Amendments 15 and 16

Elections Bill - Committee (1st Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 10th March 2022.

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Lord True:

Moved by Lord True

15: Clause 14, page 25, line 16, leave out “Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs” and insert “Levelling Up, Housing and Communities”Member’s explanatory statementSee the explanatory statement for the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 22, line 14.

16: Clause 14, page 25, leave out lines 17 to 22Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment is consequential on the amendments in Lord True’s name relating to the inserted section 4A of PPERA.

Amendments 15 and 16 agreed.

Debate on whether Clause 14 should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Judge Lord Judge Convenor of the Crossbench Peers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, regrets that he cannot be here to introduce this stand part notice. He has asked me to do so in his place. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, was here and was very anxious to speak in this debate, but he has had to apologise because if he had spoken, he would not have been able to listen to the whole debate.

We started this debate rather a long time ago. In one sense, all the rhetoric has been played on both sides. I am not necessarily going to be unable to use a little bit of rhetoric, but in answer to this wonderful exchange between the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about the problem and the answer, I suggest that the problem that is being faced, summarised in the way that the Minister put it, is a certain loss of confidence in the Electoral Commission’s ability to exercise its responsibilities. That may be wrong, but if it is right and that is the problem, I respectfully suggest that Clauses 14 and 15 of this Bill are emphatically not the answer to that problem. Once again, I am sorry to trespass on something which I rabbit on about in the Chamber, but we are vesting power in the Executive, and that is always dangerous.

These are matters which should be outside party politics. I recognise the difficulties of making this utterly immaculate, but how our elections are conducted and handled should, as far as possible, be clear of party-political pressures or Executive pressures, influence, control, or power. If they are subjected to any of those, they damage public confidence in how the Electoral Commission will work.

I need to go back to the founding principle, which I found in the 1998 report:

“An Election Commission in a democracy like ours could not function properly, or indeed at all, unless it were scrupulously impartial and believed to be so by everyone seriously involved and by the public at large.”

As a follow-up to that, the CSPL review of the Electoral Commission in 2007 said that

“any system … must … protect the Commission’s independence and impartiality from the possibility of undue influence for partisan political or electoral advantage.”

It is there that Clauses 14 and 15 fall down.

I shall go through the Bill to pick out one or two provisions. I suggest that every one of these provisions in Clauses 14 and 15 is dangerous in the sense that they increase the influence of the Government of the day over the Electoral Commission. It is no good just taking them as individual provisions; they need to be looked at as a package. Let us start with new Section 4A in Clause 14—if anyone is bothering to look, it is on page 20—dealing with the strategy and policy statement, which is a new idea. The clause says:

“The Secretary of State may designate a statement … prepared by the Secretary of State that sets out … strategic and policy priorities of Her Majesty’s government” in relation to elections. By definition, that highlights whose policies and priorities are going to be included. Then it sets out

“the role and responsibilities of the Commission in enabling Her Majesty’s government to meet” the Government’s own strategic and policy priorities. You do not need to look much further to see where undue influence is likely to be increased.

Then the Electoral Commission, which everyone agrees should be independent of government—I think that at Second Reading everyone eventually agreed with that—is required by statute to enable the Government to achieve their priorities as they relate to elections. I told the cynic in me last night, “Don’t say this”, but we have been waiting an awfully long time so I am going to say it anyway: I thought the priority of most Governments was to win elections. Still, I will not repeat that; it is cynical of me.

Let us look further. The Secretary of State can use the statement to issue guidance relating to other matters for which the Electoral Commission already has, or may in future have, statutory functions, whether by primary or secondary legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, is in his place, and he is not going to let the Government forget about the significance of the misuse, as I would describe it, of guidance. Using guidance as a power rather suggests that it would be extremely difficult for the new Electoral Commission working under these new arrangements simply to ignore the obligation to follow the guidance; the guidance will be there and the commission will be obliged to look at it. How lawful that would be if it went to a matter of judicial review, I will leave to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. We really need to look at those two terms together.

The suspicion about these clauses, a suspicion that has been ventilated around the House—although not the whole House—is due to the total absence of any formal or public consultation on the issue. If this were happening in another country that we thought was a democratic one, true to the principles of democracy and the wide franchise, we would be very worried about what was happening to our democratic friend.

We have spent a long time looking at new Section 4B in Clause 14. What is the obligation of the commission? It says:

The Commission must have regard to the statement when carrying out their functions”— that is, the Government’s prepared statement setting out their strategic and policy priorities. That is the only order that is made in the legislation. Sometimes we have legislation where the organisation or body, whatever it might be, is required to have regard to some statement or other or to some principle in the legislation, but it is rare—I do not say that it never happens because that is a word that I never use—for it to have no other responsibility. But this provision is all that the commission has to have regard to, in the express language of new Section 4B.

I underline that that provision is not one of a list of factors that the commission has to bear in mind. It does not identify any other factor to be taken into account. It does not provide a way out for the Electoral Commission to say, for example, “We’re not obliged to follow the statement, and we will not, because that would influence us into making a decision that we think would be electorally unfair. It is motivated by political advantage.” So that is a very stark responsibility. I rather enjoyed the observations by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, this morning about how the world really looks if you are in the position of someone who is “having regard to” government policy. The “must have regard to” is clear and unequivocal, and there is no room in the legislation for any other consideration being provided for. So we have “Her Majesty’s government” instead of “Parliament”, and no other consideration except the statement once it has been designated.

I now turn to one of the defences put up by the Minister: the consultation process. We heard a lot about the consultation process this afternoon. I will tell noble Lords what I think about it because there were times when I had to look at legislation that said the Lord Chief Justice will be consulted. It was completely valueless in terms of any action. The Secretary of State can consult. “Hello, my noble Lord, Lord Collins. What do you think of this Bill? You are very worried about it? I have taken a note of that, but I will now write it exactly the way I like it.” That is consultation. It would count as consultation and pass any judicial review as a proper form of consultation.

To look a little further, as a controlling element therefore of shielding the Electoral Commission, which is after all what we are supposed to be doing, why does everybody think a fig leaf is elegant? It is not elegant; it is transparent, and the sight is not a golden one. The obligation is to consult. There is no requirement for concurrence or agreement. Obviously, everyone can make non-binding suggestions, but they provide absolutely no form of protection for the Electoral Commission.

The Secretary of State has to consult and then decide what he or she thinks is necessary. That is not a protection for the Electoral Commission. It is a nice idea. It looks good and polite and British, but in terms of power, which is what we are discussing, it has no impact. I cannot help reminding the Committee—I said this at Second Reading—what PACAC had to say about this issue:

“We recommend that the Bill be amended to provide that the Electoral Commission is able to depart from the guidance set out in the Statement if it has a statutory duty to do so”— well obviously, but the committee adds—

“or if it reasonably believes it is justified in specific circumstances.”

And here is the rub:

“This amendment is necessary to give effect to the Government’s stated intention that the Statement will not amount to a power to direct the Electoral Commission, and to protect the Electoral Commission’s independence.”

Well, that is pretty stark. I wish I had thought of saying that myself but, as PACAC said it, I am very happy to adopt it as my own. We should note that it is ultimately a matter for the Secretary of State. That is new Section 4C.

We can omit new Section 4D, because that deals with the five-yearly review. New Section 4E, on which the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, has spent some time, is in many ways the most pernicious part of the whole Bill. It states:

“The Secretary of State may revise a statement designated”.

He can do it on his own initiative and if the commission requests it. It is a dispensing power, because new Section 4E(4) states:

“The Secretary of State may determine … that section 4C(2) (consultation requirements) does not apply in relation to the revised statement.”

In 1688, we kicked out the King. We got a new one, we got a new Queen, we got an Act of Settlement and Parliament was sovereign at last and nobody liked the disapplication or dispensing power.

But can we look a little further at this, at the Secretary of State’s “own initiative” without notice? The Secretary of State is not obliged to consult anybody. He “must give notice”—that is, after he has made up his mind—of what he proposes to do, and

“must consider any representations made by the Speaker’s Committee”.

That is even less than consultation; he “must consider any representations”. It is very strange, is it not?

I would say that the Speaker’s Committee is, in the House of Commons at any rate, the parliamentary body responsible for making sure that the electoral system is run fairly, properly and equally for all the political parties engaged in it. Yet the best it can do if there is a revised statement is to make representations which shall be considered. The committee can object—hurrah! If it objects, what then? At last, the Secretary of State has to give Parliament his reasons for determining what he has determined in his statement when he revises it. Do we think this is too much influence? Do we think this is clear and clean of any influence, any possibility of influence or any possibility of pressure? Of course we do not.

Finally, coming to Clause 15 on the examination of the duty to have regard to the strategy and policy statement:

“The Speaker’s Committee may examine the performance by the Commission of the Commission’s duty”— not how it is conducting its overall responsibilities, which would be fair enough, but how it is complying with its duty to have regard to the strategy and policy statement. That is rather serious, is it not?

We then turn to examine what the Speaker’s Committee has to do once it examines it. Does it tell the Electoral Commission, “You haven’t complied with paragraphs 9, 15 or 22”, to which it might say, “Well, yes, we haven’t, because we think that’s politically advantageous to the Government”, or to whoever it is. That will not do. Where in the Act of Parliament does it say that that is all right, acceptable and should be allowed? What we have instead is one of the safeguards for the independent commission in the consultation process disappearing when we come to the revision of the statement, which can take place at any time. I do not want to enter into a discussion—anybody else may—about whether it is five years, three years or nine months. Whenever it happens, this is the process. We have been assured—I have read assurances—that it will be done only for minor things of no real importance, but is that not the problem? Tomorrow it may be of no real importance, but five years down the line it may be of huge importance. We just do not know.

I have another problem, which I had not spotted when I got ready to speak at Second Reading, arising from what the Speaker’s Committee is doing when it examines the way in which the Electoral Commission has been exercising its responsibilities. I am not entering into a discussion—I could, but we could go on too long—about whether the Government of the day have a majority on the committee. Until this proposal came before us, it did not seem to me to matter very much. The Speaker chooses five Members of the House of Commons plus, of course, himself, and then there are three more people. Of those three, two are Ministers. The Government at the moment is a Conservative one; even if we did not have a single Conservative Member of the Commons who was not a Minister on the Speaker’s Committee—that would obviously not arise, but let us just assume it for a moment—two Conservative members of that committee would be there, examining the way in which the Electoral Commission had been carrying out government policy. The phrase “judge in their own cause” comes to mind, and that is not a healthy way for a democracy to work.

I respectfully suggest that these two clauses are potentially dangerous. On any view, they increase the influence of the Government of the day over the Electoral Commission and would damage the public confidence in the independence of the Electoral Commission. Both those considerations are vital, and so I beg to move.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour 4:15 pm, 10th March 2022

My Lords, I think the whole House is grateful to the noble and learned Lord for the forensic way in which he has taken these clauses and demolished their legitimacy. I sat through the entire Second Reading debate, and this was identified as one of the major issues in the Bill. I put it to the Government that to introduce these provisions is a terrible mistake to make. I have no idea what type of discussions within government led to this being part of the Bill. I find myself wondering whether I am going to have to wait for the Minister’s memoirs to discover that, privately and secretly, even he thought there were disadvantages to putting forward a proposal of this kind. Whatever you may think of it now, there will be different Governments in the future who may use this legislation in ways that we cannot predict and would not want.

It is rare for me, in the short time I have been here, to listen to a debate which could be encapsulated in a single speech, so I will sit down. I hope that the House realises what a mistake is being made and just thinks of the damage that will be done to our reputation as a democracy were these provisions to go through.

Photo of Lord Judge Lord Judge Convenor of the Crossbench Peers

With the indulgence of the House, when I was explaining about the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Wallace, I omitted a courtesy to the Minister for the meeting we had last week. I always appreciate those meetings and I am sorry I omitted that.

Photo of Lord Kerslake Lord Kerslake Crossbench

My Lords, it was a fantastic dissection of these clauses by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I lend my support to the argument and, had there been any spaces left, I would have added my name to those opposing the clauses. There is a right way of doing legislation relating to our democracy and a wrong way. The Bill, as I said at Second Reading, is definitively the wrong kind of approach. It should have been done with consensus, pre-legislative scrutiny and a much wider form of consultation than we saw.

I have real problems with these two clauses, both the way they have been brought forward and their content. I will deal first with the way in which they have been brought forward. We have heard a lot about the absence of wider consultation. What truly astonished me was what I heard from the Electoral Commission in its excellent briefing to Cross-Bench Peers yesterday. I asked the commission if it was consulted before the Government made their statement of including this in the Bill and the answer was “No”. It was not. It is quite extraordinary to bring forward something of such significance to the commission and not consult it or even inform it of your intention beforehand. That says a lot about the Government’s attitude towards the commission and how they will approach consultation in the future. It is an appalling lack of respect for a pivotal organisation in our democracy.

My second point is around the substance of this section of the Bill. The Government, to put it very directly, are substituting government control for parliamentary scrutiny. That is essentially what is happening with these two clauses. Of course, the Electoral Commission is not perfect. It will have made mistakes and will own up to having done so; it will make mistakes in the future, I am sure, but it is absolutely not resistant to being accountable. It will and does appear in front of Select Committees. As we have heard, it appears in front of the current committee that has been spoken about. The issue is not accountability—being able to hold it to account for what it does and challenge it. That is already in the current arrangements and if it needed to be strengthened, it could be.

This is an issue about control. Is the Government’s view the same as that held, apparently, by a number of Members of the House of Commons, who have lost confidence in the commission? If it is not that, what is it? What problem are we trying to solve here and why are we taking such significant control? The response from the Government is, “Look at the illustrative version of this: there is nothing to see here”. I am afraid that is just not good enough. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said, we need to look at what is on the face of the Bill. What does the Bill allow to happen in these circumstances? It is quite clear that, through the Bill, a much more difficult set of requirements could be put on the commission by way of its strategy and policy. We cannot take an illustrative version of this and be assured by it; it simply is not enough. We have to be sure that no version that would be difficult and problematic, and damaged its independence, could come forward under the legislation—and, quite clearly, it could.

We have had much debate about what is meant by “have regard to”, so I looked up a common definition. It says,

“to take account of this guidance and carefully consider it … there would need to be a good reason to justify not complying with it.”

That is what is in the dictionary for “have regard to”, and it is pretty onerous. For anybody who has worked, as we heard earlier, for an arm’s-length organisation, and I have been the chief executive of one, “have regard to” from a Government is a pretty strong expectation that you will follow and do as you are told. I have to be really blunt here: the only conclusion I can have about why this is coming forward is that it is to put the commission in its place and make it clear what the Government expect it to do and how they expect it to do it. That is a very serious and dangerous step forward.

Another defence that is put for these proposals is that we have this sort of provision for other regulators. That is a completely invalid argument. Other regulators are there to carry out the business of government, to execute and deliver government policy. It is perfectly in order that they have strategy and policy statements from the Government, because they are very clearly acting on behalf of the Government. They may have a certain independence but are there as agents of government. The Electoral Commission is not an agent of government—this is where I think the confusion has come in—but a body that acts on behalf of Parliament and our parliamentary democracy. That is the core difficulty I have with what is in the Bill.

If I had any doubts about the issue, if I thought I might be overreading it, I invite colleagues to read again the letter that came from the commissioners. I shall just read out one paragraph:

“It is our firm and shared view that the introduction of a Strategy and Policy statement—enabling the Government to guide the work of the Commission—is inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a healthy democracy. This independence is fundamental to maintaining confidence and legitimacy in our electoral system.”

Those are extraordinary words from all bar one of the commissioners, and I suspect the one who did not sign it probably had very similar views—I do not know because I cannot ask him. The key point is that having a statement as strong as that from the Electoral Commission, the body we are looking to introduce this for, ought to settle the argument. We ought to say, “If that’s how they feel about this, there must be a serious and real issue that needs to be addressed here”. I do not think I have ever read, in my entire public life, something as strong as that from a body such as the Electoral Commission. For that reason alone, we need to throw out these clauses.

PACAC has said the same thing. Indeed, it said it had not had any representations in support of these clauses—nothing at all. There were plenty who were concerned about it, and I am sure every other noble Lord’s mailbox is like mine, stuffed with correspondence from people who are really concerned about this. If we are serious about the concerns of maintaining the integrity of the democracy we have and the integrity of the Electoral Commission, we should support the proposal and throw out these two clauses.

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative 4:30 pm, 10th March 2022

My Lords, I hesitate to rise to speak, given the entrenched views already expressed, both in this debate and in earlier debates this afternoon, but I think the reaction to Clause 14 has been disproportionate. Strategy and policy statements for regulators are not new. They are now an established part of the regulatory landscape, although it is still a relatively new concept and noble Lords may not have been following this development. As has been said, strategy and policy statements already exist for other regulators. There is absolutely no evidence that they have in any way impaired the independence of those regulators from government. If there had been a problem with them, it would be well known by now, as all regulators have multiple routes for making their views known. There is no significant difference between the functions of the Electoral Commission and the other regulators, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, sought to say. There is no significant difference to make them exempt from what is a development in the regulatory practice in this country.

I was deputy chairman of Ofcom when the Government announced that they would legislate for a strategy and policy statement for Ofcom. That was eventually included in the Digital Economy Act 2017. Like all regulators, Ofcom was extremely protective, and somewhat precious, about its independence. It is fair to say that, within Ofcom, the reaction was of considerable suspicion of the Government’s motives. I had left the board before the final statement was eventually published in 2019, so I have no insights into the final process. However, having read that statement, it is difficult to see that there is anything in it that would cause any concern about the independence of Ofcom. I have not heard of anything to that effect. In fact, the statement itself looks rather anodyne to me, as do the statements in relation to the other regulators. I have not had an opportunity to look at the draft statement for the Electoral Commission, but even the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, found nothing disobliging to say about it when he spoke earlier.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

I am sure that the noble Baroness believes firmly that the Government she so strongly supports would not issue a statement that would challenge the independence of the commission. However, there is absolutely nothing about the illustrative statement—or, indeed, in comparison with statements made for other regulators—that in any way circumscribes the ability of this Government or future Governments to go much further than that, unless they are restrained by things that we put into the legislation.

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative

At the end of the day, there is a requirement for Parliament to agree. That is an important part of the framework. It is not something the Executive can do alone. It would need to become a parliamentary approved statement and, as we discussed earlier, it must be approved by both Houses of Parliament.

My second point is that we should be absolutely clear that strategy and policy statements are not directions. No power of direction exists for the Electoral Commission, and Clause 14 does not create one. Noble Lords would be rightly concerned if Clause 14 created a power of direction in relation to the Electoral Commission. I think that the Electoral Commission was just plain wrong, in its written briefing, to claim that it would be subject to government direction as a result of Clause 14.

I regret to say that the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, for whom I have the highest regard, was also wrong, when he spoke on the first group of amendments, to assert that this statement amounts to a direction. It does not. Directions are very clear in what they can force public bodies to do. This does not force anything. The only requirement, as we have heard, is in new Section 4B for the Government to “have regard to” the statement. We discussed that in the first group of amendments, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, has made some comments on the ineffectiveness of that, because it does not refer to other things which it could “have regard to”. It does not trump the commission’s statutory objectives; it does not compel the commission to do anything at all, or to take account of anything else.

We must keep all this in proportion. It is an additional thing for the Electoral Commission to take into account; it does not replace all the existing law relating to the commission. This is the formulation used for all existing regulators, and I believe it is the right approach to protect regulatory independence. As I said, no concerns have been expressed to date about the independence of any of the regulators subject to statements.

The important thing is that the commission has to report on what it has done in consequence of the statement. In practice, as we will see from the way in which the statements tend to align with what the independent regulators are doing, statements generally reinforce what those bodies are doing, and relatively new information beyond what would be included in the annual report comes as a result of those statements.

However, it is important that the independent regulator explain any divergence from the Government’s priorities as approved by Parliament. For example, if the Government said that their priority was to improve democratic participation, not just generally but for particular groups, we would want to know what the commission had done about that and whether it had had any impact. That really does not threaten independence.

I believe that transparency and accountability are what the strategic and policy statements are really all about, and why they are useful. One element is for the Government to be transparent about their policies and priorities, because they have to set them down, get them consulted on and then have them approved by both Houses of Parliament. The regulators then have to be transparent in reporting on what they have done in respect of those priorities—or whether they have done nothing at all. That allows them to be held to account by Parliament—in the case of the Electoral Commission, through the Speaker’s Committee. I hope noble Lords will see that this legislation is not the monster they have created in their own minds. In fact, it can be seen as a very positive development for improving transparency and accountability. I hope we will allow these clauses to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Eatwell Lord Eatwell Labour

My Lords, I regret that, like the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, I was unable to attend the Second Reading debate. At the time I was on an aeroplane returning from work in the United States. However, I have read the full proceedings in Hansard with great care and I feel appropriately informed.

Moreover, some time spent in the United States has also given an added perspective on some of the measures in the Bill, for there is about it a definite odour of the Donald J Trump playbook. There is the whiff of voter suppression in the extra requirements being added for access to the franchise. There is a distinct stench of the politically partisan in the measures that undermine the independence of the Electoral Commission. But perhaps the strongest stink arises from changes in the franchise being imposed by the current majority party, without pre-legislative scrutiny or a Speaker’s Conference. This strikes at the foundations of our constitution, written and unwritten.

I predict that in due course, much as the late Enoch Powell predicted, Mr Johnson will be defeated in an election—and then there will be a, perhaps minor but none the less significant, online campaign claiming that the election was stolen or rigged. While it would be unfair to claim that the noble Lord, Lord True, had planted the seeds of such a threat to our democracy, he will have added a little natural fertiliser. In his speech introducing the Bill at Second Reading, he made much of the precautionary principle, and of taking steps to protect the integrity of elections from potential, if as yet hypothetical, threats. He did not, however, extend his precautionary principle to the measures in Clauses 14 and 15 that, as the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee stated, risk undermining public confidence in electoral outcomes by diminishing the independence of the Electoral Commission, both in perception and in reality.

As the late Lord Hailsham famously observed, this country is governed by an elected dictatorship. A Government with a substantial majority in the other place can do virtually what they please. That is why this House, with its, let us say, peculiar composition, has a particular responsibility to protect the constitution, written and unwritten, against partisan proposals by the governing party. Here, the discussion by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, of statements for regulators gives us a valuable insight, because, in this case, the statement is made by the regulated entity. It is as if one of the broadcasters could have a statement telling Ofcom to what it should have regard. The Secretary of State is a political figure. In the electoral arena, he is a regulated entity. He should not be in a position to provide advice of any sort to the regulator.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said at Second Reading,

“there is a constitutional necessity, in a system of democracy based on universal suffrage, that any electoral commission should be wholly and totally independent”.—[Official Report, 23/2/22; col. 239.]

By rejecting these clauses and affirming the independence of the Electoral Commission, this House will make a vital commitment to free and fair elections.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in considering the Government’s plans to take more direct control of the Electoral Commission, we should go back to considering the consensus that existed when it was established. In 1998, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, then chaired by the late Lord Neill of Bladen, proposed the creation of an

“independent … Election Commission with widespread executive and investigative powers”.

Introducing the resulting legislation, the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, explained how the commission would

“undertake its key role at the heart of our electoral arrangements”.

He emphasised that

“the commission must be as independent of the Government of the day as our constitutional arrangements allow, and it must be answerable directly to Parliament and not to Ministers”.

On behalf of the Conservative Opposition in the other place, Mr Robert Walter, then said:

The Opposition have always made it clear that we support the recommendations of the Neill committee and that we shall support the legislation that implements the report”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/1/2000; cols. 42-109.]

In this House, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, introduced the legislation. He said that

“the commission will need to be seen to be scrupulously independent both of the government of the day and of the political parties”.

The consensus about the essential independence of the Electoral Commission was backed on that occasion by the late Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, a greatly respected Member on the Conservative Benches at the time. He said that

“there should be an electoral commission”, but:

“There must be no possibility of the commissioners being \ As currently drafted the provisions in Part 3 of the Bill are not consistent with the Electoral Commission; cols. 1088-95.]

This principle of the Electoral Commission’s independence from the Government of the day survived five general elections. No previous Government before this one sought to change that principle. So I ask why, if we could not have “Tony’s cronies” overseeing the work of the Electoral Commission, we should then have Michael Gove overseeing it? To have any government Minister of any political party setting the overall strategy and policy for the Electoral Commission effectively ends its independence.

Since the last general election, the Conservative Party has been subjecting the Electoral Commission to undue pressure. In August 2000, the then Conservative Party co-chair Amanda Milling wrote in the Daily Telegraph that, if the Electoral Commission failed to make changes,

“then the only option would be to abolish it.”

That sounds pretty much like a threat to me. An independent election watchdog should not operate under such threats—not in a democracy.

The problem with Bills such as this is that the Government cannot distinguish between the business of government and the business of the Conservative Party. Louis XIV is said to have proclaimed, “L’Etat, c’est moi”—“The state? I am the state.” In his youth, Boris Johnson is supposed to have wanted to be “king of the world”. However, the United Kingdom is a democracy, not the property of the party in power, and changing election rules in its favour is a serious abuse of power.

The hostility of the Conservative Party to the Electoral Commission followed from investigations as to how the party had targeted its very considerable resources in marginal seats at the 2015 general election. In that election it gained a majority in the House of Commons for the first time in 23 years. Only one court case followed all those investigations, and only one conviction. However, it was a serious one for a party official, and the jail sentence that resulted was suspended only due to very extenuating personal circumstances.

Instead of accepting that the law had been broken, the party subjected the Electoral Commission to attack for having sought to uphold the basic principles of election law that have applied since the 1880s to prevent the corrupt buying of seats in Parliament. Some months after the threat to abolish the Electoral Commission, its very effective and respected chair, Sir John Holmes, was told that his term of office would not be renewed.

Now we have the Bill. Clause 14 introduces a requirement for the Electoral Commission to follow a strategy and policy statement written by the Secretary of State. Section 15 gives extraordinary powers of control over the commission to a committee which now has a majority of Conservative MPs. The Speaker’s Committee controls the financing of the Electoral Commission and it will police the way in which it works. It will examine the way in which the Commission must have regard to the statement of strategy and policy when carrying out its functions. As the Best for Britain organisation says,

“The requirement for the Electoral Commission to act according to guidance made in the Secretary of State’s statement (and to also produce a report detailing how the Electoral Commission has aligned its activities with that statement), is a direct challenge to the Electoral Commission’s neutrality and independence.”

There will be consultation, but ultimate power will lie with the Secretary of State.

The Electoral Commission itself says that, as currently drafted, the provisions in Part 3 of the Bill are not consistent with the Electoral Commission operating as an independent regulator. As we heard, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, which also has a majority of Conservative MPs and a Conservative chair, concluded in its recent report on the Bill that

“the Government has not provided sufficient evidence to justify why the proposed measures are both necessary and proportionate” and recommended that these clauses should be removed

“pending a formal … consultation on the proposed measures.”

That is why they should not stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Wheatcroft Baroness Wheatcroft Crossbench 4:45 pm, 10th March 2022

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, drew a parallel between the Electoral Commission and Ofcom. However, Ofcom has a huge and evolving remit; inevitably, it has to respond to changes in government policy in areas as diverse as regulating the spectrum and the quality of broadcasting. The Electoral Commission is a very different beast, with a very straightforward role: to oversee elections and regulate political finance to ensure that we have a free and fair election system.

It describes its job as working

“to promote public confidence in the democratic process and ensure its integrity”.

What could a Government want to do to change that? It is simple, straightforward and easily understood. I cannot understand what the policy statement enshrined in Clauses 14 and 15 would add to that quite straightforward purpose. Nothing I have heard today has helped me in that direction, and I hope the Minister might be able to answer the question that others have asked: what is the purpose of this?

That there is room for improvement in the way the commission operates is true, but the proposed policy statement is simply not the way to accomplish that. In my experience, when it comes to elections, political parties have one overriding objective: to win as many votes as possible. Indeed, in the 2015 general election, the Conservative Party was so keen to win votes in South Thanet that it drove a coach and horses—and, indeed, a battle bus—through the rules. So egregious were the breaches that in 2019, Mr Justice Edis, presiding over the subsequent court case, was highly critical of what he termed Conservative Central Office’s

“culture of convenient self-deception and lack of clarity about what was permissible in law and what was not.”

The senior central office employee who was instrumental in this electoral fraud was sentenced to nine months in prison on each of two counts. It was only because of her personal circumstances that the sentences were suspended. There is no doubt that Conservative Central Office is not the only political headquarters to have played fast and loose with the rules if it thought it could. That is why we do not want political parties anywhere near the Electoral Commission.

Those who drafted Clause 14 may have done so with the most honourable intentions in mind but, as has been said, these clauses could have a truly malevolent effect on our electoral system. There is an unpleasant whiff about them, and it could evolve into a foul stink. The positive case for these clauses has simply not been made, and I therefore support the removal of these clauses from the Bill.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative

My Lords, I am somewhat conflicted in this debate, to the extent that I, unlike a number of noble Lords who have spoken previously, do not view the Electoral Commission through rose-tinted spectacles. I shall refer to one or two problems that I and others have had with it recently. I have, however, had the opportunity to meet and deal with Mr John Pullinger, its new chairman; I wish him well and believe—partly because of what he has done in relation to some of the issues that I have had—that he will actually change the culture in the Electoral Commission.

I was fascinated by the contribution just now from the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft. I must declare an interest, because the person to whom she and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred is a close personal friend of mine, but I will not deal with the case as such. The noble Baroness aired the view that, although CCHQ had been found guilty of an offence, it was almost certain that the other parties did the same. That is actually the problem—

Photo of Baroness Wheatcroft Baroness Wheatcroft Crossbench

My Lords, I was not insinuating that other political parties had played fast and loose in that particular election. I merely meant that, had they felt able to in some elections, they might have done.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative

I am sorry; I did not make myself clear. I was referring not specifically to that election but to elections in general, which is what I took to be the comment of the noble Baroness.

I will first cover the Electoral Commission and then come on to this particular clause. As the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said first and others have said later, the Electoral Commission is required to produce an independent, free and fair set of elections. It is not required to start intruding in terms of developing or interpreting legislation. I was brought up to believe that these two Houses and the judges—the judiciary —decided how our laws operated. But, unfortunately, the Electoral Commission has moved into that field. I say that with reference to the debate in this Chamber on 6 January on the progress of regulatory bodies into fields and issuing edicts that they are saying are law.

I refer here not to the case that I just raised but to the availability of electoral rolls. They are key if you are going to investigate corruption in Tower Hamlets, but access to them is being denied by the Electoral Commission. In an email, it said that, unfortunately, “the law is silent” on this matter. It then went on to develop policy on it, effectively saying that it is law. It has issued instructions to EROs on a certain basis.

Later in the Bill, I shall cover the fascinating development of the law of secrecy when it comes to a polling booth, a practice that we have had for 150 years. The Electoral Commission is now changing the processes—it is changing the law—which is why I have tabled an amendment to stop it doing what it appears to be doing.

The noble Lords, Lord Rennard, Lord Wallace and Lord Kennedy, are all aware of the difficulties that I have had with it since early August on accredited observers—people who can be allowed into a polling station. The Minister wanted to go into a polling station in a by-election in Tower Hamlets and was told that she could not because she was political. She, or her office, was making those arrangements with the chief executive of Tower Hamlets. Nothing in law says that an accredited observer cannot be a political individual. I would have been quite happy if the Labour or Lib Dem spokesmen in the Commons or the Lords had gone to witness the problems there, but, suddenly, the Electoral Commission said, “You cannot do that”. Nothing in law says that.

What makes it worse—this is where I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake—is that the Electoral Commission does not admit its failings. As I say, I made correspondence available to other parties throughout, contemporaneously, and came to the conclusion that, in the way it has operated, the Electoral Commission is institutionally arrogant. It will not admit its failings, to the extent that, despite representations, detailed letters and failures to reply, when challenged about the refusal to allow the Minister into a polling station—it had been involved in conversations some 10 or 15 days before the by-election—it said immediately afterwards that it was not aware of a Minister being prevented from entering a polling station. This is despite the fact that, two and a half months later, it admitted that it had had conversations with the Cabinet Office and the Minister’s office, not to mention one with me in a polling station and with a local councillor, all of whom the Electoral Commission officials are saying it stopped, in one form or another.

What was fascinating was that, when confronted with all these different things, Electoral Commission kept saying, “We didn’t say it.” The Cabinet Office officials thought it did, as did the Ministers and the staff at Tower Hamlets. I believe it did. It is not a body which has previously been willing to admit its failures. As I say, it failed to do so when—

Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench 5:00 pm, 10th March 2022

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. His complaints against the Electoral Commission may be justified, but can he explain how a strategy and policy statement from the Government would put the matter right?

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative

The noble Lord intervenes at a highly apposite time. I said at the start of my contribution that I was conflicted. All I wanted to do was set the record straight in relation to the Electoral Commission as I and others have experienced it. A number of noble Lords have said that these clauses do not solve the problems that might arise from any behaviour of the Electoral Commission. That is why I am conflicted. I do not believe these clauses solve the problem. I believe there are problems with the Electoral Commission and that Mr Pullinger and his new organisation will tackle them, but I do not believe that these clauses solve the problem.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, regularly reminds us of Henry VIII clauses. I regard this as a Henry II clause: “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”—or, in this case, this troublesome regulatory body. I am sorry, but I cannot read those clauses without thinking that in some malevolent hands they will be misinterpreted by some Government or another.

I was an electoral observer in 2018 in a country I know well because I completed the whole of my university career there—Zimbabwe. I met the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and challenged it on the way it operated that election. I would like to be in a position to suggest that it use and operate our law. Could I honestly do that with these two clauses as they stand?

I come back to the position on which I opened. I am conflicted. I would like to see what the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, identified: the clear operation of an electoral commission that produces independent, fair, free elections. That I could commend to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. I hope that, when it comes back, this legislation will be something that I could recommend. As it stands, with these clauses, I could not.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative

I am very conscious of that. I did not necessarily say that the Lords to whom I was referring were present in the Chamber; I gesticulated towards the Bench opposite. I hope I did not offend the noble Lord in saying that.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am very glad to follow the noble Lord. He has delivered a message to people in his party that you can be severely critical of the Electoral Commission and consider that it has shortcomings and has not always owned up to things it has got wrong, but it does not follow that it makes sense to remove a body which is, in many respects, a guarantee of the democracy of our system. His illustration from Zimbabwe is telling. Who among us has not talked to people from various countries with very shaky regimes about the need to have a fair and reliable electoral system? Many have taken part as election observers, as he has, and seen a lack of independence in the electoral process that is fatal and damaging. The fact that the existing members of the commission believe that the provisions of these two clauses would inhibit their ability to behave independently tells its own story. It is on that and one other point that I want briefly to contribute.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, quoted from the letter that all but one of the members of the commission sent to Ministers. However, he did not go on to take a further quote from it, which says:

“If made law, these provisions will enable a government in the future to influence the Commission’s operational functions and decision-making. This includes its oversight and enforcement of the political finance regime, but also the advice and guidance it provides to electoral administrators, parties and campaigners, and its work on voter registration.”

It goes on to say that the “have regard” duty would

“provide a mechanism, driven by the then governing party, enabling that party’s ministers to shape how electoral law is applied to them and their political competitors.”

That is pretty clear, and anyone who took up a position on the Electoral Commission with this law governing how they conducted themselves would be likely to be severely inhibited by it. That raises a question of who will be willing to serve on the Electoral Commission with this kind of statutory statement as something to which they are obliged to have regard.

The other point I want to make is to reinforce something I said by way of an intervention. It really is no use the Government relying on the fact that they have produced an illustrative or indicative statement. That statement may be regarded by some as motherhood and apple pie; it might be regarded by others as offering a few hints of things that might be unsatisfactory in future statements. It is not the law. It does not inhibit or guide even this Government, let alone future ones, as to what kind of statements they will seek to get through the process.

Remember that the process is effectively one of statutory instruments—affirmative procedure, the same as statutory instruments—which, for various other reasons, many noble Lords are reluctant to use in this House to the extent of actually defeating a statement. Indeed, the Labour Party has often taken a public position that it is not appropriate for this House to take such an action, but the noble Lord on the Front Bench pointed out that we are dealing with a different matter here. We are dealing not with a general policy issue but with protection of the integrity of the election process and the body required to regulate it, and the independence that body needs to be able to do those things.

I end with the hope that the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, will be read by quite a lot of other members of his party, who might then feel free to join those of no party, my party and the Labour Party in saying that this matters. This is a threat to the independence and perceived independence of the body that regulates elections. However many of its decisions we disagree with or which may have been discomforting to our own individual party or cause, we must maintain its independence. That requires the removal of these clauses.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I will follow on from the points made very powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell. In effect, these clauses will empower the regulated over the regulator. I listened very carefully to the point from noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that statements of policy over regulators are not new. Let us take the logic of what these clauses actually do and of who is writing the statement to its conclusion. Would we allow the dominant electricity and gas company to write the strategy and policy statement for the energy regulator? Would the Government be happy for the largest water company in the country to write the strategy and policy statement for the water regulator? Would the Government legislate for the largest telecommunications company to write the strategy and policy statement for the telecoms regulator? I ask those questions directly to the Minister. If not, why not? We know as well as those outside this House do that that would empower the regulated over the regulator. We have independent regulators so that those who are regulated have no power whatever over the regulator.

Therefore, why is it that the Government seek in this Bill to allow the largest political party—that is, the Government—to write the strategy and policy statement for the regulator of elections and electoral policy? There is no logical reason to do that in order to keep that regulator independent. It completely puts the regulator at the behest of the Government in power, and it sets direction.

I want to follow what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, says, because it is important that we look at what is in these clauses. A number of times, both the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, have kind of given us warm tea and soothed us: “Don’t worry, have your cup of tea, sit down, and everything will be fine. It is a statement purely of strategy. This strategy won’t get into the operation. The Government won’t be directing what the commission does.” But let us look at new Section 4A(3)(b) introduced by Clause 14. The Secretary of State will be given the power to put in the statement

“any other information (for example, about the roles and responsibilities of other persons) the Secretary of State considers appropriate”— any other information. It basically gives the Secretary of State carte blanche to direct the regulator of elections and the electoral system to do whatever the Secretary of State decides. It is such a wide power. It is not a strategy power; it is a power that could get right into who the Electoral Commission employs, what the role of that person is and the kinds of powers that person has.

I ask the Minister: what powers would be excluded from new Section 4A(3)(b)? The Bill says

“any other information … the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”

Is that a catch-all? If not, what would be excluded on the face of the Bill? I cannot see anything on the face of the Bill that says what the strategy and policy statement would exclude. I see that the statement could include any information the Secretary of State sees fit.

Furthermore, the Secretary of State, as we have already discussed, could do this of their own volition and without any consultation. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, was absolutely clear. “Consultation” does not necessarily mean anything. I am a former council leader. We consulted. You do not necessarily have to change what you have decided based on consultation. Some of the most powerful and important considerations we have to make in this clause are that those who have worked in and led arm’s-length bodies have said very clearly that when a Government say something is on the face of the Bill and you have to have regard to it, it is a direction and an instruction. It is not just something bland; it is a clear instruction that those people within those organisations and the Electoral Commission will see as something they have to take forward. It is very clear that the powers in this clause are much greater than a kind of “It’ll be all right, you don’t have to do it”. New Section 4B(2) says that the commission “must”—not “may”—

“have regard to the statement when carrying out their functions.”

New subsection (4)(b) says that the commission must report after the end of

“every subsequent 12-month period, on what they have done—” not on what they have not done—

“in consequence of the statement.”

Remember: the statement is about the priorities of the Government.

I believe that these clauses, which are so widely written, give the Government such powers over the regulator that they completely and totally take away the basis of a regulator that free and fair elections can be built on and undermine the very basis of our democracy. It is for those reasons that these clauses should not stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees 5:15 pm, 10th March 2022

My Lords, I rise very briefly to draw three points to the Government’s attention. The first is prompted by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, who talked about a culture of what appears to him to be institutional arrogance in the Electoral Commission. We live at a time of airborne viruses, with which we are all too familiar, and it occurs to me that perhaps they have infected Her Majesty’s Government to some degree, since I detect occasional traits of institutional arrogance in some of their statements and demeanour from time to time. I hope this debate is not going to be an example of that.

Secondly, I advise the Minister to listen extremely carefully to the forensic way in which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, laid out his argument. We have to think about what we hope is the unlikely event that something to do with the Electoral Commission and what it has done goes to judicial review or something similar. The noble and learned Lord demonstrated the way in which justice will look at the words of this law, and how they will be interpreted. So I say to the Government that, if they find themselves up against individuals such as the noble and learned Lord, they are likely to come out on the wrong side of the argument.

Thirdly, I belong to the Council of Europe, and in that capacity I have monitored three different elections. The Council of Europe exists partly to help those countries that do not have a history and tradition of western democracy as we know it to move towards a state where that becomes normalised. In the course of the three elections that I have monitored, one thing that we have always done early on is go and meet the electoral commission of the country. All that I can say from my experience of doing that is that, if we were interrogating an electoral commission and we discovered in the course of that interrogation that the commission was subject to what the Government are suggesting in these two clauses, it would start some red lights flashing. So I suggest to the Minister that the Council of Europe has a well-developed set of criteria for advising countries on how to set up their electoral commissions and how to make sure that they are fair and do what it says on the label, and I would be very happy to make an introduction to the people in Strasbourg who could give the Government access to that.

I appeal to the Minister to think very carefully about what he is trying to persuade us is the right way to proceed, because the mood of the House is very clearly that we have great concerns about it. So please let us all be careful.

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, this has certainly been a very interesting debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for tabling these amendments, and I wish him well as I understand the reasons why he is not with us today. I also thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, for his incredibly thorough and forensic introduction in the noble Lord’s absence. I cannot think of anyone who could have better gone through these clauses and explained the concerns around them.

We know that the Electoral Commission was established by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 in order to oversee elections and regulate political finance in the UK independently of government. The 1998 report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life emphasised the fundamental importance of independence for the proposed commission. It said:

“Those who have advocated the establishment of an Election Commission have been emphatic that it should be independent both of the government of the day and of the political parties … An Election Commission in a democracy like ours could not function properly, or indeed at all, unless it were scrupulously impartial and believed to be so by everyone seriously involved and by the public at large.”

In its 2007 review of the Electoral Commission, the CSPL highlighted the dual requirements of independence and accountability, saying that

“any system of accountability must also protect the Commission’s independence and impartiality from the possibility of undue influence for partisan political or electoral advantage”.

In 2009, party-nominated commissioners were introduced to bring knowledge and experience of political parties and the workings of elections from those perspectives. This is now well represented and understood by the commission.

Part 3 of the Bill would make significant changes to the way in which the Electoral Commission is accountable to Parliament, giving new powers to the UK Government to designate a strategy and policy statement, about which many noble Lords have expressed concerns. It would require, as other noble Lords have said, the commission to “have regard to” this statement when carrying out its functions. It was really important that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, went carefully through the Bill on the implications of what this would mean.

The introduction of a strategy and policy statement which enables the Government to set the strategic direction for the work of the Electoral Commission is inconsistent with the role that an independent commission plays in a healthy democratic system. This independence is fundamental to maintaining confidence in our electoral system. The commission’s independent role must be clear for voters and campaigners to see, and it must be preserved in electoral law. This underpins fairness and trust in our electoral system and provides cross-party confidence in the commission. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, explained why he thinks that public confidence could be lost if complete independence of the Electoral Commission is lost.

The commission’s accountability is currently directly to the UK’s Parliaments and should remain so, rather than being subjected to government direction. As we have heard, the Electoral Commission itself took the unprecedented step of writing to the Secretary of State and the Minister in the other place. The noble Lords, Lord Kerslake and Lord Beith, quoted from this letter and I would like to do the same. In it, the Electoral Commissioners

“urge the Government to reconsider those measures which seek to change the oversight arrangements of the Electoral Commission.”

I find it quite extraordinary that it felt the need to ask the Government to reconsider because it was so concerned.

Independence from the Government of the day is important because it prevents an incumbent changing laws or practices to suit their political interests. It can also strengthen public trust in the political process. Just as the judiciary should be independent, electoral officials should be non-partisan. As my noble friend Lord Eatwell said, the Secretary of State is both regulator and regulated.

The problem with the Bill is that, in contrast with keeping electoral officials non-partisan, it proposes to weaken the commission’s independence as well as to give the Government greater power by allowing them to designate the strategy and policy statement. It gives Parliament—but in practice, a Government, if they have a majority—the power to examine the Electoral Commission’s compliance with this. The Electoral Integrity Project describes this as

“a direct violation of international best practices and would constitute democratic backsliding because it is giving the government and future governments greater control over the conduct of elections—the process through which citizens are enabled to hold government to account”.

As we have heard from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, new Section 4A of PPERA, as inserted by Clause 14, empowers the Secretary of State to designate this strategy and policy statement. This would set the strategic and policy priorities of the Government relating to electoral and similar matters, and the role and responsibilities of the commission in enabling the Government to meet those priorities. The statement may also give guidance in relation to particular functions of the commission and may provide additional information. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, mentioned “any other business”. If that is the case, can the Minister tell us where the checks and balances are as to what this could include?

Evidence given to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee included, its report said,

“strong criticisms from academics and a range of stakeholders that the measures lack justification and were characterised as a ‘retrograde step’ ‘an extremely dangerous thing to do’ and ‘would constitute democratic backsliding’

In his evidence, it continued, Professor Fisher pointed to

“surveys of election agents since 2005 which ‘have seen that confidence in the [Electoral Commission] has grown over this period ... there is no particular problem with those that the [Electoral Commission] regulates’”.

Far from requiring additional oversight, the commission already delivers good work in ensuring high levels of satisfaction in the integrity of the electoral process among those who are most knowledgeable and closely involved. A survey of electoral agents at the 2019 general election showed that 78% agreed that the rules in respect of election spending and donations were clear; 72% viewed the Electoral Commission as a useful source of advice; 75% thought that electoral guidance for candidates and agents was clear and easy to use; and 75% thought that the Electoral Commission’s written information on the verification and count was clear and easy to use.

In its response to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, whose report raised these concerns, the Government said:

“It is not uncommon for the Government to set a broad policy framework, as approved by Parliament, which independent regulators should consider”

giving as examples the relationship that Ministers hold with regulators such as Ofcom and Ofwat.

The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, referred to other regulators, mentioning her experience with Ofcom in particular. I too have spent many years working in regulated industries, in my case energy and water. I would instead agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, and the CSPL, which considers this to be a completely false analogy, since these are not regulators implementing government policy. The Electoral Commission regulates the people and parties that make up the Government and Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, gave an example as to why the situation with regulators such as Ofcom and Ofwat is so very different, so I do not accept that analogy. When giving evidence on this, Professor Alan Renwick stressed that

“ministers and parliamentarians should recognise their own potential conflict of interest.”

Does the Minister recognise that there is a potential conflict of interest here?

Clauses 14 and 15 are not just about increasing the accountability of the commission to a Committee in the House of Commons, to which it already reports. Clause 14 subjects the commission to strategic and policy control, including guidance on specific cases, not by Parliament, but by Ministers. It is pretty difficult to express just how appalling this is but the noble and learned, Lord Judge, did an excellent job. Policy control and even guidance on individual cases might be appropriate for other public bodies—for example, those making decisions about infrastructure or planning permission—but it can never be right for the governing party to be able to give instructions to a body whose role requires it to make decisions that might well go against the interests of that party.

Under Clause 14, Ministers could guide the commission to interpret its powers in ways that would favour the ruling party and its friends. The courts might provide a backstop in the most extreme cases, such as where guidance tries to permit illegal activities, but judicial intervention is unlikely in more strategic interventions, such as Ministers telling the commission to restrict or halt its work on voter registration, which targets mainly young people, minorities and renters living in house-shares.

Restricting the independence of the Electoral Commission is contrary to international norms. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said, we would be concerned if what is being proposed here was being proposed in another country. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe recently criticised Poland for proposals that would have transferred powers from its national election commission to Ministers. Likewise, the European Commission for Democracy through Law insists that electoral commissions must be independent and politically balanced. Its investigations have expressed concern on several occasions about transfers of responsibilities from a fully-fledged, multi-party electoral commission to an institute subordinate to the Executive. We on this side of the House are deeply concerned about these clauses.

To pick up some other aspects of the debate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, referred again to concerns about how consultation is being carried out—a theme we have been coming back to all day. Proper consultation listens to respondents and then demonstrates meaningfully in its response what actions and decisions have been taken following the process so that it properly takes account of the concerns that people have raised. This does not seem to be happening at all with the Government at the moment. We have consultation that is no more than a tick-box exercise. Even worse, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said, the Secretary of State is not even obliged to consult anybody. They have only to consider representations.

The noble and learned Lord also referred to the problems around the majority on the Speaker’s Committee, with two members examining the way in which the Electoral Commission has been carrying out government policy. As the noble and learned Lord said, this is undue influence.

My noble friend Lord Stansgate asked the House to consider the damage to our democracy if these clauses were to go through. The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, made the important point that there should be pre-legislative scrutiny. Again, this comes back to the lack of scrutiny and consultation. He made the really important point that the Electoral Commission was asked if it had been consulted, to which it said no. This Government seem to have a real problem with consultation and scrutiny, and we should all be concerned about that. My noble friend Lord Eatwell also referred to this and to the fact that serious changes to our electoral law are being proposed with no pre-legislative scrutiny.

My noble friend also referred to the fact that at Second Reading, the Minister did not extend the precautionary principle he discussed in relation to other parts of the Bill to Clauses 14 and 15. It is important that your Lordships’ House is able to protect our democracy against any imposition of legislation that can be considered partisan.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said, independence has survived five general elections, so I ask the Minister—as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, did—why these changes are required now. Despite what the Government say and the reassurances they have given us, these proposals do undermine independence.

I now come to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. I listened carefully to him, but I do not think that we are all looking at the Electoral Commission through rose-tinted spectacles. He raised some important points, but what we are discussing today is, and the concerns that we have are, about the removal of the commission’s independence. That is what is so important. As the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said, you can be critical of the Electoral Commission but still believe that its independence matters, and that these clauses need to go.

I finish by referring to the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, and echo his request: will the Minister please listen carefully to the arguments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and to the concerns of the House?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 5:30 pm, 10th March 2022

My Lords, of course I listen carefully. Having listened carefully, I infer that your Lordships view these clauses with somewhat modified rapture. Even if I were as eloquent as Pericles, which I am not, I might not be able to change your Lordships’ minds over the next five to 10 minutes. However, I hope that, as we engage on this Bill—which I hope we will continue doing—these clauses will remain in as we go forward to Report. We should always consider modes of improvement, as well as modes of rejection. I will certainly undertake to have further conversations.

I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, on his return from the United States. I understand that he was not at Second Reading, but I will correct the record by saying that I made no reference to the precautionary principle in that debate. It is not my habit to do so. If he finds in Hansard that I did, then I will gladly apologise to him.

I will address the amendments proposed to Clauses 14 and 15, and the excision of these clauses from the Bill. All noble Lords will agree—as I do—that it is vital that we have an independent regulator which commands trust across the political spectrum. This is the view of Her Majesty’s Government. The public rightly expect efficient and independent regulation of the electoral system. We must reflect at all times on the current structures charged with this important responsibility and, where there is a need for change, be prepared to make it. The one thing that will not change is that the Electoral Commission is independent and will remain so.

We believe that the Government’s proposals represent a proportionate approach to reforming the accountability of the Electoral Commission, while respecting its operational independence. I listened very carefully to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and will examine the Hansard record of his analysis of the clauses. There is no direction in the clause for the Electoral Commission to act in any particular way. There is the requirement to “have regard to” the strategy document —to which I will return later.

Clause 14 seeks to make provisions for the introduction of a strategy and policy statement which will set out guidance which the Electoral Commission “must have regard to” in the discharge of its functions. It is not a direction, as my noble friend Lady Noakes said, in what, under the circumstances, was a somewhat courageous speech and one with which I agreed. She set this out clearly.

It has been claimed that the “duty to have regard” to the statement introduced by the provisions will weaken the independence of the commission. I understand that noble Lords should be concerned about that. It is a perfectly legitimate concern. If that were the case, I would understand where noble Lords were coming from. We do not believe that the duty weakens the independence. It is also argued that the Government are given too much influence. Indeed, it was said that the duty gave “control” over the Electoral Commission’s affairs. Again, in our submission, that is wrong. We strongly reject that characterisation of the measure. This is guidance, not a directive, and, as such, the Electoral Commission will remain operationally independent as a result of this measure. It will be required to “have regard” to the statement in the exercise of its functions. This legal duty does not replace or undermine the commission’s other statutory duties. They will remain.

It is entirely appropriate for the Government and Parliament to provide a steer on electoral policy and ensure that their reforms on electoral law are properly implemented. It is not about meddling with operational enforcement decisions on individual cases or any change in the commission’s statutory duties. By increasing policy emphasis on electoral integrity, however, inter alia the Government are seeking to prevent interference in our democracy from fraud, foreign money and hostile state actors.

At present, the Electoral Commission is not fully held to account by anyone. My noble friend Lord Hayward referred to the issues of family voting in Tower Hamlets, on which I recently read an article by that courageous campaigner for honesty in elections, Councillor Peter Golds, who documents his difficulties in getting the commission to address fully and seriously, as he sees it, the problems presented by this issue. The proposed illustrative document that has been given to noble Lords, for example, asks the Electoral Commission to look into the dangers of fraud and such issues that emerge from family voting. It is reasonable to ask the body tasked with preventing fraud to address the bullying of female voters and to give priority to that.

The statement has a democratic check by being ratified by Parliament, as we discussed on an earlier amendment. Your Lordships have the power to accept or reject these proposals on the statement when it comes forward. The duty to have regard that we are introducing means simply that when carrying out its functions the commission will be required to consider the statement and weigh it up against any other relevant considerations. I do not accept the contention of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and others that a statement is not appropriate for a public body. I agree with my noble friend Lady Noakes in her response to that.

Photo of Lord Kerslake Lord Kerslake Crossbench

Perhaps I might clarify this point for the Minister. I did not say it applied to any public body. I said it related to the Electoral Commission. There is a critical difference here in its role, its standing and the nature of its accountability. The situation is quite different for other regulatory bodies.

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

I respectfully disagree with the noble Lord on that. The Electoral Commission is a public body and many other such bodies have important duties and activities that impinge on the public and public well-being. I stand by my statement and agree with my noble friend Lady Noakes on that.

The propositions that we are putting forward work in similar ways to other existing statutory duties that require public bodies to have regard to specific considerations in carrying out their functions; for example, the requirement for public bodies to have regard to matters of equality when exercising their functions. The statement will not allow the Government to direct the commission’s decision-making. They—any Government—will not be able to do so. My noble friend Lady Noakes is, again, right.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

I must challenge this. The Minister keeps saying that there is not a power. Can he explain new Section 4A(3)(b) in Clause 14, which states specifically that the statement may also set out

“any other information (for example, about the roles and responsibilities of other persons) the Secretary of State considers appropriate”?

That is such a wide power, that the Secretary of State can determine anything that the commission does.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 5:45 pm, 10th March 2022

Yes, my Lords, new Section 4A(3)(b) allows the statement to contain—I am repeating what the noble Lord has just read out for the Committee; I am trying to help the Committee by doing so—any information considered appropriate, such as information

“about the roles and responsibilities of other persons.”

This could include other bodies with which the EC has relations, for example. The commission cannot be held responsible for the functions of other bodies which might be mentioned. New Section 4B(2) is disallowed from the commission’s duty to

“have regard to the statement when carrying out their function.”

New Section 4B(3) says:

“Subsection (2) does not apply to information contained in the statement by virtue of section 4A(3)(b).”

It is therefore intended specifically, for the reasons that the noble Lord puts forward, for that provision in the Bill.

The Government are clear in their submission that a statement will not undermine the commission’s other statutory duties. It could be used to provide guidance in areas where the commission is exercising the significant amount of discretion it is afforded, and will continue to be afforded, in terms of activity, priorities and approach.

More generally, statutory consultation in applicable circumstances, and the required approval of the UK Parliament when a statement is created or revised, will ensure that the Government consider the UK Parliament’s views and will give Parliament, including your Lordships’ House, the final say over whether the statement takes effect. This measure will improve the commission’s accountability to this Parliament and ensure that Parliament remains firmly in control of approving any statement.

I turn to the amendment relating to Clause 15. The purpose of Clause 15 is to expand the remit of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, a statutory committee which is chaired impartially by the Speaker of the other place. Its existing remit is limited to overseeing the commission’s finances, its five-year plan and the appointment of Electoral Commissioners. In expanding the committee’s remit, so that it may examine the commission’s performance of its duties to have regard to the statement, the Government are seeking to extend Parliamentary accountability of the commission to the Speaker’s Committee. This will enable the committee to perform a scrutiny function similar to that of Parliamentary Select Committees, allowing it to retrospectively scrutinise the commission’s activities in light of its duty to have regard to the statement. This power will sit alongside the committee’s existing statutory duties, which we are not amending in any way.

For clarity, Clause 15 will not enable the committee, any more than the Government, to direct the commission’s decision-making. The commission will remain operationally independent and continue to be governed by the commissioners. For completeness, this clause also gives the Speaker’s Committee powers to request relevant information from the commission

“in such form as the Committee may reasonably require”, while ensuring that the commission is not required to disclose information that

“might adversely affect any current investigation” or that

“would contravene the data protection legislation.”

This is important in protecting the commission’s ability to investigate, and also the interests of those who may be under investigation. For the reasons that I have set out, we contend that this clause will actually improve the commission’s accountability to Parliament, while respecting the regulator’s operational independence.

Those are the reasons why the Government think that these clauses are proportionate and reasonable, and I urge that your Lordships do not seek to remove these clauses from the Bill.

Photo of Lord Eatwell Lord Eatwell Labour

My Lords, the Minister suggested that he did not use the precautionary principle in his speeches at Second Reading. At col. 314, he drew a direct analogy between the need for photographic evidence to vote and locking a door to prevent burglars. Is not that the precautionary principle?

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

No, it was a humorous remark for the Committee. The precautionary principle is one that the European Union applies in considering legislative activity; it is not a principle that I espouse and not one that I endorsed in the speech.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour

Can the Minister at least address another point made by my noble friend, on the effect that these clauses will have on the perception that our electoral process is as proper as it should be? Given the comparison that he drew with what we have seen across the Atlantic, and the damage that could be done if any electoral process suffers from a growing sense that it is in some way unfair, or has been interfered with, it is simply not worth having these clauses, to prevent the type of damage that we have seen across the Atlantic.

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

I accept what the noble Lord said on that point—and, indeed, what the noble Viscount has said. What I would say is, first, that a Minister at the Dispatch Box should not criticise either a former or a present President of the United States, or any members of the parties that support them. We all make and contribute to the perceptions that people have, and one problem is with the risk of importing the rhetoric of the USA about voter suppression, fair voting or whatever, when actually every opinion poll in the United States, including among African Americans, supports the principle of voter identification. If we import that rhetoric into our public affairs, we ourselves potentially contribute to the very kind of perception that I wish to avoid, and I know that the noble Viscount also does—although he has not been in this House that long, I know that his integrity is resounding. All of us who want to avoid that ought to watch our own language in this respect. That is the only thing that I would say in response. We will debate this later, but the Government are seeking to suppress nobody’s vote. We wish to maximise participation in elections.

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 hope that the Minister can answer the direct point from the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. Although the noble Lord criticised the operation of the Electoral Commission and spoke about how it might improve, he referenced something fundamental. He spoke about his experience in a country where an electoral commission operated under the direction of a Government who hindered and harmed the opposition. Does the Minister not think that, when we complain to that Government about that electoral commission, today’s action and his speech today will inhibit our ability to criticise that Government?

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

Absolutely not—and I very much hope not. I come to your Lordships’ House to listen to your Lordships’ House, and I hope every government Minister does just the same. The direct answer to the noble Lord opposite is the one that I gave in my speech—that this Government do not seek to direct the Electoral Commission, and nothing in the Bill contains a power of direction.

Photo of Lord Judge Lord Judge Convenor of the Crossbench Peers

I am very grateful to everybody who has taken part in this debate. It has been a very interesting debate, with aspects of the issue to which my eyes have certainly been opened.

Noble Lords will not want me to try to address every point made by the Minister, but I shall draw attention to a couple. First, if there are problems with how the Electoral Commission is doing its job, or problems with the extent of its job and the ambit of its responsibilities, what we should do is reform the Electoral Commission. We do that in primary legislation before both Houses, not by a ministerial statement.

Secondly, the Minister said that there was nothing in here that used a direction, because “must have regard to” is not a direction. It is not a direction—but the issue is not merely power but influence, and undue influence. However much one tries to avoid the fact, if the Electoral Commission must have regard to whatever the Minister says, the perception of undue influence is obvious, the fact of undue influence is, I suggest, inevitable, and the truth of the matter is that over the years the Electoral Commission will become more and more dependent on what the Secretary of State’s statement asserts.

Finally, the point I sought to make was that the Speaker’s Committee was fine and good when we had the Electoral Commission exercising the responsibilities it currently has, without the introduction of the new Secretary of State’s statement. But what alarms me—and, I suspect, alarms the House—is simply this: there will be two government Ministers examining the work of the Electoral Commission and checking whether it has complied with, or responded to, the Secretary of State’s statement. Fine: they will be seeing whether their ministerial colleague’s directions, invitation and suggestions have been obeyed. In other words, the Electoral Commission will be judged by somebody in the same Cabinet, or the same party. That is a serious change in the way in which the commission works.

I am sorry to say this but, having listened to the Minister, I am in the same position as PACAC was. Incidentally, PACAC is one of the bodies that the Secretary of State is supposed to consult, but its recommendation has been totally ignored. The Minister has not demonstrated that the proposed measures that we are considering are both necessary and proportionate. Nor has he demonstrated that the risk of

“undermining public confidence in the effective and independent regulation of the electoral system” has been avoided. For those reasons, among many put forward, although for today’s purposes I shall not press the matter, we shall have to return to this on Report.

Clause 14 agreed.

Clauses 15 and 16 agreed.

Clause 17: Criminal proceedings