Clause 7

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

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Political restrictions on Electoral Commissioners and staff

Question proposed [this day], That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question again proposed.

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

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cook. I am sure that we will benefit from your guidance as we make further progress on this important Bill.

I was responding to the hon. Member for Cambridge, who had referred to the briefing note put out by the Electoral Commission on the relaxation of the political restrictions on commissioners. He was asking, in the spirit of inquiry more than anything else, why we had not followed the commission’s advice.

The Government are aware of what the commission feels about the matter, but I am afraid that our view is different. We take the view of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that continuing with the current 10-year rule for staff is not proportionate or necessary to ensure the impartiality and independence of staff employed by the commission or, more broadly, the commission itself. Obviously, there must be some restrictions. We think that 10 years is too long but five years is about right. It is a matter judgment, and that is our judgment.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I do not wish to take up much of the Committee’s time on this matter, as we dealt with most of the principles of political involvement of commissioners when we considered amendments to the preceding clauses this morning. I simply want to put on the record that I agree with what the Minister just said. It is right that there should be restrictions, and we must make a distinction between those on the commission who are representatives of the political world and those who are not. I think that that distinction is clearly made in the clause, which we support.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I have had a chance to remind myself of the content of clause 7—I did not get enough time to do that during the four minutes of debate on it before lunch—and I have realised that there is some substance to the clause that needs an airing and deserves attention before we move on to further clauses. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cambridge for flagging this up rather than taking the clause on the nod.

The clause is important because it creates two classes of commissioner for the first time, and we need to pause a moment to ensure that we have them right. We need to bear it in mind that the purpose of the clause is to bring some political experience into the commission, which many have argued has not shown enough political experience of the system that it is trying to regulate. This is why, after much careful thought, the Committee on Standards in Public Life decided to argue in favour of a relaxation of the 10-year bar on political involvement. Its recommendation is set out in paragraph 3.29 on page 59 of its report. My question is whether what is in clause 7 is consonant with what is in that recommendation.

I am a little concerned that we may find that nearly one half of the appointed commissioners have recent political experience, as set out in the clause; and that under this clause the other group—in the past, it would have had no ties with a political party for 10 years—might also have been MPs only five years ago, hammering things out in a Committee such as this, for example, or across the Floor of the House. In other words, we may find ourselves with a group of commissioners all of whom have a good deal of very recent political experience.

I am not entirely sure that I am happy with that, so I am not entirely sure that I am happy with the move from 10 to five years for the remaining class—that is, the original class—of commissioners. I would like the Minister to give an explanation for that reduction from 10 to five years. I have a couple more points that I would like to make while he is thinking about that one, unless he wants to intervene on me now; if not, we can wait until I have dealt with the other points.

Another point concerns the staff, whom we have not mentioned at all. Clause 7(2) proposes that the 10-year bar that applies at present be reduced to five years for the chief executive and to one year for all other staff. That is also a substantial change when taken together with the change for commissioners. I wonder whether we ought to consider—I throw this thought to the Minister—extending the five-year minimum to several other important jobs, rather than just limiting it to the chief executive of the Electoral Commission.

I have been a participant in the informal group whose job it was to try to fill the gap that the Electoral Commission realised existed when it wanted more political experience to be made available to it. That group has been functioning for many years. As a member of it, I was initially sceptical about the need for this clause at all, and wondered whether the issue could be better addressed, for example, by putting that group on a formal basis, with the authority to publish views of dissent if it disagreed with actions of the Electoral Commission, which itself would be a constraint. If a group of politicians, all from different parties, said all at once that they disagreed with something and that the commission was going down the wrong route, that might act as a restraint on the commission.

This issue was the subject of the Hayden Phillips process. I participated in that process, as the Minister knows, and I participated in all the talks about this issue. It was largely decided in the margins of the Hayden Phillips discussion to go down this route as it was probably the least bad option, recognising that there are pros and cons for whichever route one takes. I am now a convert to the idea of a reduction, and I will not divide the Committee on this point. However, I  would be grateful for the Minister’s response to a number of concerns. First, when we consider the changes that we are making to staff as well as to the commissioners themselves, we are making a substantial change all in one go. Secondly, is the reduction from 10 years to five for commissioners necessarily right for the reduction for the non-political group? Thirdly, is the reduction from five years to one for all staff except for the chief executive the best way forward?

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

As always, the hon. Gentleman makes some valuable points and broadly speaking, they reflect the views of the Electoral Commission. Of course we are aware of those views and we have taken them into account. The hon. Gentleman said, using carefully chosen words, that he was not altogether sure that this way was the right way. Let me try to give him greater certainty, so that he can go forward into the afternoon in comfort and relaxation.

There is no difference in principle between us on the fact that there needs to be some form of sanitising period; I think that that is consensual. That is why we have maintained the existence of that sanitising period. The only question is how long that period should be. We have taken the view that to maintain the current restrictions is disproportionate and restrictive on individuals’ right to participate and perhaps to bring their interests to bear in this form of public life. There needs to be a sanitising period. Some of the recommendations have come from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the decision to reduce the restrictions on other commissioners from 10 years to five was taken by the Ministry of Justice. Therefore, by and large, we have imported the view of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, except in that one respect.

I want to offer to the hon. Gentleman an anecdotal reassurance and then a reassurance in principle about the approach that we have taken. The anecdotal experience is that, by and large, being politically active is an addiction and an obsession. We all know how all-consuming political activity can be. By and large, when people decide, for whatever reason, to detoxify and leave the pursuit of politics, they tend to stay clean. After a break of five years or one, they do not tend to decide to seek election and parliamentary office. They have either had their fill of it and they move on, or they have never had their fill of it and never move on. Therefore, if people take a break, they move on from that partisan participation. That is the anecdotal reassurance.

Much more importantly, we must not lose sight of the fact—we come back to this point over and over again—that everyone we are talking about will be selected on merit. Those selecting them, whoever they may be, will clearly be conscious of the need to avoid any perceived or actual conflicts of interest. That is fundamental. All the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed are fundamentally important, but all the commissioners will be selected on grounds of merit, and with that will come the fundamental objective of avoiding any conflicts of interest, real or perceived. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some reassurance about the approach that we have taken. It is a matter of judgment. This is the judgment that we have made and we think it adequate.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.