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Mr. Robathan: The hon. Gentleman has not only given way to me but given me a geography lesson. How can he refer to Europe as "it" if we are within it? He was talking about it as though it were a foreign body, yet, as he has so rightly pointed out, it is not because we are part of it.

8.30 pm

Mr. Stunell: That is an interesting argument; the same is true of local government, Parliament and all other bodies on which the Electoral Commission has been given a job, exactly as the hon. Gentleman says. In its collective form, the European Union is the same. I see no justification for the Conservatives' approach, and I could not see it last time either. I do not think that that is for want of intelligence on my part. Their ideas are fundamentally misconceived.

I understand the spirit in which the Government's concessions have been made and their entirely honourable intention to ensure that the commission is not drawn into controversy. In restricting what the commission can do on electoral systems, I hope that its duty to explain and promote systems in use in the United Kingdom will remain clear. Judging by some preliminary findings from discussions with colleagues from the London area about the mayoral election and the ballot paper with which London electors will be faced, there is a substantial job to be done. There is clearly a substantial job to be done throughout the country in pointing out the many advantages--and perhaps one or two disadvantages--of the closed list system.

I very much hope that, in clipping the wings of the Electoral Commission for some apparently very good reasons, the Minister does not cause it to go into its shell and fail to take necessary action. I especially hope that he will not in any way be tempted by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) to support amendment No. 159. The right hon. Gentleman said that

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different electoral systems in the UK were a problem and that the wicked Electoral Commission might be drawn into explaining to another part of the United Kingdom the voting system in, let us say, Northern Ireland in the European elections, Scotland in the Scottish elections or, for that matter, London in the mayoral election. Both Government and Opposition amendments could inhibit the commission's wider duty of promoting and developing democracy, and are to be regretted.

Mr. Robathan: Comments about Europe made by the Minister, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) and, indeed, me, illustrate the difficulties into which the Electoral Commission could walk if it tried to educate people about the European Union and the institutions thereof. We are self-evidently European. I stress to both hon. Gentlemen that I am not anti-European; nor do I leap up and down at the mention of the word "Europe". Indeed, I spent much time studying European history. When I did so, there was a distinction between British and European history. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove, I am going on holiday on the continent of Europe and not to Cornwall.

The educational requirement could strike at the purpose of the Electoral Commission. If its purpose is to be above party politics and political and detailed argument, it must remain neutral at all times. The Minister will say that it can educate on European and other matters while remaining neutral. That is true if it educates on electoral systems about which all parties agree, but if such education extends to various EU institutions, especially the European central bank, which my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) mentioned, the commission will inevitably be drawn into detailed argument.

However the Minister puts his argument, he will discover accusations of bias--possibly from both sides of the House. Such accusations, even if they are from both sides of the House, will tend, in the eyes of those who take contrary views, to undermine the perceived neutrality of the Electoral Commission. That is important. If the Electoral Commission starts discussing Europe or proportional representation or methods of voting, there will be accusations that the commission is getting involved in matters on which it should be neutral. That is a straightforward argument.

I shall not repeat my right hon. Friend's argument, as he expressed it better than I could. The particular case of the European central bank and the single currency is a good example. I could write the argument from one side and the Minister could write it from the other, and we would both think that we were being neutral, but if the Electoral Commission wrote a paper on the ECB, setting out the pros and cons, the Minister--whose position on the European currency I do not know--and I might be able to criticise it equally well from either side. The danger is that by getting involved in the debate, the Electoral Commission would lose its perceived neutrality, however hard it might try to maintain it.

I question whether it should be the purpose of the Electoral Commission to get involved in such matters, when there is an office in Storey's Gate, run by Mr. Geoffrey Martin, whom the Minister may know. The office exists in order to publish the great benefits that the European Commission brings to these isles. I do not disagree with much that the office publishes; indeed,

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Mr. Martin and I often have genial conversations. However, what would be the purpose of such an office if the Electoral Commission acquired an educational responsibility? Might they not end up working in tandem and, again, might that not undermine the perceived neutrality of the Electoral Commission?

As was revealed by the Minister's ignorance about DG VII and VIII, and mine about DG V, the Electoral Commission would face an enormous task if it was required by the Government to educate people about the institutions of the European Union. The Minister and I do not know all the details of the EU, and we spend considerable time studying it, so that would be a huge task for the Electoral Commission, in which it might fail.

I shall not detain the House. The argument is important, although it is easily dismissed. The neutrality of the Electoral Commission could be undermined before it even started. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) wants to go to Europe. We wish him well on his holiday, and from our point of view, the sooner he goes, the better.

Mr. Robathan: In that case, I shall go now.

Mr. O'Brien: That is a matter for the hon. Gentleman and his Whips. Our Whips are happy to give him permission to go.

Let us consider the argument and cut to the core of the concern expressed by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) that there could be some mention of the European central bank. We have set up an Electoral Commission which will be above politics. The right hon. Gentleman welcomed the independence that the commission will have. It will be supervised by the Speaker's Committee. He welcomed the independent way in which that Committee will operate. There are many safeguards to preserve the independence and integrity of the Electoral Commission.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give that body some credit for common sense, when we appoint all these great and good people to run it, supervised, no doubt, by more great and good people from the House? There are enough safeguards. We want a neutral body that is not involved in questions such as whether we join the single currency or not. It would be ridiculous for the Electoral Commission to get involved in that debate. We want a body whose neutrality is not compromised, but we do not want a body that is neutered.

The right hon. Gentleman is proposing, in effect, to neuter the body that we are setting up to educate voters by providing basic information. Awareness of an institutional set-up such as the European central bank is unlikely to sway anyone one way or the other on whether we should join the single currency. I doubt whether the Electoral Commission wants to get involved in such a debate, or even provide information.

However, after the next election, and perhaps the subsequent election, a Conservative Government might--heaven forfend--return to office. The Conservative party is committed to not joining the single currency for only two

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elections. It could subsequently determine that the time was right to join. The Electoral Commission might then decide to educate people about an institution of which we are a member. We are therefore making law for the future; it is wise to consider circumstances that may arise. Nobody wants the Electoral Commission's neutrality to be compromised. However, we do not want to neuter it.

Sir George Young: I appreciate that the Minister does not want to compromise the commission's impartiality. However, we feel strongly about amendment No. 157, and believe that it is important at this stage not to give the commission the duty that we are considering, and involve it in such a sensitive debate. At the appropriate time, we shall press the amendment to a Division.

Mr. O'Brien: I regret that Conservative Members take that view. The sort of problem that they fear is in no danger of arising. They display their usual hypertensive reaction to the word "Europe".

On amendment No. 159, the Government do not believe that it would be possible for the Electoral Commission to promote proportional representation for election to Parliament under clause 11(3) by giving grants. The right hon. Gentleman knows the implications of Pepper v. Hart. We do not believe that the Electoral Commission will be able to give any organisation grants to promote proportional representation for parliamentary elections.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) was right to say that voter education was important. We must ensure neutrality on some of the more sensitive issues. The Government want the Electoral Commission to remain strictly neutral on controversial political issues such as Europe, proportional representation and regional government--many Labour Members feel strongly about the latter. It is better for the Electoral Commission to stay out of the fray on such issues. However, it can inform people about proportional representation in European elections, and regional government in the devolved assemblies, especially if assemblies were to be established in England. There are potential opportunities for the Electoral Commission to perform a useful function.


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