Moved by Lord Collins of Highbury
3: Clause 14, page 21, line 15, at end insert—“(5) This section expires at the end of the period of 12 months beginning with the day on which the Elections Act 2022 is passed.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would prevent a strategy and policy statement more than 12 months after this Act is passed.
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Hayman, I will speak to this amendment while she searches for her glasses.
These are classic Committee amendments in which we try to probe exactly what lies behind these clauses and in particular the clause that we do not agree with that we debated earlier. It is important to address the question that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, asked: what is the question to which this clause gives an answer? It is not clear, and I hope that we can address that with this amendment and the series in the following group to try to elicit some answers.
I was intrigued by the explanation of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that the statement is about the political environment that the commission operates in. That can change rapidly, not least the closer we get to a general election. Now that we do not have fixed-term Parliaments—not that that really determined when a general election could be held—it is not clear what timetable would be involved in this requirement to produce a statement, which the commission “must” take cognisance of. Let us have some answers from the Minister.
I will repeat the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Butler: what are we trying to solve here? What is the commission not doing that the Government think it should be doing at the moment? It is not clear. I have not heard a single criticism about the failure of the commission to carry out its statutory functions. I have heard political criticisms. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, is fortunately not in her place so I will say what I want to say. I am prepared to accept that Parliament agreed to a referendum, and Parliament will abide by the result of that referendum and the Government do so, but I am not in favour of referendums. I am in favour of parliamentary democracy. I know who used referendums a lot: Hitler used referendums to store up his power, and so does Putin. It is important to understand what we are talking about here, which is a body that oversees statutory functions in the conduct of elections.
Therefore, with these probing amendments we are seeking to know—despite the detail of what the clause says—how frequently the Minister thinks these statements will be issued. When will the first be issued? Will it be six months before the next general election? Could it disrupt the way that people, political parties and civil society react to the general election? Let us hear it. How often does the Minister think this should be reviewed? The Bill says that this is something we should expect every five years and that it will fall into the cycle of elections, but our political environment is not as stable as that, so there may be other issues that prompt this. I would like some answers to those questions.
Also, what is the Minister’s expectation for how long it will take to produce the statement and the requirement for consultation? What does he expect between the start of the process and its end? What does he think the implications will be not only for the Electoral Commission but for the political process itself and the way political parties operate? It is really important that we get some answers to those questions.
I turn back to the point the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, raised. I have been intimately involved with the Electoral Commission, certainly for the three-year period I was general secretary of the Labour Party. One of the innovations I thought was really good was that the Electoral Commission has the experience of people with quite detailed knowledge of the electoral process. It has members who are aware of the way political parties operate. It is not working in isolation; it has that experience.
One of my roles was to nominate somebody to the commission. It has a Member of this House, the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, who is a friend of mine. Even though we are in opposite parties, we have collaborated in better understanding the rules and regulations that operate on political parties. Sadly, the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, cannot be here this afternoon but I think all members of the Electoral Commission, even though they are nominated—some of them by political parties—take their responsibilities and independence very seriously. I think if he were here the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, would explain that that was why he did not sign the letter from the Electoral Commission; he is a Member of this House, and it would perhaps have been inappropriate. But that does not stop him taking his responsibilities on the Electoral Commission seriously.
I do not get it; I really do not get what this is all about. What are the Government trying to correct or do? There are mechanisms now, as we heard in the previous debate, about accountability, the Speaker’s Conference and representations. Of course, just as importantly, political parties nominate to the commission—not just the Conservative Party or the Labour Party, but the Lib Dems and the Scottish nationalists have representation on that body. It is independent representation, but they take their statutory responsibilities seriously.
Let us get some answers if we can, not only to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, but also to when the first statement will be produced. How long will it take? How close will it be to the next general election? What impact will such a statement have on the conduct of that general election? These are vital questions, irrespective of a future debate on whether the clause stands part. We need answers to these questions because they will determine our attitude to whole aspects of this Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, has ranged rather more widely than the contents of the two amendments in this group, but I respect that Committee is an opportunity for probing detailed aspects. I want to speak only to the second amendment about the length of time you would normally expect a statement to exist.
We have to see these as strategic statements; they are about strategies and policies. Too short a timeframe simply would not work. The presumption in the Bill is five years, which is a reasonable medium-term timeframe for giving some stability, with the option for reviews earlier on various grounds listed in the Bill. I support the general concept of five years being a good starting point, recognising that there can be occasions when this has to be revised. But they should not be picked up and looked at every year or in the run-up to an election, because they should be dealing with issues that have a longer duration.
Can I just ask the noble Baroness a question? If she looks back over the last 20 years, or even over the period of the Electoral Commission’s existence, what have the gaps between general elections been?
I do not think that is a relevant question because I do not believe the statement is going to be used to try to fine-tune what is done in relation to any particular election. It will be about more strategic things like getting more participation from certain groups in the democratic process and those sorts of issues.
I am sorry to interrupt but I think this is an important dialogue to have. We bandy around the words, “strategy” and “long-term strategy” but what we have not had from the Government—though the noble Baroness has attempted to give us an answer—is the answer to: what is behind this clause on this statement? Why do we need this statement?
I agree with the noble Baroness that one of the important things, and what this Bill should be about, is how we increase participation. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, is unfortunately not here, but this Bill should be about what we do to increase participation in our democratic process. How do we ensure that more people are able to participate and what do we do to take down the barriers that inhibit participation? If the noble Baroness is saying that this statement will be about that, why are those things not in the Bill?
I am going to let my noble friend the Minister answer all this in detail because I am not a government spokesman on this. I was merely offering my opinion on the timeframe. When we get to the stand part debate, I am going to offer some other opinions about why these statements are useful in the context of regulators.
My concern is to see that these statements are strategic in nature and that means not short term in nature. They should be seen in that context. The timeframe of five years is fine for that, but I am going to leave my noble friend the Minister to respond in more detail to the broader questions that the noble Lord has asked.
My Lords, these amendments may lead to some mitigation of the effects of the Government taking control of the strategy and policy of the Electoral Commission if the Bill is passed in its present form. If Clauses 14 and 15 are not taken out of the Bill, as they should be, we can still limit some of the damage by preventing the party in power continually changing the statement in accordance with its own interests.
Amendment 3 would not allow a new statement 12 months after the Act is passed, while Amendment 13 tests how often the Government might seek to change such a statement. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, pointed out, the amendments probe the Government’s intention in relation to the timings and processes of the proposed strategy and policy statement to which the Electoral Commission will be subject. The governing party appears to want to emasculate the role of the independent watchdog.
I look forward to a detailed explanation of when the Government intend issuing the first policy and strategy directive to the commission. We want to know how often these may be issued and what may be the basis of revising them. Is it possible that the Government will change the role and purpose of the commission prior to the next general election? If not, why is the plan for a statement, or what might be more properly called a directive, in the Bill in the first place? As my noble friend Lord Stunell asked, would noble Lords on the Government Benches be happy with such provisions if they were to find themselves on the Opposition Benches? That is a question to which we have yet to hear an answer.
In considering the policy and strategy statement to be written by the Secretary of State, telling the Electoral Commission what it may and may not do, will the Minister tell the Committee which political parties and which organisations have supported this principle and which have opposed it? As far as I can tell, support comes from only one party. All the independent organisations concerned with the health of our democracy have opposed there being such a statement.
My Lords, since the Minister will no doubt address the question that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised, perhaps I may just add a supplementary. In addition to asking what problem Clauses 14 and 15 address, why is a strategy and policy statement thought the necessary solution to it?
“In recent years, some across the House have lost confidence in the work of the Commission”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17/6/21; col. 11WS.]
Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether that is the view of some across the House of Commons or of the Government? Is this change about an issue of confidence or is it something different?
My Lords, it is interesting to follow the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who says that this is a strategic statement that is there for five years and not for revision. If we look at page 24 of the Bill, new Section 4E says that there is a power to revise the statement and that the Secretary of State may revise the statement at any time. It goes on further to say that:
“The power under subsection (1) may be exercised … on the Secretary of State’s own initiative”.
If this is a strategic statement, it then goes on to say about revision on page 25 under new Section 4E(4):
“The Secretary of State may determine in a particular case that section 4C(2) (consultation requirements) does not apply in relation to the revised statement.”
The view of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is that this is a five-year strategy where the Secretary of State does not want to intervene because it is about the long-term view of the commission. But the Secretary of State can solely decide that not only are they going to revise but that no consultation is needed. May I ask the Minister under what circumstances and for what purpose would the Secretary of State wish to revise the strategy and policy statement? Under what circumstances would the Secretary of State deem it inappropriate to consult on the new statement, particularly if we follow the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that this is a strategic view where the Secretary of State does not need to get involved on day-to-day issues because the strategic direction is set for five years? Why have the revision policy and, particularly, why can the Secretary of State determine alone to change the statement without consultation?
My Lords, if I may respond to that, I was careful to say that it a broad presumption of five years and that the Bill allows for other opportunities, which I am sure my noble friend the Minister will explain. The noble Lord failed to deal with the fact that the revision can be considered at the request of the commission as well—it is not just a one-way street—and that is provided for in new Section 4E.
If noble Lords will allow me, the point I was raising was the basis on which the noble Baroness said that it was a strategic five-year statement and therefore the noble Lord, Lord Collins, had got the concept wrong. If it is a five-year statement that gives a long-term vision for the commission, the Secretary of State should not have sole power to revise without consultation. That is the point that I was making. It is in the Bill.
My Lords, on consultation, may I just come back to the Government’s response to the committee’s fifth report, which I read out earlier? They said that suggestions to set minimum timeframes for consultation were disproportionate and unnecessarily burdensome. This is just not good practice. We must have proper consultation when we are looking at anything that changes our governance procedures.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord opposite for tabling these amendments. Let me say that it is entirely proper, legitimate and normal to table probing amendments. There is a limit to which probes will get answers because I am not going to be led into hypothetical sets of circumstances.
We all know that electoral law and practice evolves over time and things happen that are inconceivable at the time we may happen to legislate. Who would have conceived, for example, of the practices seen in Tower Hamlets in those local elections? We have collectively—I think there will be agreement across the House on this—moved to adapt the law and our practices and to respond to change. It is reasonable that there should be some flexibility. I do not wish to get into a detailed challenge—
I was intimately involved in Tower Hamlets. I was general secretary and suspended the mayor from membership of the party at the time. Can the Minister answer the specific question? The law at the time dealt with abuses in Tower Hamlets; in what way will this statement address any inadequacies? I am not even sure that there were inadequacies in the law because it was able to address the problems in Tower Hamlets.
My Lords, I hope the statement and some of the things that the Government suggest might be in it will be considered unexceptionable when we come to it. I hope people will examine it. I was venturing some response to the question of why anyone should consider that anything needed to be said to the Electoral Commission. I was about to preface it—before the noble Lord quite reasonably got up—by saying that I did not want to get into any kind of generalised criticism of the Electoral Commission because one respects its independence and its role.
Since I have mentioned Tower Hamlets, this was a case where the Electoral Commission did not act in a particularly appropriate way. It did not check that the Tower Hamlets First party even had a bank account. It did nothing to tackle the activities of the corrupt mayor. Election judge Mawrey noted in the Tower Hamlets case:
“It can be said that because the Commission rubber-stamped the application for registration it may be inferred that the Commission was satisfied. All one may say, with the greatest of respect for the Commission, that the enquiries into the structures of”—
Tower Hamlets First—
“cannot have been excessively rigorous.”
The election judge was critical in that case.
I am sure that the Electoral Commission has learned lessons from that, and one would hope that this would be the case, and I do not make any imputation or reference to existing members of the Electoral Commission. The Committee on Standards in Public Life said in its report,
“In the course of gathering evidence”— and this is not me or the Government, this is the committee—
“we heard some affecting personal stories of a small number of MPs and campaigners who have been regulated by the Electoral Commission. Their experiences were clearly extremely difficult
We may have differences about how we should proceed in a set of circumstances but, if I am asked if there is any evidence that in the past perhaps not everything was perfect in that world—well, I have just given two examples that are not from the Government. One is from a judge, and the other is from the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
May I interrupt again? The Minister jumps from the specific to the general and keeps saying that this statement is going to be innocuous. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, says it is going to be about five-year plans and longer-term strategies, and then the Minister talks about specific illegal acts and the failure to address some of them. We are jumping around. If there are problems—and this is why I jumped up before—particularly on postal votes, let us put in laws to address them. But we are not talking about new laws and new regulations; we are talking about how the Electoral Commission operates within its statutory functions, and the Government now want to interfere in that. This is the issue that concerns everyone. The Minister jumps from broad, innocuous strategy to specific regulation—very dangerous.
I appreciate the Minister giving way. I hope that his response will include a little more about what the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended as the solution to the problem that the Minister quite rightly drew to our attention, because the solution recommended by the committee to the Government is not included in the Bill, and the solution brought forward by the Government is condemned by the committee.
I was answering the question I was asked in Committee; I was asked in a supplementary question, and then in another, to give an example of where there has been a complaint about the Electoral Commission, so I tried to serve the Committee by giving two answers. Perhaps that was ill-advised, but I am happy for them to stand on the record. I did say that we would be discussing on this legislation what the appropriate response is. We think that the measures that the Government have put forward, and we will debate this shortly, are proportionate and reasonable, and they are not a direction. When we see what is contained therein, they neither constrain the role of the Electoral Commission, nor direct it.
The Government oppose these amendments. Amendment 3 proposes that the power to designate a statement expires after 12 months of the Act being passed. It is unclear if the intention is that the initial statement should be designated within 12 months or that no statement should be enforced after 12 months. If the limitation is intended to attach to the initial statement, the Government’s view would be that it would add unnecessary pressure to the timetable and could curtail the amount of time afforded to the consultation.
I cannot anticipate the length for production—I was asked that, and I do not think I can respond in writing on this, because it is provisional, in a sense. Parliament has to agree the concept first, then the consultation has to proceed. It does say within the Bill that, in a subsequent review, the review period would be nine months; that is what is envisaged in the case of a review, but in saying that I am not making any commitment on progress, should Parliament agree to these procedures. I am not in a position to do so. If the statement, as drafted, prevents any further statement or revision beyond the initial 12-month period, we could not accept that, because we believe that it is important that, subsequent to any additional statement that Parliament may agree, the Government of the day and the Secretary of State should have the power to make changes and to review to ensure that it remains up to date with any emerging concerns.
In relation to the amendment that proposes the requirement for a new strategy and policy statement every two years rather than at least every five years, it is our view that this is unnecessary. In any case, some of the contributions in this debate have expressed concern that there should be too regular a review. It is the Government’s view that the requirement to review the statement at least every five years mirrors the Electoral Commission’s statutory duty, which is to produce a five-year corporate plan, so it seems a logical congruence. In any event, as noble Lords have said, the Secretary of State is able to propose revisions more regularly if that is deemed necessary. As to why, it provides flexibility on the timeline for amending a statement should it be required, perhaps by unforeseen concerns, while providing a five-year minimum review threshold.
For the reasons I have set out above, I urge that the amendments be withdrawn.
Before the noble Lord sits down, I wish to say that one of the issues that I raised, and why these probing amendments are there, is to ask not only how quickly and regularly the report will be produced, but what the implications are of a report being produced very close to a general election. Does the Minister think that there are any implications to that, and that it may impact on the political process, particularly how political parties operate?
When one looks at the areas which are covered in the indicative proposals, I do not think that there are things that would seriously affect the conduct of elections. The Government submit that these are matters which, in the current circumstances, would be of ongoing importance—improving accessibility, increasing participation, combatting foreign interference in UK elections and improving transparency.
Just on that last point—I keep interrupting, but this is Committee and I think it is important that we get clear answers—if a strategy paper said it is okay to take money from Russian donors, would that not have an implication for a general election? Would it not impact on certain political parties? Maybe even look at its reverse: perhaps certain money from trade unions should not be accepted. The funding of political parties is a critical issue and, if it is in this indicative statement, it will have huge implications for a general election.
The permissibility of donations is a matter of the law of the land, and we will be considering the law on political donations later. As the noble Lord will see, the issue is publishing clear and easily accessible information about spending and donations, which is a job done by the Electoral Commission, but it would probably be prudent to look at foreign interference at this time. I think that would be supported across the House. I give you that as an illustrative example.
Before the Minister sits down, I must press him further to answer the two questions that I asked. First, this is a strategic document: what would a Minister require, on his or her own initiative, to change a strategy? Because a strategy is there for the long term. It is not about day-to-day issues. Regardless of what happens, you keep to your strategy—that is one of the key issues of leadership. Could the Minister give the Committee examples of something, rather than general “unforeseen circumstances”, that might happen that would require a Minister to intervene to change a strategy?
Secondly, the Minister did not answer my question about why they would wish to do that under new Section 4E(4) without any consultation.
My Lords, the Government are setting out a structure in which there would be a regular review. As I outlined, I am not in a position to answer hypothetical questions about a future that might arise. I did say that things have arisen that require a response, and which I am hoping to persuade Parliament in the course of this Bill, following the Pickles report, that we should respond to. Such things might occur in the future, but the structure and timing the Government are setting out are those set out in the Bill. I am not going to be led into hypothetical consideration of what might or might not happen in the future.
My Lords, I am sure that any Government’s preferred position would be to consult, but the Government believe there is a need for a contingent power here. If noble Lords object to that, no doubt they will lay down amendments.
My Lords, this has been an extremely useful exercise. Rather than answers, we have more questions, which I think we will pursue in later debates in terms of not only clause stand part, but some of the other elements of the Bill we need to address. Certainly, if we end up on Report with this clause still in place, we will need to come back with strict and clear amendments, particularly on the fundamental issue of consultation. Despite a very useful debate, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.