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Mr. Tipping: The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) made several important points. I recognise the sleeping policeman that he has placed in

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the path of the Bill. However, he also noted that the clock would be ticking; although he appreciates the need to make progress, he rightly asks for checks and safeguards.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the timetable. The Government will use their best endeavours--I am sure that we shall have the support and help of this House and of the other place--to obtain Royal Assent before the summer recess. That may not be the case; as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, Bills have slipped in the past. However, we aim to have Royal Assent by the summer. At that time, we shall appoint an interim chief executive. Under the current timetable, the commissioners would be in place in the autumn. November has been mentioned, but that date is not set in stone.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether anyone was lined up for the post of interim chief executive. That is not the case. I envisage that the post will be filled by a civil servant, who will undertake purely logistical work--to set up the office and put systems in place. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the range of important functions--some political--that the commission will be asked to undertake, but, at that stage, the interim chief executive will work purely on logistical arrangements.

The right hon. Gentleman asked how commissioners would be appointed and gave the answer himself: the Nolan rules will apply. We have already discussed the type of people who might be commissioners and what their background might be. The Government are determined--as are the Opposition--to ensure that the body is free from any accusation of vested interest or political partiality. That should be a point of reassurance for the right hon. Gentleman. The Bill is driven by a new determination--not only from the Government, but from all parties--to ensure that the commission is open, transparent and honest; that it is a body that all can trust for independent advice.

There is no intention whatever that the interim chief executive will be involved in the more contentious parts of the work. I made it clear in my opening remarks and in my response; the interim chief executive will "hit the ground running", as the right hon. Gentleman said. He will ensure that the logistics of the operation are in place. The sooner we can move to the appointment--under Nolan rules--of a permanent chief executive, with commissioners also appointed under those rules, the better for all of us. With that reassurance, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be content for the amendments to be accepted.

Sir George Young: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister has been as helpful as he can. However, will he confirm the following points? If the Bill received Royal Assent by the summer recess--the scenario that he outlined--and supposing that there was a dissolution of Parliament in October this year, would the election be fought under the rules envisaged in the Bill, which would then be an Act, or under the current rules, especially those that apply to expenditure limits?

Under an alternative scenario, the measure might not receive Royal Assent by the summer recess. We have already heard that further amendments will be tabled; they will have to be considered in another place and, inevitably, they will return to the House. If the Minister does not hit his targets, and the timetable for the whole

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system to be up and running is not achieved, will not the chief executive have to take decisions that are more than simply logistical?

8 pm

I do not propose to press the amendment to a Division, but I do want to express my belief that as the powers--which would not be constrained by amendment No. 84--given to the chief executive to

are not restricted to purely logistical matters, in some scenarios he may find himself taking some rather sensitive political decisions.

Mr. Tipping: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) invites me to answer hypothetical questions, and I may find myself in the difficulty that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), did in speculating on the date of the general election. If we do not achieve Royal Assent by the summer, the sooner the general election is after Royal Assent the more obvious it becomes that the general election will have to be fought under current rules. However, much depends on the progress that we make. [Interruption.] I am delighted to hear the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire say, sotto voce, "That answers that".

Sir George Young: I am afraid that the Minister's hearing is not as good as he thought it was. I said, "Even if the Bill becomes an Act, we shall fight the election under the old rules". I am not quite sure how one does that.

Mr. Tipping: We would have to fight the election under the old rules because the commission would not be in place. If there were a general election in October and Royal Assent had not been achieved by then, the election would obviously take place under the old rules. I believe that, if Royal Assent is received at the end of July and the general election is in October, the logistics and the argument would be that it would not be possible to fight under the new rules and we would have to fight under the current rules. However, much depends on the speed of the Bill's passage; if sleeping policemen are not erected, we can make quick progress.

If we are able to appoint an interim chief executive with logistical powers to set up the office and systems, the more progress we make, the more it becomes possible to put in place new arrangements for the general election. As I said earlier, that is what the Government desire and I believe that it is what all parties in the House now desire.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 85, in page 102, line 5, at end insert--

'(6) The Secretary of State may designate any member of the Commission's staff or other person to be the Commission's accounting officer until such time as the first designation made under sub-paragraph (1) takes effect.'.--[Mr. Tipping.]

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Clause 2

Speaker's Committee

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 6, at end insert--

'the Speaker of the House of Commons, who shall be the chairman of the Committee, and the following other members, namely'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 4, 86 to 89 and 5.

Mr. O'Brien: In Committee, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) moved an amendment on much the same lines as amendment No. 3, which provides for the Speaker to chair the Speaker's Committee. The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping), said then that we would discuss with Madam Speaker her views on the matter, and I am pleased to advise the House that she has agreed that the Speaker of the day should indeed chair the Speaker's Committee and take an active part in its work.

With the Speaker in the Chair, amendment No. 4 reduces the number of ordinary members of the Committee that are appointed by the Speaker from six to five. The appointment of those five members will be entirely at the Speaker's discretion. In particular, there will be no requirement on the Speaker to ensure that the membership of the Committee as a whole reflects the balance of the parties in the House. Indeed, the Speaker has indicated that she intends to appoint one Government Back Bencher, three from the principal Opposition party and one from another opposition party. The result, taking into account the three ex officio members, will be a Speaker's Committee which is exactly balanced as between Government and Opposition Members.

With the Speaker at the helm and a balanced membership, I hope that the House will be assured that the Speaker's Committee will discharge its functions in a non-partisan manner and, in doing so, will act as the guarantor of the independence of the Electoral Commission.

Amendment No. 86 corrects a drafting error in paragraph 1(1) of schedule 2. The intended purpose of that provision is to require the Speaker's Committee to report periodically to the House of Commons on the exercise by the Committee of its own functions. As drafted, paragraph 1(1) erroneously required the Speaker's Committee to report on the exercise of the Electoral Commission's functions. I hope that the amendment will be endorsed by the House.

I hope that, on that basis, the House will be able to agree to the amendments.

Sir George Young: That was a very helpful speech. Amendment No. 3 incorporates part of amendment No. 17, which the Opposition moved in Committee, and it seems to me right that the Speaker's Committee should have the Speaker in it. We are delighted that our oratory was successful. I was pleased to hear of the consultations that have taken place with Madam Speaker, both on her views on appointment and on how the five members of

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the House might be appointed. The original formula was somewhat vague about the overall composition of the Committee. It seemed to us that the fact that some members were specified created an inbuilt Government majority, and that the Speaker might then have used her discretion to put that right or she might have appointed the six from the House in proportion to the balance in the House. I was delighted to hear how the five appointments will be made. That information relieves our concern.

The Minister has explained that amendment No. 86 resulted from a typing error. We accept that.

Amendment No. 5 is reassuring. The Minister may recall amendment No. 20 tabled in Committee, because the Bill as drafted allowed the Chairman of the Speaker's Committee to agree to the appointment of the commissioners, even if everyone else on the Speaker's Committee disagreed. Putting the Speaker in as Chairman gets around that potential problem. Real progress has been made and we welcome the amendments.

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