Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Evans: I welcome the Minister's approach. Will he also take account of proposed new subsection (6)(b) of new clause 8, which deals with people who have not yet reached the age of majority, but will do so while they are abroad with their parents?

Mr. Tipping: That, again, is a fair point, but a careful application of the "use it or lose it" principle would meet their needs too.

I do not want to make false promises. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said throughout the Bill's proceedings, it is important that we take the political parties with us, and that a consensus emerges. It seems from this evening's discussion that we have not simply a kernel of a consensus but a wave that is beginning to roll out over "use it or lose it".

I am well aware, having received representations and heard the views expressed in Committee and in the debate tonight that this argument will not go away. I simply say to those right hon. and hon. Members who tabled the new

13 Mar 2000 : Column 86

clauses and amendments in this group that I guarantee to listen to the argument and reflect on it. Let me be clear on this: I make no guarantee that I will bring forward an amendment. However, if the consensus continues to build and develop across all the political parties, the "use it or lose it" option may become a real possibility. In that spirit of consensus, I invite my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea to withdraw new clause 5.

Mr. Evans: Will the Minister clarify one point about the "use it or lose it" principle, no matter whether it is introduced under new clause 5 or new clause 8 or some amalgam of them? If someone registers within five years and continues to register every year, can they continue to do so for ever, or will there be some limit?

Mr. Miller: It will be done by consensus.

Mr. Tipping: I hear what my hon. Friend says: we would have to discuss that. There is a strong argument for a cut-off date, because a "use it or lose it" option would be more generous than the current provisions. However, I give no guarantee, except that, as the Home Secretary has said, if a consensus emerges and a model develops that has the consent of all the political parties, it will deserve serious consideration.

Mr. Linton: We have had a debate on the nature of compromise and the way towards consensus. The Government's original attempt at consensus was to offer a mid point--a geometrical bisection between 20 years and nought, which was, of course, 10 years. The alternative that has emerged might be described as a non-linear compromise--five years, not 10, but with continuous registration. That proves that the middle way does not always mean reaching a mid point. I claim no credit for thinking of that solution; it came from the international organisations of the parties.

I freely confess that I have, as the Minister said, changed my mind since the recommendation of the Home Affairs Committee. As that recommendation was for five years, however, I have changed my mind not on the length of time required, but on the way in which the law may apply to those who are prepared to re-register year after year. As the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) said, our approach contains an important self-regulating feature, ensuring that the amendment would apply only to the small number of people who show determination to register. There are perhaps 3 million or 4 million British passport holders overseas, but we are talking about only 13,000 of them--just one in 300 are determined to keep their vote.

New clause 7, on international organisations, was never meant as special pleading for those who work for public sector organisations. It was intended to be taken with new clause 5, on the "use it or lose it" principle, to create a double system by which people whose commitment to the UK is beyond doubt could be assured a continuing vote. Those who work in the public sector for organisations of which we are treaty members would receive an assurance. Those who do not would prove their good faith through registering year after year. In either case, the intention of the amendments is to set a test of people's continued commitment rather than opening up the vote to the millions who live abroad and who have British citizenship.

13 Mar 2000 : Column 87

I am encouraged by what my hon. Friend the Minister has said. I understand that he offers no guarantee, but it is incumbent on all parties to seek the consensus that would persuade him to accept an amendment so that what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) called the chrysalis of consensus may burst into the butterfly of agreement. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1

The Electoral Commission

Mr. Tipping: I beg to move amendment No. 84, in page 98, line 30, at end insert--

'(8) Until such time as the Commission may determine, the Commission's chief executive appointed under sub-paragraph (7) may incur expenditure and do other things in the name and on behalf of the Commission, whether or not the membership of the Commission has yet to be constituted in accordance with section 1.
(9) The power conferred by sub-paragraph (8) shall be exercisable by that person subject to and in accordance with any directions given to him by the Secretary of State.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 85.

Mr. Tipping: As the Home Secretary stated on Second Reading, the Government intend to bring the Electoral Commission into being as a functioning body before the next general election. Whatever the timing of either Royal Assent or the election, we can be certain that the timetable for establishment of the commission will be tight. The Chamber has already discussed the demands and choices about priorities that the commission will face. It is essential that the groundwork for the rapid and smooth establishment of the commission as a going concern should be done as soon as possible. Once appointed, the commissioners should be able to devote their attention and energies to implementing the Bill's core provisions.

7.45 pm

Schedule 1(11)(7) provides for the Secretary of State to appoint a person to be interim chief executive of the commission pending the appointment of the electoral commissioners. The intention is to appoint an interim chief executive as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent so that he or she can take forward work both on logistical issues relating to the establishment of the commission, such as accommodation and recruitment of staff, and give thought to practical arrangements for implementing the controls on income and expenditure set out in the Bill.

Our objective is to ensure that the commission will be in a position to discharge its functions as soon as possible following the appointment of the commissioners. In doing so, the interim chief executive will need to enter into contracts and incur expenditure and make other decisions relating to implementation of the commission's functions in the short term. Paragraph 11(8), introduced by amendment No. 85, would provide the interim chief executive with the authority necessary to incur

13 Mar 2000 : Column 88

expenditure and to do other things in the name of and on behalf of the commissioners pending their appointment. We have already discussed that process.

Paragraph 11(9) would require the interim chief executive to exercise that power only in conformity with directions given by the Secretary of State. Given the need to incur expenditure in advance of the appointment of the commissioners, it is also necessary to make provision for the appointment of an interim accounting officer until such time as the Speaker's Committee is able to do so under paragraph 19(1). Amendment No. 86 would therefore amend paragraph 19 to provide for the Secretary of State to appoint a member of the commission's staff, or some other person--for example, the interim chief executive--as the commission's accounting officer until an appointment is made.

Quick progress is essential on the establishment of the commission. The Government--and I believe hon. Members on both sides of the House--believe that the commission should be up and running in time for the general election--whenever it comes. I hope that the House will accept that the amendments will facilitate that.

Sir George Young: We should perhaps put a sleeping policeman in front of this juggernaut. Some important implications lie behind the amendment. The Minister explained that the commission wants to hit the ground running, adding that there was a tight timetable and a demanding schedule. To avoid delay, he wants to give powers to the chief executive to begin work before the commission is formally established.

That seems innocuous, and if the Bill had been passed during the previous Session, we should not have been too concerned about it. However, this is probably the last full Session of the current Parliament, and the Bill may not receive Royal Assent until November, the month in which many of the Government's Bills from the past Session received it. There may be an election in May 2001--or even earlier.

The amendment gives powers to an individual to act in the name of the Electoral Commission before the commissioners are appointed. If an election were called before the electoral commissioners had been appointed, or if key decisions have to be taken by the commission in order to meet the challenging timetable set for it, that chap would have to do the work. The amendment potentially undermines all the Bill's attempts to make the commission independent by allowing the Secretary of State to nominate a chief executive who then carries out the powers of the commission.

Under paragraph 11(7) of schedule 1, we note that the chief executive may be appointed by the Secretary of State. It would be helpful to know what time scale the Minister envisages for that. Will it be done ahead of Royal Assent? Does he have anyone in mind? In view of the powers that the chief executive may have in the interval between his appointment and the appointment of the commission, does the Minister propose to consult Opposition parties as to who that chap may be?

Amendment No. 84 gives the Secretary of State's appointee wide powers. He can act on behalf of the commission until

13 Mar 2000 : Column 89

    The commission's powers are very wide indeed. Paragraph 2 of the schedule provides that the commission

    may do anything (except borrow money) which is calculated to facilitate, or is incidental or conducive to, the carrying out of any of their functions.

Everything covered by clauses 1 to 11 could be undertaken by that appointee of the Secretary of State. He could deal with policy development grants; with education about electoral systems; and with party broadcasts. Indeed, he could even undertake chunks of part II. The only constraint on his activities is that they should be

    subject to and in accordance with any directions given to him by the Secretary of State.

That does not give the Opposition enormous reassurance.

It may take some time to appoint the electoral commissioners. The process is set out in clause 3. As I understand the matter, the commissioners cannot be appointed until the Speaker's Committee has been established. Its agreement must be secured before an Address from the House of Commons can be issued; then the electoral commissioners can be appointed. I assume that the Nolan committee process for public appointments will be used. That may take time. The people approached may not want to take up the job--or if they want to do so, they may not be able to for some time.

In the meantime, the clock will be ticking. If we are to believe the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), the date has already been fixed. Progress will have to be made in the absence of the commissioners. Those crucial, independent decisions will be taken by someone appointed by the Secretary of State and subject to his direction. The general election could be called before any commissioners have been appointed and that chap will be in charge.

Can that be right? Without the amendment, the chief executive cannot act on behalf of the commission--with it, he can. Without the amendment, there would at least be some incentive to appoint the commissioners promptly, so we would not need it. At a stroke, it could destroy the assembling of a visibly neutral body to oversee the next general election.

The powers vested in the chief executive are enormous. I am not sure that any civil servant would want to discharge them. We have spent much time discussing those powers. It would be helpful if the Minister could take us through the timetable. When does the Secretary of State envisage appointing a person as the commission's chief executive? What is the time scale after Royal Assent for the appointment of the commissioners? When does the Minister expect that the commission will be able to operate and to take over all those responsibilities from the acting chief executive?

If my understanding is correct, that acting chief executive may have to do some of the legwork that the Minister mentioned in his opening remarks. He referred to some logistical issues that would have to be addressed. We need to know a little more about which sensitive political decisions might have to be taken by that chief executive until such time as the commissioners can take over from him.

Next Section

IndexHome Page