. The Electoral Commission was created with the intention of its being independent, but it has to be responsible for pay and rations to somebody. The House decided that the "somebody" would be the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, and that it would seek to carry out its duties fairly and responsibly. To date, I have heard no criticism that the Speaker's Committee is partial or unfair. Yes, a heavy duty is placed on the Speaker's Committee, and it will fulfil it as fairly and properly as possible.
We have every confidence in the desire of our friends and colleagues to be impartial—no one has suggested otherwise—but how do they demonstrate that? The hon. Gentleman has avoided that question. He has not said how, under his stewardship or direction, or through working with the Speaker, the Committee would embark, in the little garret room in which they meet late at night, on resolving the matter. Would members discuss the person's qualities? Would they have a secret ballot? Would they say, "Well, it's the DUP's turn, and the DUP represents quite a different electoral tradition from that in Scotland, England and Wales"? That is true, incidentally—they have some strange practices over there, which are accepted by custom and practice—
There are two main theories to which human beings subscribe. I think that the hon. Gentleman subscribes to the conspiracy theory. I personally subscribe to a constructive theory of life. The Speaker's Committee has not yet had the duty placed upon it. As and when that happens, I am confident that it will try to carry it out as fairly and impartially as possible. I am not trying to avoid answering the hon. Gentleman's question, but it is hypothetical at this point.
On the substantive points in the amendments, I understand that the key attribute of people that the parties nominate should be expertise, but surely there is a case—I am open minded about it—for other parties having some say over a choice. We know that there are people in all parties who, although they have expertise, may be tribalist or partisan, and that others would find it easier to work with members of other parties. Perhaps members of the Speaker's Committee could reach a judgment about that, which would elude a party leader.
Much of the legislation that deals with the Electoral Commission is not clear. Several matters have been left incomplete in specifying how exactly it and the Speaker's Committee will operate. It has been necessary over the years for the Speaker's Committee to be a little creative in its operation. I am sure that the Committee will listen carefully to everything that has been said in the House and will take account of it.
With those few words, I ask hon. Members to support the amendments.
I am concerned by the way in which we appear collectively to portray what the political commissioners will do on the Electoral Commission. I hope that no one envisages that the politically nominated electoral commissioners—not politicians on the Electoral Commission, because they cannot be that—will fervently bat for their side all the time they serve on the commission. If that were so, it would appear not only to undermine what the Electoral Commission is about, but further to undermine—if anybody wanted to do this—how members of the public perceive those who hold political office generally. As far as I understand it, the whole idea behind putting political nominees on to the Electoral Commission is to do with the nature of the democratic process and all that goes with it, which includes how the Electoral Commission responds, and the idea that that body should have serving on it a number of people with political experience in general who can relate that experience to how it works.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman and I am with him so far, but he mentioned the electoral process. Is not the whole point that there are in fact electoral processes? That is the fundamental point that is at stake, not the partisan nature of appointments—I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman: I do not want to see that either. However, the point is that we have a multiplicity of processes, not a single electoral process.
If the hon. Gentleman had waited for one minute, he might have heard me address that issue. When I talk about the electoral process, I of course embrace within that term the electoral process in Westminster elections and the process in parliamentary and Assembly elections throughout the UK. They are all part of the process. The Electoral Commission should be concerned to ensure that those processes, as well as everything that happens between those elections, are undertaken in a fair, non-partisan, clean and transparent way. Having political nominees on the Electoral Commission adds to that process and, as far as I am concerned, it should add to it.
I actually agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have the same hope and aspiration that the political nominees will serve the commission in that way. However, does he not understand the point about people's perception? To take the example of Scotland, the Scottish election will be determined by the Electoral Commission, on which the Labour, Liberal and Conservative parties will be represented, but there will be no Scottish National party representation. That will bring the legitimacy of the Electoral Commission into question and introduce a flavour of doubt that something is not quite right.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. However, all of us, both in this House and in the Parliaments and Assemblies in the UK, are in the difficult position between, being perceived on the one hand, as perhaps acting unfairly in respect of how those people are placed on the Electoral Commission in the first place and, on the other hand, as simply pursuing party, partisan advantage, by placing people on the Electoral Commission in order to fight the corner of our parties. That is completely against what we should be trying to do, as far as political appointments to the Electoral Commission are concerned.
I would be with the hon. Gentleman more, on the basis of the logic that perhaps all the Parliaments and Assemblies of the UK should nominate a number of people to the Electoral Commission to serve as political representatives. Under those circumstances, if it so happened that the outcome was that there were no Labour representatives from among those who had been nominated, I for one would not be unhappy, because they would have been nominated by the Parliaments and Assemblies of the UK. As matters stand, it appears that we are nowhere near what I would consider to be an ideal outcome, which relates to what the job to be done should be and how it ought to be perceived as being done. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman's formulation would overcome the problem of what it might look like to have politically partisan representatives on the Electoral Commission, rather than those who will be there for the advancement of the commission.
Surely the case for representation from Northern Ireland, by way of an example, is demonstrated by the Bill itself, because as you will have noticed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it amends the system of elections to the European Parliament in Northern Ireland, which is contrary to the Electoral Commission's proposals. Rightly or wrongly, the Government have been persuaded by Northern Ireland politicians to discard the commission's advice. In a sense, that is a compelling case for Northern Ireland politicians to be represented on the commission, because their view prevailed. Their view was: "We deal with elections, so let's give the advice, rather than these nitwits on the Electoral Commission who've never fought an election in their lives."
By referring to the word "representation", my hon. Friend has, if anything, underlined the problem that we face of how to make the appointments. Sir Peter Viggers, who represents the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, drew attention to the fact that the Committee does not have a Labour party majority and the fact that not every party is represented on it. The Standards and Privileges Committee does not have majority Labour representation—it has more than Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members; it has a Welsh nationalist Member, too. But do we consider the purpose of all those people on the Standards and Privileges Committee to be to fight the corner for their party? Clearly not, as far as what they do for this House is concerned.
The hon. Gentleman is talking the talk of fairness, but I am afraid that he is not walking the walk. He is looking at this from a Westminster perspective. The Standards and Privileges Committee is a Westminster body, but the Electoral Commission is UK-wide: it hits Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh. We are looking for fairness. He is grasping at fairness, and I can see him struggling to find it. Will he please walk the walk as well as talking the talk?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman has been following closely what I was saying. As far as this House and the other Assemblies and Parliaments of the UK are concerned, we need to make it clear that the way in which we nominate people is not seen simply as people wishing to fight their party political corner in the Electoral Commission. In order to make that clear, we need to confront the question of how we can have adequate representation and fairness in the nomination process.
Pete Wishart has made a suggestion that could, as other hon. Members have pointed out, lead to what would broadly be perceived as an unfair outcome. That seems to be the way we are going. My suggestion is that we either seek nominations from all the Parliaments and Assemblies or go with the proposal from the Speaker's Committee to find a system whereby the fairness of the nomination can be underpinned by the way in which the nominations are made.
The hon. Gentleman's hopes are laudable, and we can all follow his arguments. He is right to look for fairness, but that ain't what we have got on the amendment paper tonight. Instead, we have a Scottish amendment that is not perfect—it is not what I would want—but that is fairer than the alternative that would pertain if we do not accept it. We should therefore support it and vote for it, and force the Government to look again at this matter. This electoral system—our democracy—does not belong to us; it belongs to the public. The important thing is how the public perceive these things. The people in Scotland, just like the people in Castle Point, are not going to see this as fair. They are going to see it as another Westminster carve-up between the three main parties.
The hon. Gentleman makes my point precisely. How the public perceive what we do is very important, and there must be no implication that who puts whom on a Committee has anything to do with party political advantage, or that the people sitting on that Committee are simply there to fight their own party's corner.
I am listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman, who is making some very good points. He is presenting his own personal utopia, and I do not disagree with him. However, I want to echo Bob Spink and say that we have a choice tonight between the Government's proposal and that of the Scottish National party. Which of those options is closer to the hon. Gentleman's personal utopia? I would wager that it was the SNP's proposal, and I ask him again to walk the walk in regard to fairness.
The hon. Gentleman puts forward two options. One would result in about four out of nine commissioners being from parties involved in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The alternative does not appear to go down that route, and would not necessarily involve the membership of the Electoral Commission reflecting an exact replica of the party membership of the Assemblies and Parliaments across the UK. I accept that this is a conundrum and a continuing problem. I also accept that it is not easy to resolve. My personal view is that something like what we have had before, as now, is probably the best way to proceed. My desired outcome would allow the Assemblies and Parliaments of the United Kingdom collectively to choose who the nominees would be, but that proposal is not on the table tonight. We need to choose between a proposal that looks fair and representative but whose outcome would not be, and one that does not look so fair or representative but whose outcome might be workable for the next stage of the Electoral Commission.
Commissioners with direct political experience will enhance the work of the Electoral Commission, so Conservative Members support the Government's intentions on this part of the Bill. As Dr. Strang and Mr. Devine both said, the commission will work better if people who have been through elections, who have been candidates, who have gone into every detail of electoral law in fighting an election and who have experienced the processes and problems that occur and the solutions that are found are actually in there either advising or as part of the Electoral Commission. They will have the experience, knowledge and wisdom that comes from fighting elections, which people who have not fought them simply will not have.
Andrew Mackinlay said that he would consider nominating himself to become a commissioner, and I would support such a nomination 100 per cent. [Interruption.] The Minister might not, but I would. The hon. Member for Thurrock is, of course, independent-minded, fair and very experienced, having been in this place for many years— [Interruption.] I will give way to Mr. MacNeil later, but he really must stop shouting. I repeat that the hon. Member for Thurrock has experience and knowledge that people who have never fought elections do not have. I honestly believe—I mean this as a sincere compliment to the hon. Member for Thurrock—that he and others like him would be able to rise above the party political process. If he were an electoral commissioner, he would be able to act in an honest, straightforward and trustworthy fashion—regardless of the political party that he had represented for much of his life. He is not alone in that, as many others would, through their experience and their wisdom, be able to serve the Electoral Commission and thus the democratic process very well indeed.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I am wondering whether Andrew Mackinlay is going to be the Conservative nominee to the Electoral Commission. What we are witnessing here yet again is the Westminster old boys' carve-up; the pals come together and in a few years' time after further headlines, we will be back yet again to the same position—with more legislation necessary to hide their blushes.
Well, I am not an old boy, and I never will be. The fact is that the hon. Member for Thurrock, in view of what he proposed this evening, could indeed be the Conservative nomination—of course he could, because we are talking about cross-party co-operation for the good of democracy.
I am disappointed that the hon. Lady has not nominated me. It is, however, a sad indictment of parties in this place that they think that the people of Britain are sitting around tonight watching this debate to find out who will be the nomination to this body of electoral administration. People are not going to be saying that we are unfair: we are giving a say to parties that represent 20-odd out of 650, which I think is fair. Does the hon. Lady agree?
Yes, I do, and I see no reason why the hon. Gentleman, despite being a member of the Labour party, could not also be a fair-minded, trustworthy and experienced member of the Electoral Commission. Being a member of the Labour party does not necessarily make someone a partisan person who is unable to take decisions in a cross-party or reasonable way. I am beginning to think, however, from evidence over the last half an hour, that being a member of the Scottish National party does make one partisan and narrow-minded —[Interruption.] In fact, I have held that view for some time. However, that is not the point. Unfortunately, the amendments tabled by Pete Wishart are a bit of a red herring compared with what the Bill is actually about, while the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Sir Peter Viggers are absolutely correct. They will bring clarity to the Bill and to the process, and we totally support them.
That makes my point to Scottish National party Members: the amendments to which I have just given wholehearted support were tabled by none other than the Lord Chancellor himself, and they have my 100 per cent. support because they are right and right for democracy. I will not stand here and say that, because they were tabled by a member of the Government, I must oppose them. That would be absurd. That is the whole point of our parliamentary process, which SNP Members are misinterpreting and rather warping in their remarks tonight.
What the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire has said is not relevant because the people who will be appointed to the Electoral Commission under this system will not be acting in party political interest. It is not a question of their knowing in detail the particular precise workings relating to any particular part of the UK, any particular area of the democratic process or any particular electoral system. The point is that the whole spectrum of experience is what matters.
The hon. Lady is right about the whole spectrum of experience, but does she not accept that fighting elections under proportional representation is a different experience from fighting elections under first past the post? Amendment 91, which I support, defines a parliamentarian as somebody from any of the devolved Assemblies, as well as from here. Surely, to get that wide spectrum of experience, she should be supporting that amendment.
There is a better way to ensure fairness, which is to get rid of elections under any system other than first past the post. That is the fair and straightforward way.
Let me make three quick points, because this argument has dragged on for rather too long. The point is that the political appointees to the Electoral Commission will always be a minority. If I may, I shall quote Sir Hayden Phillips, who gave evidence to the Public Bill Committee on
"I think that this will help the Electoral Commission, and will help political parties to feel more comfortable with the Electoral Commission. Those four people will be in a minority, and will never be a majority." ——[ Official Report, Political Parties and Elections Public Bill Committee,
They will never have power on the Committee; they will have only influence. That is the whole point.
The hon. Lady is making a constructive speech and clearly we support her on the role that these commissioners are to play. However, while I am not suggesting that one support the SNP amendment, is there not a problem in that three of those commissioners will essentially have been put forward by the leader of a political party whereas the fourth commissioner will be something rather different?
That is the whole point of the spectrum of experience. It is likely that one of these four people will have more experience of government than of opposition and another will have more experience of opposition than of government and that one will be from one part of the country and one from another part. It is very possible that— [Interruption.] The Scottish National party, Mr. Deputy Speaker—
Order. Hon Members have had more than enough opportunities to put their points and make interventions; the very least that they should do now is hear others make their points.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am very pleased that I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman about what is rubbish, and I am very pleased that he disagrees with me.
The point about the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire is that it is elegant, it is arithmetically clever, and it would make the commission far too big. It would make it unwieldy and unworkable. Furthermore, as I have said, it is wrong to consider this whole matter along party political lines. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar has nothing whatever to say. He is just laughing. That makes me realise that my earlier remarks about the Scottish National party are sadly becoming all the more true.
The point is that no member of the Electoral Commission would be acting in the interests of any political party. That would be entirely wrong.
No, I cannot give way again. We really must make progress.
The basis of the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire is completely unfounded and irrelevant. No one will be acting for any political party. No one will be representing a political party. We will have a broad spectrum of people who can enhance the democratic process.
There is one final point which the Scottish National party, of course, ignores. This Parliament is the Parliament of the United Kingdom. We are talking about the Electoral Commission, which deals with the whole of the United Kingdom. Although the Scottish National party would have it otherwise, it is still the case that this Parliament makes rules for the United Kingdom, and it is from the authority of this Parliament that all devolved legislatures take their own power and authority. The Scottish Parliament would have no authority had it not been given it by this Parliament. It is absolutely right that this law should be made tonight in this Parliament—not for any particular sector and not for any particular party, but for the whole of the United Kingdom.
We have had a long discussion and I do not want to detain the House for longer than necessary, but I want to make one point. As the hon. Gentleman said, the question of how the so-called minority parties would have their commissioner selected is a matter for consideration by the Speaker's Committee if and when the House decides that the amendments should be incorporated in the Bill, but we should all be clear about the fact that we ought to have the utmost confidence in the Committee. It is constituted as part of the House, and it is answerable to the House. If my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay has concerns about that, he will have plenty of opportunities to scrutinise the Committee and the way in which it makes its selection. I have every confidence that it will do so in accordance with due process, and that the selection will be conducted fairly, effectively and in a way that is completely compatible with the great traditions of this House.
As for the other amendments, let me say first how grateful I am to the Members who sought to educate the Government on the consequences of their own legislation. That is much appreciated. We are proud of the legislation, we passed it for specific purposes and we think it is working extremely well, but there are limits to it.
Let us not beat about the bush any longer. What underlies amendments 86 to 93 is a fundamental and profound dissatisfaction with the current constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom. I think we can agree on that, and on that basis we will resist all the amendments. Not only are they wrongly founded in principle, but as Mrs. Laing explained so cogently, this is the United Kingdom and it remains the United Kingdom. We do not have a federal structure of governance; we have a devolved structure, whereby authority and power flow from this House. All hon. Members are adornments, but the House of Commons is the fount of power in this country—this United Kingdom.
Of course hon. Members are fully entitled to disagree with that and campaign democratically to change the arrangements, and I am sure they will continue to do so. In the meantime, however, this must be the starting point for measures that we take. It is appropriate for this Parliament, the Westminster Parliament, to be the basis on which nominations are put forward for commissioners with political experience.
I want to make a few more points. After that I shall be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, although I suspect that I have already heard what he wishes to say.
In trying to right what they see as this fundamental wrong in our constitutional arrangements, Scottish National party Members are opening the door to unwelcome consequences. Unfortunately, their amendments are predicated on premises that feed public cynicism about politicians. It is profoundly wrong to base our legislation on the premise that political parties are incapable of nominating people with political experience who will not then act in the public interest.
Unfortunately, the right hon. Gentleman's words will be construed as high-handed in many other places. That is disappointing. When we are developing rules, we should aim ultimately to uphold the principle of fairness, rather than allow the seeking of party political advantage or carve-ups, with the necessity of returning to this matter in a few years' time. I ask him to remove the party labels and have in mind the principle of fairness. In fact, might it not be better to remove the three main parties so that we have the breadth of knowledge of the minority parties represented on the Electoral Commission, as that might prevent any more carve-ups?
I have heard the hon. Gentleman's views on fairness many times in this short debate, and I point out to him that it is very interesting how the definition of fairness varies according to who is speaking about it. There are different perspectives on it; it is not an absolute value, and there are differences of perception. It is not to his advantage to pray it in aid; there are powerful arguments in other directions using precisely the same abstract nouns. When we strip away the abstract nouns and get down to the practicalities, however, we find that they are unwieldy, as has been pointed out.
Pete Wishart described his own solution as elegant, and it may well be, but it is also unwieldy and impractical. These commissioners are appointed on the basis that they will bring their expertise and experience to the conduct of the Electoral Commission, not on the basis that they will bring their party loyalties or tribal partisanship. That would be quite wrong, and I have every confidence that they will not be selected on that basis.
We have spent a long time discussing these issues. I fear there will be no meeting—
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has not addressed the important point that there are different electoral systems. In the last few minutes, both the Justice Secretary from a sedentary position and Mrs. Laing have decried proportional representation, but that system is in operation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—and even, I believe, in London—so it is an important part of the electoral system in the UK. However, that is being dismissed in the carve-up, at least between the two main parties. It is important that, as things stand, no one on the commission will be representing these important systems.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because it was this Government who brought in that pluralism in our electoral arrangements. If he has not already read it, I commend to the hon. Gentleman the review of voting systems published by this Department under the able stewardship of my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary, which sets out a detailed examination of how these different electoral systems operate. We think that pluralism is desirable; that is why we introduced it. The fact is that the three largest parties in the Westminster Parliament have the largest collective pool of experience to draw upon in bringing knowledge of all these different electoral systems to bear on the work of the Electoral Commission. That is precisely the point. Far from dismissing this pluralism, we brought it in and we intend to draw on it to the best effect in the Electoral Commission.
But does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that proportional representation has delivered different forms of government? The SNP is in government in Edinburgh; Plaid Cymru is in coalition in Wales; and the Democratic Unionist party is in government in Northern Ireland. Should not those Governments of three of the nations of the United Kingdom have an input into the Electoral Commission, because of the differences in the nations of the United Kingdom?
With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, I must inform him that it is not those Governments who will be represented, any more than this Government will be, in the work of the Electoral Commission.
Can the Minister answer this simple question: is there anything to prevent the leader of any of the political parties from nominating a Member of the Scottish Parliament, the London assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly? There is nothing to stop that, is there?
Of course not; the hon. Lady is right. What lies behind her comments is a point that has been made over and again, and which the hon. Members who tabled the amendments seem incapable of understanding: politicians serving on public bodies are capable of operating in the public interest, rather than merely in their own narrow, tribal, party political interests. I am sorry that the tablers of the amendments seem incapable of believing that, but all practical experience tells us that it is so. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to agree on this issue, and we will resist the amendments.
This has been a good and interesting debate, containing some valuable contributions—until we reached those from the Government and Opposition Front Benchers, when it started to get disappointing. We have a situation in which the largest party in Scotland, by votes and seats awarded, will have no input on electoral regulations for elections in Scotland, and that is totally unacceptable to our party.
Does the hon. Gentleman understand that that is not necessarily the case? That is not the way in which the amendments proposed by Sir Peter Viggers operate.
To be fair to the Minister, I should say that that is not how it seems from our Benches. This arrangement is all right for him, because he has his political commissioner and he will be able to nominate somebody to serve on the Electoral Commission, and it is all right for Mrs. Laing and for the Liberals, because they will be able to nominate somebody to serve on it. The provisions are not all right and acceptable for us, because we will not be able to nominate someone to serve on the Electoral Commission to run and regulate elections in our nation. That is the heart of the matter; this is about fairness, democracy and ensuring that people are properly represented in this House.
I listened carefully to Sir Peter Viggers, who is in an impossible situation. To be fair to him, there is no way that he could begin to come close to defining the criteria on which this fourth commissioner will be determined, because he does not know what they will be—he has no clue as to how this will be determined. I, too, have no idea, and neither does the Minister or the hon. Member for Epping Forest. What will be the arrangements for the fourth commissioner? How will the decision be made? The Minister does not seem to know. If he does know, will he please get up and tell me?
I genuinely suggest that the hon. Gentleman examines the proposals before he starts getting emotional and wrought up when there is no need to be.
The Minister will know that that was not an answer and that he does not know how the fourth commissioner will be determined—nobody knows. This is a total mess, but I propose a solution. I get the sense from the rest of the House that a threshold of 15 parliamentarians will not be acceptable, so I shall ask leave to withdraw the amendment containing that proposal. However, I hope that other hon. Members will support the principle that the other legislatures in the United Kingdom are important and must be taken into account. That is a challenge to hon. Members here this evening. I know about the support of the Liberals, who believe that the other Parliaments are important, that we live in a multi-party democracy and that we are now in a different type of United Kingdom. The challenge is for other hon. Members: do they recognise that or do they not? Are we to have the stable, closed-door Westminster wheelings and dealings? Is it all about the green Benches here or is it all about the new reality of the United Kingdom?
Does my hon. Friend agree that this process is beginning to throw into question the legitimacy of the Electoral Commission?
My hon. Friend is entirely right in what he says, because he describes the challenge; the Electoral Commission will be questioned in the nations of the United Kingdom if we do not get our proposal through. It is in place to serve all the legislatures, but unless our proposal is passed this evening it will fail in that task and its very legitimacy will be brought into question. That is what is at stake.
I know that there is a desire to get on to the next set of amendments, but this is an important principle. I wish to press amendment No. 91 to a Division, and I urge hon. Members to support me. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments made: 31, page 4, line 15, leave out 'two' and insert 'one'.
Amendment 32, page 4, line 17, leave out 'persons one of whom' and insert 'a person who'.— (Steve McCabe.)
Amendment proposed: 91, page 4, line 19, at end insert—
'( ) In subsection (2) a "parliamentarian" means a Member of the European Parliament, a Member of the House of Commons, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, a Member of the Welsh Assembly or a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.'.— (Pete Wishart.)
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment made: 33, in page 4, line 23, at end insert—
'( ) In the case of an appointment of a nominated Commissioner, the reference in section 3(2)(c) to being selected is to be read, where appropriate, as a reference to being recommended.'.— (Mr. Wills.)