Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8 Jan 2001 : Column 828

Electoral Commission

11.44 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek your clarification. The Order Paper says that the Speaker will put the Question not later than one and a half hours after proceedings begin and refers to Standing Order No. 16. As I read it, Standing Order No. 16 indicates that the Question will be put and presumably, therefore, a Division will be taken. Can you confirm, on the basis of the fact that the Order Paper refers to Standing Order No. 16, that the House may, if it chooses, divide at the end of the debate--after an hour and a half, or whenever it ends?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): If there is a challenge at the end of the debate, on this occasion the Division will be deferred until Wednesday.

Mr. Forth: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have searched the Sessional Orders--the addendums to the Standing Orders--to see whether that would be the case, but obviously my powers are slightly failing me, due to the hour, because I could not find in the Sessional Orders any reference to Standing Order No. 16. I am sure that I am mistaken, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I would appreciate your guidance. We are in the early stages of these very peculiar proceedings, and I think that it would help the House if the matter were to be made absolutely clear.

Madam Deputy Speaker: If the right hon. Gentleman will give me time, I shall check on the matter and give him the appropriate reference. Meanwhile, we shall continue.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You say that you will reflect on the matter. Can we have your assurance that you will reflect on it now, today? It is extremely important--

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I am advised that the Address will be the subject of a deferred Division. I fully intended to give an answer today to hon. Members.

Mr. Howarth: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to keep pressing you on this, but it seems to be an important issue. I have a copy of the Standing Orders of the House, and Standing Order No. 16 does not state that there should be a deferred Division. I accept that the Standing Orders were printed on 25 May--

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I explain perhaps to the hon. Gentleman that the matter is dealt with in the Sessional Order?

I call the Minister.

11.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I beg to move,

(1) Pamela Joan Gordon for the period of four years;
(2) Sir Neil William David McIntosh KBE for the period of four years;

8 Jan 2001 : Column 829

(3) Johnathon Glyn Mathias for the period of five years;
(4) Sukhminder Karamjit Singh CBE for the period of five years;
(5) James Samuel Younger for the period of six years; and
(6) Graham John Zellick for the period of five years;
and that Her Majesty will appoint James Samuel Younger to be the chairman of the Electoral Commission for the period of six years.

The Electoral Commission was established by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. It will monitor compliance on the part of political parties and others, with controls on donations and on election and referendum campaign expenditure. The commission will also have a statutory duty to keep under review the law and practice in elections and referendums and will be a source of best practice advice for electoral administrators. It will also have a duty to promote public awareness of electoral systems and the arrangements for local and national Government. In due course, the commission will also take over responsibility for the review of parliamentary and local government boundaries.

Those are important functions. If the Electoral Commission is to discharge them fairly and impartially, it is imperative that the commission should be, and should be seen to be, as independent as our constitutional arrangements will allow. That means independent both of the Government of the day and of the political parties.

The arrangements that we have established for appointment of the electoral commissioners are one of the key mechanisms by which the independence of the commission can be assured. The key point about the appointments is that they are not ministerial appointments. Although it is necessary for a Department--in this case the Home Office--to take charge of the mechanics of selection and appointments, the commissioners do not in any sense owe their appointments to the Home Secretary, and they will not be accountable to him. The Electoral Commission is emphatically not a non-departmental public body.

Mr. Forth: Will the Minister tell us who selected the names and on what basis he is offering them to the House?

Mr. O'Brien: I shall indeed do that. First, however, I should say that, with the Comptroller and Auditor General, the electoral commissioners will be appointed by Her Majesty on the presentation of an Address from the House. I am today moving a motion for that Address.

As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) suggested, the Address is the culmination of a selection procedure which process began in April 2000, with publication in the press of advertisements inviting applications to fill the posts. The Home Office received 223 applications by the closing date. They were subsequently whittled down to a shortlist of 16 people, who were invited for interview by a selection panel chaired by Sir David Omand, the permanent secretary at the Home Office. The other members of the panel were Elizabeth Filkin, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards; Sylvia Denman, an academic lawyer specialising in equal opportunity issues; and Nigel Varney, the head of the Home Office party funding unit.

The names in the motion are those that were recommended for appointment by the selection panel, but that was by no means the end of the selection process.

8 Jan 2001 : Column 830

To ensure the full confidence of the main political parties in the appointment procedure, section 3 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 requires that no motion for an Address may be made except with the agreement of the Speaker and after consultation with the leader of those parties with two or more sitting MPs.

I know that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst--who sits smiling--does not necessarily run with the writ of the leader of his party and takes great pride in not doing so.

Mr. Forth: Too right.

Mr. O'Brien: We all heard that on this side of the House; no doubt many other Opposition Members would take that view of their leader as well.

I can advise the House that the Speaker has given his consent to the appointments. We have also consulted the leaders of all eight of the relevant political parties; I can again advise the House that none has objected to any of the appointments.

Let me now say a few words about the candidates for the appointments. The name in the motion for appointment as chairman of the Electoral Commission is that of Sam Younger. Mr. Younger is currently director general of the British Red Cross Society and was previously managing director of the BBC World Service.

As for the names of the other five putative members of the commission, the first, Pamela Gordon, has wide experience of local government, having been a chief executive. She is currently a member of the Local Government Commission for England, the functions of which will be transferred to the Electoral Commission from April 2002.

The second member proposed in the list is Sir Neil McIntosh, currently the convenor of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. Among the roles that he has previously undertaken is that of chief counting officer for the 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution. He is chairman of the Commission on Local Government and the Scottish Parliament, which reported in June 1999.

The third name is that of Glyn Mathias, who will be known to many right hon. and hon. Members as a broadcasting journalist who has worked for various channels. [Interruption.] His name is greeted with approbation by various Opposition Members. The fourth name is that of Karamjit Singh, who is currently a civil service commissioner and a criminal cases review commissioner. Finally, Professor Graham Zellick is vice-chancellor of the university of London, having previously held a number of other academic posts.

All six have recently confirmed that they are not barred from appointment as electoral commissioners by virtue of section 3(4) of the Act. These six will, individually and collectively, bring to bear a wide range of the skills and experience that will be necessary to establish the commission as an independent, authoritative and, I hope, respected arbiter of the controls on income and expenditure, as well as being a source of sound and practical advice on the political and electoral process.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The Minister rightly confirmed that neither the leader of my party nor I have any objection to the

8 Jan 2001 : Column 831

nomination of the names before the House; indeed, we support them. Could the Minister explain the slightly unusual proposition that some of the nominations are for six years, some for five and some for four? What determines the length of time for each nominee?

Next Section

IndexHome Page