Clause 4

Political Parties and Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 11 November 2008.

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Selection of prospective Electoral Commissioners and Commission chairman

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move amendment No. 16, in clause 4, page 3, line 24, at end insert

‘in accordance with Commissioner for Public Appointments’ Code of Practice.’.

I welcome you to the Chair, Sir Nicholas. The Committee looks forward to the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship during what I am sure will be constructive and positive consideration of this important Bill. I wish to say at the outset that, as the clause is about the Electoral Commission, now is an appropriate moment to pay tribute to all the work that Sam Younger has done as its chairman. He is about to retire from that  post, and I am sure that, through his sterling work over the past few years, he has gained much respect for the commission.

I welcome most enthusiastically the appointment of Jenny Watson as the new chairman. I gained experience of her excellent work when she was chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission because, at that time, I was shadow Minister for equality and worked with her. Indeed, Members on both sides of the House have worked with the Equal Opportunities Commission and enormous strides have been taken in that area of policy in recent years. I am sure that, equally, Jenny Watson will bring to the Electoral Commission enthusiasm, ability and respect for her work.

Amendment No. 16 is simple and it would merely clarify the situation. The amendment suggests an addition to clause 4. The clause says that

“each person whose appointment is proposed in the motion has been selected in accordance with a procedure put in place and overseen by the Speaker’s Committee” and we ought to add after that the words

“in accordance with Commissioner for Public Appointments’ Code of Practice.”

As well as clarifying the current situation, the amendment would entrench it in law, which would be right.

The Electoral Commission has said that it supports the principle of amendment No. 16, which would require the process of appointing all electoral commissioners to be in accordance with the public appointments code of practice. To date, the principles of the code have been observed in all appointments of electoral commissioners, but there is no requirement in law for that code of practice to be observed.

The Bill would be improved and clarified by the amendment. Over the next few weeks of consideration, we shall seek to clarify the Bill in many cases, and this is a simple one. As we discussed in the evidence sessions last week, there are many areas in which the Bill is not clear, and law that is not clear is not good law. We have here a simple example in which matters could be clarified.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I join the hon. Lady in welcoming you to the Chair, Sir Nicholas. In the weeks ahead, I am sure that we shall all benefit from your deft and wise guidance through proceedings on this important Bill.

I also join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the work of Sam Younger at the Electoral Commission. He had a distinguished career in the BBC, which he followed by making an important contribution to the work of a significant body in our public life. I pay tribute to him as he retires.

Once again I join the hon. Lady, this time in welcoming Jenny Watson to the chair of the commission. I am sure that she will follow her distinguished predecessor in an appropriate manner.

Sadly, after joining the hon. Lady in so much, I must begin proceedings by resisting her amendment, although I welcome the spirit in which she moved it, and our side of the Committee welcomes probing amendments and the opportunity to clarify still further our intentions in the Bill.

The amendment would alter the clause that covers the selection of prospective electoral commissioners and specify that appointments must be in accordance with the Commissioner for Public Appointments code  of practice. Each person whose appointment is proposed in a motion for appointment as an electoral commissioner has to be selected in accordance with a procedure put in place and overseen by the Speaker’s Committee. The practical effect of the amendment would be to impose an obligation on the Speaker’s Committee to select electoral commissioners, including nominated commissioners, through open competition, in line with the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments guidelines.

Although electoral commissioner appointments are not OCPA regulated, I agree that the process must command public confidence—clearly, we can all agree on that. The individuals selected should be those who have demonstrated that they best match the skills, knowledge, practical experience and personal qualities required for the appointment in question.

Previous electoral commissioners have always been selected on the basis of open competition. We note that the Committee on Standards in Public Life has recommended that commissioners with political backgrounds should, similarly, be selected by open competition, but in respect of these particular commissioners, we believe that party leaders are in the best position to judge those within their parties who would be best placed to assist the commission to become more politically aware. That is why we have included the provisions that will enable the leaders of the qualifying parties to put forward names for consideration as nominated commissioners. From the names put forward, the Speaker’s Committee will select the best candidates on merit.

I hope that the hon. Lady is not suggesting that the leaders of political parties are automatically disqualified, by virtue of their office, from selecting the candidates best suited to fill those appointments.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

No, I am not suggesting that. I agree with the Minister.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I also hope she agrees that, in securing public confidence, which I absolutely agree is fundamental to the work of the commission, what is important is not so much how the commissioners are selected, but how they do their job. It is crucial that they do their job without bias or partisanship and in accordance with their remit. I have every confidence in the leaders of all the qualifying political parties in selecting candidates in line with those criteria. I hope that the hon. Lady, having heard the assurances and secured agreement on the fundamental principles, feels able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice, Shadow Minister (Shadow Solicitor General), Home Affairs

I, too, welcome you to the Chair for this phase of our deliberations, Sir Nicholas, and I join the hon. Lady and the Minister in paying tribute to the work of Sam Younger, who has been an excellent chair of the Electoral Commission. I wish him well in his future choice of career, and also welcome Jenny Watson to this challenging post.

As the hon. Lady said, the Electoral Commission supports the amendment in principle. It is worth bearing it in mind that clause 4 regulates the appointment of all commissioners, not just the political commissioners dealt with under clause 5, and it would be useful to add the provision to the law in general.

The Minister says that there could be a difficulty in how the amendment would apply to the political commissioners; looking at the detail of the code, it might not be entirely appropriate to how that particular set of appointments will work. Nevertheless, when he challenged the hon. Lady on whether party leaders were suitable people to make such appointments, the opposite of his point applied. If they are suitable people, it is not entirely inappropriate that they should in some way be bound by the code.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

On a point of clarification, it is not the party leaders who will make the appointments, but the Speaker’s Committee. The party leaders will put forward names for selection by the Speaker’s Committee.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice, Shadow Minister (Shadow Solicitor General), Home Affairs

I am grateful for the Minister’s clarification, but as I understand it the code will apply to the entire process of appointment, which will include nomination by the party leaders. The question still arises as to the extent to which the code is appropriate to be applied to that stage of the process—nomination as opposed to final appointment.

If the Minister accepts the principle that the ideas that lie behind the code—the perfectly simple ones of transparency and open competition—he should be prepared to accept, for a later stage, a different version of the hon. Lady’s amendment. As it stands, the amendment rather baldly uses the term “in accordance” with the code, but if it said “in accordance with the principles of the code”, and perhaps “subject to any necessary adjustments for the purposes of clause 5”, which is about political commissioners, that would still get the essential point across while meeting the hon. Lady’s objective, which is that there should be some statutory mention of the code in the legislation.

I certainly support the principle of the hon. Lady’s amendment, and I urge the Minister to be more forthcoming.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

As I hope to demonstrate throughout consideration of the Bill, we are open to suggestions from all parts of the House. I will certainly reflect on some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman, and perhaps I might clarify precisely what he is driving at in conversation after the sitting.

At this stage, I would be anxious about changing my position on the amendment for the reasons that I have outlined. Party leaders have an important role to play for the new type of electoral commissioner, so we are inclined to keep the position as it is. If the hon. Gentleman can find a way to resolve all the different issues together, we shall be happy to listen to suggestions later. However, at the moment, I ask the Committee to reject the amendment.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice) 10:45, 11 November 2008

I have listened carefully to the Minister’s undertakings, as I have to the agreement and support of the hon. Member for Cambridge, for which I am grateful. We said that the code of practice ought to be observed if not to the letter, then certainly in principle. I understand the Minister’s argument, but I do not see why the amendment cannot be accepted.

We are discussing one of the many areas in which the Bill’s clarity could be so improved, but it is one of the minor areas. Over the next few days, there will be far greater matters in relation to which the Bill’s clarity needs to be improved, so I would rather leave the Committee time to consider the far more difficult issues that we shall face later in our proceedings. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

It is a great pleasure to be a member of the Committee under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas.

I wish to say a word about Sam Younger. He has been a tremendous chairman of the Electoral Commission in difficult circumstances, as the first man in the job. He has worked tirelessly and extremely hard to do his best, and to work together with all political parties. I have worked on an informal group that he created at which he made every effort to listen to the views of political parties. Other members of that informal consultative group, one of whom I see in Committee, have helped the Electoral Commission a good deal.

Sam Younger deserves a great deal of thanks from the entire political community for having steadied what could have easily been a difficult ship. We wish him well in what he does in future, and wish him success, too.

I want to clarify a point and ask the Minister whether I have understood clause 4 correctly. Under subsection (2), the Speaker has to agree that a motion be made, but the rest of the clause is framed in terms of action by the Speaker’s Committee. Will the Minister clarify whether that means in law that the Speaker has a veto over the decisions of the Speaker’s Committee in respect of the clause? Depending on the answer that I receive, I might take this further.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

It would help me to understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns if he said exactly what he meant by “a veto”. The clause states that the Speaker agrees

“that the motion may be made”, and the motion is the subject of consultation, and so on. If the hon. Gentleman means that the agreement of the Speaker is necessary for the motion to proceed, yes, it does mean that he has a veto—that is my understanding of the clause—but not otherwise.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I am somewhat concerned because, in the past, there have been stories about differences of view on the Speaker’s Committee, members of which—indeed, a majority—have not been in agreement with the Speaker about action that should be taken on supervision of the Electoral Commission. I am concerned lest we find ourselves building into law the potential for further difficulties of that type.

The issues are obviously sensitive, and not ones that I intend to develop further, unless absolutely forced to do so. The Minister will already be aware of some of the instances that I have referred to, or to which I am alluding indirectly, not least those that concerned the  reappointment of Sam Younger. It is important that we clarify the issue. Will the Minister look at the drafting and consider whether, on Report, he might frame the clause in terms of the Speaker’s Committee, rather than the Speaker?

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks and, as always with anything he suggests, I shall consider them extremely carefully—I bow to his great experience in such matters. He has given a great deal of thought to the whole area, so anything he suggests we take seriously. However, I am slightly concerned about some of the implications of what he said.

It is inevitable, and in the nature of any Committee, that there will be disagreements. I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is referring to exactly, but I am not surprised to hear that different members of the Committee, including the Speaker himself, have different views about how to proceed. However, the hon. Gentleman will be well aware that we in the House elect a Speaker to act as Chair of proceedings, and we have to have faith and trust in his judgment. That is why we elect him.

Every day, the Speaker has to make judgments with which not every Member will agree. It seems right and proper that, broadly, he should continue to fulfil that role here. As the hon. Gentleman spoke, I could not, on the face of it, see a better way to proceed. We are always in search of perfection, so if he has a better way I am happy to consider it.

I hope that I have given the hon. Gentleman some reassurance. As he said, these are sensitive and delicate matters, but we must have faith in the office of Speaker and in him doing his job, to which we all elect him.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.