Amendment A1

Elections Bill - Committee (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 11:48 am on 10th March 2022.

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Baroness Meacher:

Moved by Baroness Meacher

A1: Clause 14, page 21, leave out lines 6 and 7

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

My Lords, I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

I thank noble Lords and join in the general confusion about where we are up to. I speak in favour of the two amendments in this group tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. They seem to be a ranging shot on one of the most important issues embedded in this Bill.

I hope that noble Lords will excuse me if I take this opportunity to explore what the amendments do and why it is so important that they and other matters relating to Clauses 14 and 15 are given serious consideration. These provisions are at the heart of the matter which I want to speak about. The question is really: is the United Kingdom to retain, as one of its trusted institutions and symbols of democratic legitimacy, the Electoral Commission, or is it to join an increasingly long list of countries that have, step by step and little by little, eroded their democratic base, undermined trust in their electoral processes and cast doubt on the legitimacy of their elected representatives?

The Electoral Commission was set up as a direct result of recommendations by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, on which I serve. The committee is chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Weardale, and its first chairman was Lord Nolan. People refer frequently to the Nolan principles but those are in the guardianship of the Committee on Standards in Public Life; so, we believe, is the Electoral Commission. It is a body which emerged from recommendations presented to the Prime Minister by the CSPL. It has since been overhauled and reviewed by the CSPL and there have been changes made in legislation, again based on recommendations made directly by the CSPL. In a report last year, the Committee made further recommendations to the Prime Minister about changes that needed to be made in response to the inquiry and the evidence that it took. All those recommendations were designed to make the Electoral Commission a more effective body, with clear and specific recommendations on how that should be done in each case.

The Electoral Commission was set up on the advice of the CSPL. It was updated on advice from the CSPL, and the Government have before them clear recommendations from the CSPL on how it could be improved further. Our report strongly emphasised what every piece of evidence showed: that to maintain trust in the electoral integrity of our democratic processes, it was essential that the Electoral Commission retains its independence from political interference—interference from any political party or faction, but particularly from the party in power at any one time. Unfortunately, Clauses 14 and 15 take our country in the wrong direction. The two amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, try hard to pull it back from the brink, so yes, they have our support.

At Second Reading, I asked whether the Minister would be ready to hand over to a future radical-left Government the powers that the Bill, in its present form, would give them. He is far too skilled an operator to answer that question, but it is very hard to believe that he would. It could start off with something as innocuous as a requirement for the Electoral Commission to have regard to the Government’s manifesto policies; levelling up, for instance, or maybe levelling down, as will surely be achieved as a completely accidental by-product of other provisions in the Bill.

In many areas, but particularly Clauses 14 and 15, the Bill seems to have been drawn up by people who have never been in opposition, which is startling because the Minister has plenty of experience of that, having lived as an oppressed political minority in the Liberal Democrat-run London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. The Minister may protest that there is to be a comprehensive consultation with various bodies before any strategy statements come into force. Of course, the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, very much bear on the question of the terms and conditions on which such a strategy report might be made.

The Minister might refer me to the elaborate wording of proposed new Section 4C, which is in Clause 14. But when I pointed out to him at Second Reading, as many noble Lords did, that practically every outside body that had expressed an opinion on these changes had strongly advised against them, and that the CSPL itself, which created the commission, had said that our electoral processes must be overseen by an independent regulator protected from political pressures and separate from the Government, and that it must demonstrate its impartiality and effectiveness at all times, the Minister’s reply was that the Government take a different view.

Noble Lords should bear in mind that five bodies must be consulted, according to proposed new Section 4C, before any such strategy document moves forward. It would be interesting to know what they will do when they get their first strategy statement. Actually, we do not have to wonder, as they have already commented on the proposals in front of them. Two opted out in disgust, which is why the Scottish and Welsh amendments flow in the next group. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has strenuously protested and recommended that the Government take these provisions out of the Bill. That is three of them. The Speaker’s Committee is packed with Cabinet Ministers, which is an offence when it is the budget holder for the Electoral Commission—a matter we shall talk about later. It is also worthy of note that all but one of the Electoral Commissioners jointly wrote an open letter of protest, pointing out that this fundamentally undermines their legitimacy and our democratic system. Therefore, of the five consultees in proposed new Section 4C, four have expressed vigorous dissent with the proposal and one is packed with Cabinet Ministers.

Interestingly, neither the CSPL or any local government institution was consulted: the one which created the electoral commission, and the people who will receive the benefit of its administration above anybody else. What we learn from this is that a fig leaf of consultation, even when we have a benign regime such as this, is not a safeguard. Under a less benign regime, as seen from the Minister’s viewpoint, that fig leaf could be gone in the space of a short consultation. I repeat my question: is the Minister completely at ease with the provisions in these two clauses? I and my noble friends are certainly not.

A look at the international stage may help noble Lords to understand our deep unease more clearly and explain why we are so strongly in favour of the Minister giving a fair wind, at the very minimum, to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher.

Any power-hungry regime anywhere in the world, on coming to power and wishing to keep it, looks around to take steps to make that happen without having to take too much account of the vagaries of public opinion, if necessary. Some well-understood steps to take are set out in the autocrat’s playbook. High on the list is undermining the independence of the election regulator. Following that, guidance can be produced that facilitates the selection or deselection of candidates, the application of rules and the prosecution of offences—I will not give away any more trade secrets. But noble Lords can see where that goes by looking at Russia today. Mr Putin’s most dangerous opponent in the last presidential election managed to overcome the requirement to get a million signatures on his nomination form, obviously placed there by the election regulator, but it was deemed that there were a few duds in his list of nominees, and, although he had a million valid ones, he was disqualified for submitting fraudulent names—strictly according to the rules, of course.

Another entirely rules-based democratic disaster is playing out in Hong Kong. Legislation on elections there, largely bequeathed by Britain, has been subtly modified by the applications of government strategies on the election regulator. That should give the Minister nightmares. Candidates there could stand for election only if they had signed up to one of that Government’s key manifesto policies—unification with mainland China. It was hardly a surprise that only unification candidates were elected and that the election had the lowest turnout of voters since British handover.

I ask the Minister to consider a hypothetical UK Government with a majority of 80 and a core policy of rejoining the European Union and the power that these two clauses would give that Administration to facilitate their desired outcome. I ask the Minister for a third time: is he completely at ease with forcing these disastrous and damaging clauses through Parliament?

When the Berlin Wall came down, the United Kingdom Government, driven on by Mrs Thatcher, set up the Westminster Foundation for Democracy as a vehicle to help the newly emerging civic societies in eastern Europe understand the basic rules of a democratic multiparty system. There were many exchanges between politicians of all parties in the UK with civic and political organisations in those emerging democracies as part of that effort, and one group visited the Liberal Democrats as part of that study tour. Members of that group had never heard of knocking on doors and engaging with electors. They were absolutely at ground zero. After a day of seminars and discussions, we had a feedback session. There was a lot of enthusiasm and excitement coupled with some trepidation about the lessons that they had learned and the work ahead of them. However, the spokesman for three dour Albanians simply said, “We prefer to win our elections by administrative means”, and that sounds a great deal more chilling with an Albanian accent.

There are some faint echoes of that today. Mrs Thatcher knew the importance and value to Britain of our soft power and our reputation for robust multiparty democracy, fought on a level playing field with a referee who did not take instructions from whichever club happened to be top of the league when the match was played. Mrs Thatcher knew the value of and invested in democracy. Perhaps in a small way, the responses of those same eastern European nations to the current Ukraine disaster show that it was money well invested. I ask the Minister not to throw all that away. Give some comfort to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and adopt her amendments as a small first step to undoing the harm proposed in the Bill. He needs to take these two dangerous clauses out of the Bill, and my noble friends and I will energetically make that case in the debates that follow.

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 12:00 pm, 10th March 2022

My Lords, when the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, came into the Chamber, I do not think that she was expecting to have to move any amendments, and when I came into the Chamber, I certainly was not expecting to speak on any of them. But in a few sentences I would like to inject a broader perspective.

At the moment, we see a conflict between democracy and totalitarianism in Ukraine such as we have not experienced since the end of the Cold War. Democracy must win. But at this very perilous moment, the Government are introducing measures to shackle the independent Electoral Commission and put in its place the will of government Ministers. The Minister may say that they have no intention of doing anything naughty, but I would not trust him on that and, even if I did, I certainly would not trust every subsequent Government to go the same way. This is a disgraceful proposal. It undermines the democratic case that we are making to the world, and I hope that the Committee will have none of it.

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative

My Lords, this is the most extraordinary debate that I have ever taken part in, with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, first disowning the amendment in her name on the supplementary list of amendments and then moving it formally but not explaining what we are debating. I hope that the noble Baroness remains to withdraw her amendment at the end. Otherwise, we may be in a little trouble.

I was unable to take part at Second Reading on this Bill because I was not in the country, but I have of course read Hansard on that debate and I hope to take part in the remaining stages. I will not range as widely as the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, because I hope to say more about Clause 14 generally when we get to the stand part debate, where I think it would be most appropriate. But I will say a couple of things about the two amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, because neither of them is necessary.

Amendment 4A states that the Electoral Commission only needs to comply with the strategic and policy statement if it conforms with its own objectives. The amendment is unnecessary because the only requirement in new Section 4B in Clause 14 is for the commission to “have regard to” the statement. Nothing compels the commission to do anything specific as a result of the statement being published, and nothing in Clause 14 changes the requirement for the Electoral Commission not to do anything which conflicts with its statutory duties. In short, its regulatory independence is already protected by Clause 14.

I was somewhat mystified by Amendment A1 which removes the role and responsibilities from the strategic and policy statement. These strategic and policy statements merely set out what the Government’s priorities are and what the Government see as the role and responsibilities in relation to those priorities. It does not override the commission’s independence but gives guidance as to the Government’s priorities and of course those priorities will be approved by Parliament. Public bodies do not exist in a vacuum; they exist in a political context. The strategic and policy statements just give that context—nothing more, nothing less. Clause 14 does not impact on the independence of the Electoral Commission.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, this is an astonishing Bill. I understand why there was confusion at the start; I do not blame the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, in any way and I hope no one else will, given what we are facing today.

This is an outrageous Bill in almost every way: a 171-page compendium of political bias. In the case of the Electoral Commission, I can understand why the Government are embarrassed. As I understand it, the commission pointed out the kind of money that the Conservative Party was getting and where it was getting it from. Given that we are now in the middle of a war in which the Russian state—Mr Putin and his cronies—are invading Ukraine, the fact that some of the money was coming from Russian sources must be an acute embarrassment to the noble Lord and his cronies. That is why they do not like the Electoral Commission.

We just have to look at what is in the news today about the Charity Commission. The story is that the Government are about to put in a Tory placeperson—a placeman, as it happens—as the chair of the Charity Commission, as they have done before. This is what they do, and it is happening throughout our public system. A Member of this House, who used to be a Labour MP, has been appointed to post after post because they supported the Government in the last election and supported the Vote Leave campaign. It is cronyism squared—cubed, probably.

The Liberal Democrats mentioned the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in a speech earlier. I used to be a board member of that foundation and am now on the executive of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. We are about to have a seminar, with representatives from all around the Commonwealth, at which we will be talking about good governance. How on earth can we try to put forward the idea that this so-called mother of Parliaments is an example of good governance if this Bill becomes an Act? We must do everything we can, not just to amend it but to scupper it.

Look at today’s amendments: after the two from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, we have over 100 government amendments. What on earth is going on with this legislation? We will soon be moving towards Prorogation and the Queen’s Speech. This Bill should be totally abandoned. In many ways we are wasting our time going through amendment after amendment; I do not think there is any prospect of the Bill moving forward.

I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly. We go around monitoring elections in other countries and we see what happens. If there is no effective independent electoral commission in a country then we criticise that and say it is not a proper democracy. How can we properly participate and show face in these countries if this Bill becomes an Act? It is just outrageous.

I know the Minister has an impossible task. Those of us who have been in the House of Commons know the kind of debates that take place there. Regrettably, the House of Commons these days is not taking the time—it does not have the time—to examine 171 pages and all these amendments in detail, let alone their implications for our democracy. We are dealing here just with the Electoral Commission but there is a whole range of other issues, such as identification, which will make the opportunity for ordinary people to vote much more difficult.

As I say, the House of Commons has not given this legislation the kind of scrutiny that its Members ought to have done. They understand elections more than we do; they take part in them year by year, so they understand the implications of the Bill. We have a responsibility to go through the Bill line by line, but there is no way we can do that in the next couple of months. I hope that at some point—even if not now, it is inevitable that this is going to happen—the Minister will throw in the towel and say, “This is just not going to proceed”. If not, I warn him that we on this side of the House—and I think the Liberal Democrats are filled with the same kind of enthusiasm and determination, as are the Greens and, I suspect, a huge number of Cross-Benchers—will do everything we can to undermine and thwart the Bill and make sure that this abortion—no, that is not the right word.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

Thank you; I am grateful that I have some friends around here who are far more literate than I am. We will do everything we can to make sure that this abomination of a Bill never becomes an Act.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 12:15 pm, 10th March 2022

My Lords, I apologise that I cannot be here for the whole of today. When I spoke at Second Reading, I made my reservations about the Bill quite clear. There are certain aspects that I support, such as tidying up postal voting, but all that that needs is a short Bill.

It is grotesque that we have this Bill before us while people are literally dying for democracy. The best, most seemly and most honourable thing that we can do is to delete these clauses completely from the Bill. They have no place in a Bill of this nature in a country that prides itself on being the mother of Parliaments—it is not the institution, by the way; Bright’s quotation was that the country was the mother of Parliaments, and that is what we are. It is a heritage that we should do everything we can to cherish and preserve. We are exceptionally fortunate in the democracy that we have, warts and all. While people are being mown down in Ukraine and while brave people in Russia, in St Petersburg, Moscow and other cities, are going out on to the streets to protest, knowing that if they are arrested then they might face 15 years in jail—we heard earlier in our deliberations today of that poor man or woman who was in jail in Belarus in a tiny cell with 15 others, all of whom were smokers—we have an absolute duty to cherish and preserve our democracy.

A democracy needs to have a monitoring body. I spoke for the Conservative Party from the Front Bench in the other place when the Electoral Commission came into being. As we said at Second Reading—my noble friend Lord Hayward made this point—it is certainly entirely appropriate to review its operations after two decades, but to shackle it in such a way that the Government are in a position to dictate what it does is utterly and completely wrong.

There is no point in my noble friend, for whom I have considerable affection and regard, pretending that this Government do not mean any ill. I am perfectly prepared to accept that they do not mean any ill, but what if Mr Corbyn had had charge of this? Would we on our side of the House have thought it appropriate that a Corbyn Government should have the power to dictate to an Electoral Commission? One only has to state the words to underline their absurdity. I hope my noble friend will not see that we have protracted debate on this but will say that these clauses should go, and that we do not have to debate them further.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

When I listed the people and groups who were going to oppose the Bill, I should have included the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and some of his Back-Bench colleagues. I apologise for leaving him out.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

It is a touching gesture. Anybody who considers himself or herself a parliamentarian should be opposed to this particular part of this particular Bill. I hope that message will be received by my noble friend and that he will realise that it should not be his mission to undermine, however indirectly, our parliamentary and electoral democracy because, of course, this applies to elections as well and not just to Parliament.

We are much in the debt of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for tabling these amendments. She introduced them with remarkable brevity. Let us have done with this.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative

May I ask my noble friend before he sits down just to clarify his comments about the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher? Will there also, as I see it, be an opportunity to comment in more detail when we debate the clause standing part? That may be the occasion when I comment on his generous comments about me, for which I thank him.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

Yes, that is fine. I think there is even a case for deleting these clauses in Committee.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, I was not intending to speak on this part but I feel very queasy about the way a number of noble Lords are using the situation in Ukraine to have a go at this part of the Bill. People are indeed dying for democracy, but they are not dying to defend an Electoral Commission—an unelected quango in the UK. I think it is rather unbecoming to use that.

The Electoral Commission is relatively new to the UK’s democratic life and democracy thrived when it did not exist. At the very least, we should stop aggrandising the Electoral Commission as though the electorate depend on it. There are problems with it and there are problems with the way the Government are trying to deal with it. I am not necessarily defending the Government’s way of solving the problem of the Electoral Commission—

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour

Go on, defend it. The noble Baroness used to be in the Communist Party.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

Very good, well done everyone, carry on.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

The noble Baroness said that we had a functioning electoral system before we had the Electoral Commission. The commission was a move to improve it, just as votes for women was a very great step forward. I am sure she would not want to go back to the time before that.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

I appreciate that I am surrounded by Labour noble Lords who object to what I am saying. One of the great advantages of votes for women was that occasionally we get to say the odd thing that does not go with the grain.

I am raising the problem that the Electoral Commission is not necessarily all good. I want to say this about it. There was a great deal of dissatisfaction about the Electoral Commission’s lack of independence in its response to the 2016 referendum, which I referred to in my Second Reading speech. Such were the concerns about the bias of the Electoral Commission in that period that it had to apologise for the bias of many of its members. This is not me saying it—I am quoting the Electoral Commission, which we are all told we have to listen to.

The bias led to many voters feeling that the Electoral Commission was not fit for purpose and was in fact biased against their wishes as an electorate in that referendum. Many of those people were not Tory cronies but Labour voters—Labour voters who may no longer be Labour voters because they became disillusioned by the fact that the Labour Party told them they had got it wrong, they were duped and they needed to think again. While the Labour Benches are very keen on democracy, they were less keen on the democratic decisions of many of their voters in 2016 and subsequently.

At the very least, therefore, it is important that we look at the role of the Electoral Commission critically and seriously. I do not think the way the Government have gone about reforming it will clarify or help things. I will make those points another time. But to say, as has just been said by a number of noble Lords, that we have a responsibility to take the Bill and thwart it, scupper it, throw it out and all the rest of it, seems to me rather to fly in the face of democracy. A little humility is maybe needed to remember that the plans for the Elections Bill were in the Conservative Party manifesto—which noble Lords will be delighted to know I did not vote for, before they all start.

Nevertheless, I clocked that they were there. We in this House are unelected legislators and need to take at least a smidgen of note of what the electorate might consider priorities. Not everything is a Conservative Party plot but one reason many people voted for the Conservative Party in 2019 was that they felt abandoned by the opposition parties.

Photo of Baroness D'Souza Baroness D'Souza Crossbench

My Lords, I wonder whether noble Lords are fully aware that this is Committee and not Second Reading.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I want to make a Committee point, if I may. Even though I agree with the general statements that have been made about the deep undesirability of Clauses 14 and 15, and the danger they represent to the reputation of this country as a guardian of democracy, my noble friend made quite clear that we would want to see those clauses removed but also indicated his support for the noble Baroness’s amendments, which would ameliorate those clauses slightly if the Bill were to retain them. I am very keen that the Bill does not retain them.

The amelioration has its limits and, in that context, I want to remind the Committee of the report of the Constitution Committee on the Bill in this respect. Paragraph 39 says:

“We are concerned about the desirability of introducing a Government-initiated strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission. The proposal will open up to risk the independence of the Commission … it would be dangerous if the perception were to emerge that the Commission is beholden to the Government for its operation and delivery.”

The weakness of the noble Baroness’s amendment, which I know is well intentioned, is that the statutory status of the statement remains and she creates a rather interesting situation, which I had not seen in legislative form before, in which the commission can carry out what the Government suggest if it already agrees with them, which would be a new kind of statutory position. The fact is that there would still be a statement that had some degree of statutory authority behind it.

Governments and governing parties can always criticise what the Electoral Commission says and does and have shown little hesitation about doing so over the years. There has never been a limit on the ability of the Conservative Party to say what it disagrees with in the Electoral Commission’s work. But to create a statutory process, even with the consultation involved, and produce from that a statement which explicitly or implicitly appears to bind the Electoral Commission is highly dangerous. I see that statement as addressing priorities of the commission. Is the commission spending too much time on political finance and donations? Is it spending too much time trying to register groups of people in this country? Should it spend more time trying to find more overseas voters? Such issues are not things on which we want to see the Electoral Commission steered by a statement that has any authority from statute. Let parties both in government and outside it continue to express their views and, indeed, their criticisms, but do not build into our statutory system that kind of statement.

Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench

My Lords, I put my name to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, which my noble and learned friend Lord Judge will move this afternoon. As I may not be able—depending on the progress of business—to speak then, it may be for the convenience of the Committee if I make a very short intervention now.

I spent last night reading the illustrative example of a strategy and policy document issued by the Government in September. This document is no doubt designed to reassure but we are left with the question of how much further this clause gives an opportunity to a Government to go in regulating the activities of the commission. That is the subject that should worry us.

The question that I have upmost in my mind is: why have the Government felt it necessary to take this power? The answer may be the one that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, gave; they feel that the Electoral Commission did not behave properly on the Brexit debate. It will be interesting if the Minister explains that that is the reason. But even if the Electoral Commission fell short of what was expected of it at that time, the right way to deal with that is not by the Government taking powers to direct it. That is why these clauses are very worrying and I hope they will be omitted from the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 12:30 pm, 10th March 2022

My Lords, the processes of your Lordships’ House are enclosed in layers of impenetrable language, punctuated by archaic ritual and layered in complex paperwork that can confuse even the veterans among us. For International Women’s Day I have been exhorting the young people of Britain, particularly young girls, to watch the House of Lords—with some trepidation because it is not easy to understand if you just switch on Lords TV.

Many noble Lords will have noticed, in the great increase in our piles of letters and emails in our inboxes, that the House of Lords is—this is responding particularly to the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox—a place where democracy is being defended. Several noble Lords have said, “Oh well, we don’t have to worry about this Government having the power of control over the Electoral Commission; it’s some other putative Government we are concerned about.” However, when I look at the police Bill, the judicial review Bill, the Nationality and Borders Bill and many others, and I look at my postbag of people saying they are concerned, I know that the public are asking us to represent them, and we have to worry about this Government as well as any potential future Government.

As a further piece of evidence, noble Lords may have seen, a week or so back, the Democracy Defence Coalition’s giant van and billboard parked—deliberately—outside Millbank House, where many of us have offices. That organisation represents hundreds of thousands of people who are concerned about this Bill. The top line in their list was concern about the independence of the Electoral Commission, which is what these amendments seek to address—particularly Amendment 4A.

Coming to the detail of this, I entirely understand the impulse from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, to try to put some controls and limits in. But the only way forward is to get these clauses out of the Bill. More than that, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others, that this Bill is an absolute mess. As others have said, the number of government amendments makes that very clear. We must not be proceeding with this Bill as an absolute minimum at the moment.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for tabling these amendments and setting an example for all of us in Committee to present our amendments with such brevity in such a concise nature. I declare my interests in the register which are relevant to this Bill.

The noble Baroness’s amendments do their utmost—if these two clauses are to remain part of the Bill—to keep the Electoral Commission as independent as possible from government interference. It might be worth looking at a dictionary definition of independence. It is: the ability to go about one’s business without being helped, hindered or influenced by others. The Minister may say that this is trying to help the Electoral Commission. Independence means that you stay out of the function of that commission.

In response to the noble Baronesses, Lady Noakes and Lady Fox, we have to be very clear what the amendments are trying to omit. The role of the Electoral Commission is not to carry out the priorities of the Government. Yet we see in new Section 4A(2)(b):

“The statement is a statement prepared by the Secretary of State”— a Cabinet Minister—

“that sets out … the role and responsibilities of the Commission in enabling Her Majesty’s government to meet those priorities.”

The role of the Electoral Commission is not to meet the priorities of Her Majesty’s Government, it is to ensure free and fair elections for all parties—not at the behest of one political party. That is why these amendments, if the clauses stand part of the Bill, are important.

At Second Reading I said to the Minister that when the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and I are together, there must be fundamental flaws in the Bill. With what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has just said, I feel like calling him my noble friend on this particular issue. His powerful words—as upsetting as they are to some noble Lords—are absolutely correct. At this time, when people are fighting for the basics of freedom and democracy, it is wrong that we are having to debate a Bill which tries to put the Electoral Commission’s strategy and priorities in alignment with those of Her Majesty’s Government—a political party. Those are not the free and fair elections which are the basis of a strong, functioning democracy.

It is for those reasons that if at a later stage your Lordships decide to see Clauses 14 and 15 stand part of the Bill, these amendments at least try to bring back a semblance of independence and take away the role of government. That is why these Benches support the noble Baroness’s amendments as drafted.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and we agree with everything he has just said. This is the beginning of our debates on the Elections Bill, so I start by thanking the Minister and his officials for taking the time to meet me and my colleagues to go through some of our concerns.

I turn to the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher—again, it is unusual to find such brevity in an introduction—which draw attention to the link between the Electoral Commission and the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, gave a very clear overview of how the Electoral Commission came into being. He also talked about some of the comments from the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Our concern is with Part 3 of the Bill, and Clause 14 in particular. We believe it represents a deeply worrying step for our democracy. The Minister and his Government might like to think that it is their party in government today, but legislation is for future Governments. This could be for other parties, including parties not represented in this Chamber. It is not for any Government to dictate the priorities of an independent watchdog, yet these proposals, as we have heard, allow the Government of the day to set the agenda of the Electoral Commission.

The Electoral Commission regulates the elections in which Governments are elected. It is very important that the Electoral Commission has independence from the Government of the day. The existence of an independent regulator is fundamental to maintaining confidence in our electoral systems and, therefore, in our democracy.

That is particularly important when the laws that govern elections are made by a small subset of the parties that stand in elections. Many parties that stand in elections in our country do not have Members of Parliament, and much of the legislation here will be done as secondary legislation, so the commission’s independence needs to be clear for voters and campaigners to see. It must be viewed as fair and impartial. As we have heard, no organisation has given these proposals its full support.

The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, referred to the consultation around the statement, but I have to say that consultation on these proposals so far does not exactly fill me with confidence. If the Committee will bear with me, I will just refer to the Government’s response to PACAC’s fifth report around consultation. In the report, the committee

“urges the Government to provide guidance, as a matter of urgency, on the proposed consultation mechanisms, which should be agreed with the list of statutory consultees in advance of publication.”

The Government’s response says:

“The consultation mechanism for the designation of the Strategy and Policy Statement is already outlined in detail in new sections … Those statutory consultees are: the Electoral Commission, the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.”

But parliamentary consequences of the recent machinery of government changes, whereby ministerial responsibilities for elections now sit with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, will mean that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee may need to be replaced with the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee as a statutory consultee on the statement. Considering that PACAC was one of the organisations most critical of the Bill in its response, I find it very concerning that it is being threatened with removal. I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s justifications for that.

Furthermore, in the response:

“The Government notes the Committee’s suggestion to set minimum timeframes for consultation but considers it would be disproportionate and unnecessarily burdensome.”

Again, I ask the Minister why. Consultation used to be my profession; I was an associate at the Consultation Institute. We lay out best practice for consultation and that is not best practice.

The Minister has previously said that it is important that we have independent regulation so that the public can have confidence in our elections. But the implication of this is that we do not currently have independent or impartial regulation of elections. It implies that somehow the Electoral Commission, as currently constituted, is fundamentally flawed and failing in its duty. That is a substantial claim, and I have seen no evidence for it.

My noble friend Lord Foulkes talked about the importance of good governance and how the proposals in this Bill completely undermine that. He also talked about how we monitor elections in other countries and how on earth we will continue to be taken seriously in the future if we have basically kneecapped our own Electoral Commission and are bringing in many of the other measures in this Bill.

The Electoral Commission is already accountable to the House through the Speaker’s Committee. There are regular questions in the Chamber of the other place precisely to provide some of that accountability. The members of that committee scrutinise the operation of the commission, and there are also procedures at Holyrood and at the Senedd in Cymru to ensure the Electoral Commission self-accounts for its operations in those parts of the United Kingdom. These proposals threaten to end the commission’s independence and put control of how elections are run in the hands of those who have won them, which cannot be right. These look like the actions of a Government who fear scrutiny, and I suggest we have seen that in other legislation in recent times. I ask the Minister: under the current proposals in the Bill, will Parliament be able to amend the statement?

The government response to the PACAC report says:

“Further, to support parliamentary scrutiny during those debates, the Government also provided an illustrative example of the Strategy and Policy Statement which parliamentarians will be able to use to supplement their views.”

We have heard what that looks like from other Members so, again, I ask the Minister exactly how that is supposed to replace the current system and provide sufficient scrutiny going forward.

Elected representatives have an active and vested interest in the regulation of elections, even more so for a Government who have been elected and want to remain in power. It is not right that such a Government can direct the body that oversees what is supposed to be an impartial process. A country where the Electoral Commission is told what to do by the Executive is not a country with free or fair elections. The regulator has to be independent and impartial and must not be subject to political control. I say to the Minister that that message has come across from the majority of noble Lords who have spoken so far today.

We completely understand the aims of the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and why she is trying to make an appalling situation better and, as the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, said, “pull it back from the brink.” But we agree very strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that it is grotesque while people are dying for democracy and that the most honourable thing to do is to delete these clauses from the Bill. Our position is that they should not stand part of the Bill and should be removed. I look forward to the debate on this, which we will come to later today.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 12:45 pm, 10th March 2022

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness opposite for her kind remarks at the outset, and make clear that I have been privileged by and welcomed the discussions I have had with her and other noble Lords in the passage of this legislation so far. I give an assurance to the House that I will always be open for those discussions. We may not agree, but I am concerned to hear the opinions and seek to address the concerns of noble Lords on all sides. I may not be able to succeed, the Government may not be able to succeed, but that is the spirit in which we should go forward.

I hope the one thing we might agree on is our revulsion and scorn—and hatred, actually, which is a word I do not use often—for the activities of the Russian Government and army in Ukraine. But I beg that the enormity of what is happening there should not be adduced as an argument in questions of judgment about the degree of our regulation of electoral amendments, which this amendment before the Committee is about. I do not believe it is comparing like with like. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. She seemed a little surprised, but I thank her for putting these amendments before the Committee.

I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, was in his place and rose swiftly to read a 13-minute speech on these amendments to the House. Perhaps, he was not as surprised as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, by the events which occurred.

I did not intervene in the debate because the glory of this House is that it is a free House; it is the master of its own procedures and its own way of going forward. The group of amendments we have just discussed has nothing to do with excising Clauses 14 and 15. There is no amendment to Clause 14, and the noble Baroness suggests leaving out two lines and adding a couple of points to Clause 14. On the Order Paper, we have a clause stand part on Clauses 14 and 15. The appropriate procedure, I venture to suggest, with the greatest respect to your Lordships’ House—protecting and arguing for your right and freedom of procedure, which I, as a Member of this House, regard as one of its glories—is that we should address in Committee points that are before the House in Committee.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

No, I said that what was before the House was not a clause stand part debate. I will address the amendment before the House. The proposal to excise Clauses 14 and 15 comes later today, in the sixth group, in your Lordships’ House. The noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, actually said—

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour

My Lords, I am doing my best, on the basis of only 20 years’ experience in this House, to follow the Minister. Is he saying that he is going to try to improve a clause in Committee, when later we are going to have an opportunity to choose whether to reject the clause as a whole? Of course, we must do both. I hope that it is rejected eventually but in the meantime, the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, goes some way to mitigating its worst features.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

No, I am not saying that in the slightest. I will address the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, because that is the proper thing to do in Committee. All I respectfully submit to your Lordships is that, if there is a clause stand part amendment—the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, made a clause stand part speech because, as he explained, he is not going to be here later—then the appropriate place for it is probably within that debate. The noble Lord—

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

Following on from my noble friend, I have only been in this House for 16 years, so I am a relative newcomer compared with some Members, but I have sat through lots of Committee stages. I say this with great respect to the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, as she is a former Speaker: in the first debate in a Committee, I have often seen Members take the opportunity to speak more widely than the specific amendment. I do not think that either Back-Benchers or, particularly, the Front Bench should object to that.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

No, and the noble Lord, for whom I have the greatest affection, is never slow in coming forward in such debates. Indeed, he used the amendment to say that the whole Bill should be thrown out, not just these two clauses. I assume that he includes in that tackling postal vote fraud, clarifying law on digital campaigning, protecting voters against intimidation and various other things in this legislation. Do I infer that the noble Lord, as he said in his speech, would like to throw the whole Bill out?

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

I look forward to the evidence being put forward about postal vote fraud. I have certainly not seen a lot of it around where I vote; I have not seen any intimidation at all. Anyway, these things could be dealt with in different ways.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Okay, I take that as a yes: that the noble Lord would like to reject the whole Bill. I will be interested to see in Committee if that is the position of the Labour Party.

As I said, I make no objection to the free procedures of the House—

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I slightly object to that, because the Minister is extending a response to one point to a general point. He was able to read the Second Reading speeches of all noble Lords, including mine and that of my noble friend, which made our position on postal votes and on intimidation absolutely clear. For the record, I hope that he will understand what the Labour Party’s position is.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful for that, and I do know that that is the Labour Party position. I was pointing out that the noble Lord sat at the back might not actually have the support of the Labour Party on his proposition to throw the whole Bill out.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

I agree completely with what my noble friend has just said. I was saying that there are different ways of dealing with this, rather than in this huge omnibus Bill which deals with so many things and does not allow us to scrutinise matters such as postal votes, fraud and intimidation. These should be dealt with properly, and given the time needed to consider them properly, rather than in this mammoth compendium of a Bill.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I anticipate that we will discuss all those things. I intend, if nature allows, to be present for every hour of Committee on this Bill and every hour on Report, and to give full attention and respect to everything your Lordships say. Perhaps I could get on with the amendments before the House—

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

I point out to the Minister that he has just spent 10 minutes doing exactly what he has told noble Lords not to do. Now that we are in Committee, will he come to the substance of these amendments?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I would have done so slightly quicker if the noble Lord had not intervened.

The suggestion before the House, which I will deal with later, is that the Government are attempting to interfere with the operational independence of the Electoral Commission. We contend that that is a mischaracterisation, and I will deal with that at the appropriate time. Reference has been made in the debate to the illustrative statement the Government have published for the Election Commission, which we will discuss later. I hope that all noble Lords will have a look at it. It states:

“This Statement does not seek to interfere with the governance of the Commission, nor does it seek to direct specific investigative or enforcement decisions of the Electoral Commission. This Statement does not affect the ability of the Commission to undertake enforcement activity as they see fit”.

The Government are not seeking to direct, as has been submitted, the Electoral Commission. Amendment 4A seeks to amend Clause 14 so that the commission only has to consider following the guidance in the strategy and policy statement if the commission considers that the guidance aligns with its own objectives. As I have set out, the duty on the commission to have regard to the statement on the discharge of its functions contained in Clause 15 is not a directive; it simply asks the commission to consider the guidance. This protects the operational independence of the commission and means that the amendment is unnecessary.

Amendment A1 would remove the provision for the strategy and policy statement to be able to set out the role and responsibilities of the commission in enabling Her Majesty’s Government to meet their priorities in relation to elections, referendums and other matters in respect of which the commission has functions. First, on a technical note, this amendment would not limit the scope of the strategy and policy statement, as intended, as the clause would still provide for the statement to set out guidance relating to particular matters in respect of which the commission has functions. Secondly—and we will debate this later—it is entirely right that the Government should include within the statement the role and responsibilities of the commission in enabling the Government to meet their priorities in relation to elections.

For any Member who has not already seen the illustrative strategy, I say again that I hope noble Lords will review the document, and that many will find it to some degree reassuring—to the use the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Butler—and hard to disagree with the content. However, I will listen to the comments on that, as on anything else. The statement sets out the Government’s expectation that the commission should tackle voter fraud, improve accessibility of elections and increase participation. I hope we can all agree that these are important aims that it would be wholly appropriate for an electoral regulator to support. For these reasons, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, we will come to that document later. The specific recommendations taken up in these proposals were those of the Pickles committee in 2015.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 1:00 pm, 10th March 2022

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response to this excellent debate. I did table these amendments but did not ask for them to be degrouped. It never occurred to me that they might be degrouped, hence I was a little ill-prepared this morning: I was expecting to deal with them in about six hours’ time. I am incredibly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, for picking up the pieces of my confusion and making an outstanding contribution. The clerk has said I could make a few comments at this point—a very few—but I have barely recovered from the incredible response of the Committee to my confusion. Noble Lords have been courteous, amusing, gentle and kind, and I am enormously grateful, I really am.

Let me just explain why I tabled these amendments, despite the fact I feel passionately that Clauses 14 and 15 should not stand part of the Bill and be removed. I worked in Russia at the beginning of the 1990s; I watched President Yeltsin trying to create democracy in Russia and have watched it disappearing. We need to treasure our democracy and these clauses, in my view, will drive a wedge between democracy and a bit of reality in our political process. I completely agree that Clauses 14 and 15 should not stand part of the Bill, but I tabled these amendments to make the point that it is crucial that the Electoral Commission is free and independent to do what it believes is right and proper for it to do.

The suggestion was made from the Conservative Benches that, “Oh, no, it’s fine; these amendments are completely unnecessary because all the commission has to do is to ‘have regard to’ the will, the policy and the strategy of the Government.” But I have worked in these public bodies and am very aware of people asking, “Do we have to have regard to the Government or not?” This is vital, because if these clauses go through and these amendments do not pass, then the chair and the CEO of the Electoral Commission will be very anxious—believe me, having been there—to comply with the will, policy and strategy of the Government. That is the whole point: the commission must be independent, feel independent and act independently. These amendments are necessary unless the ideal situation emerges where the clauses are removed from the Bill. With all that said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment A1 withdrawn.