The periods were recommended and it is right that we have a rolling process of appointment to commissions. These days, by and large, that is how we operate. It means that we are not trying to replace people all at once and that we are able to introduce new blood to a public body while retaining an element of experience. If some retire slightly earlier than others, we can bring in new blood, if appropriate, or renew the contracts for the posts, if appropriate.
The hon. Gentleman also asks why these particular people were chosen. I am acting on the recommendations of those who carried out the selection procedure. Because of the sensitivity of the posts, I have taken the approach that the less a political hand is involved--although obviously we are all responsible--the better. I have by and large accepted the recommendations of those who have advised me.
The Minister is trying to say, "Not me, guv", but it is he who has presented the list of names to the House, so I am sure he will be prepared to accept responsibility. He will also accept that it is now a House of Commons matter and the fact that party leaders have signed up to the list need not bind any independent- minded Member of Parliament.
Is it a coincidence that two BBC people have turned up on a list of six? Is not that strange, given that there are nearly 60 million people in this country? Will the Minister explain that?
The right hon. Gentleman rightly holds Ministers and the Government to account. BBC experience is not the criterion by which we judge the acceptability of candidates. If that were the case, many Members of Parliament would have something to say about it. The candidates were considered individually and interviewed properly. The selection panel was as reasonably non-partisan politically as we could make it. It so happened that two of those who came through the process have some background in the BBC. It is a matter more of chance than anything else. The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt express his own views on it.
I hope that the House will support the motion.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
For the avoidance of any doubt, I confirm that if my opinion as to the decision on the question of the Electoral Commission is challenged, the matter will be subject to a deferred Division.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath):
The Minister's tone of sweet reasonableness would lead the House to suppose that nothing had ever gone amiss with this
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procedure, that everything had been straightforward up to now and that there was nothing in the motion to trouble the House, but that is far from the case.
My right hon. and hon. Friends will be interested to hear the small saga of what occurred just before Christmas. The sequence of events makes the position rather less happy for the Government than the Minister has just led us to believe. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) tabled a question on 30 November asking when the commissioners were to be appointed following the enactment of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The reply was:
We intend to table a motion for an Address to be presented to Her Majesty, as required by section 3(1) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, soon.--[Official Report, 13 December 2000; Vol. 359, c. 181W.]
It was therefore with considerable surprise that we discovered that the Home Office issued a press release the following morning announcing the names of the commission members. No reference had been made to an imminent press release in the written answer given to my right hon. Friend only the day before, yet that press release listed the names that the Minister has put forward this evening--the names on the Order Paper--and said that they had been recommended for appointment; there was no question of the matter coming before the House. The Minister has said tonight that the appointments are a matter for the House, as indeed they are. Unfortunately, however, it appears that the Home Office had more than somewhat jumped the gun.
My right hon. and hon. Friends will be particularly interested in what happened next. In a letter, of which I have a copy, dated the following day-- 15 December--none other than the Home Secretary himself had to write what I can only describe as a grovelling apology to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). Indeed, he also sent a copy to the Leader of the House and to Mr. Speaker.
The Home Secretary's letter began:
I am writing to apologise for the premature release yesterday morning of a Home Office Press Notice announcing the names of the Electoral Commissioners-designate in advance of the tabling of the motion for the Address as required by section 3 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border):
As my right hon. Friend says, stinking fish indeed.
The letter goes on:
As you will have seen, the motion was tabled yesterday afternoon and appears on today's Order Paper. I hope it will be possible to find time to debate the motion soon after the Christmas Recess and for the appointments process to be completed by the middle of January at the latest.
So there was a very rapid volte face by no less a person than the Home Secretary, trying to cover the tracks of his Department's press release.
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The right hon. Gentleman sent a further letter to the Government Chief Whip on 19 December, saying:
The timing of the Address for the appointment of the Electoral Commissions--
it should say "the Electoral Commissioners", but no doubt the Home Secretary was in such a hurry that he referred to them as "Electoral Commissions"--
was dependent, first and foremost, on securing Royal Assent for the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. As you know this was not secured until the very end of the last Session and it was only then that it was possible to initiate steps to table the motion for the Address, although I agree that your Office could have been given a little more forewarning. While it was highly desirable for the appointments to have been made this side of Christmas it is not absolutely essential for this to happen and I am grateful to you for provisionally scheduling a slot for the Address to be debated when the Commons returns in January.
Why was there all this panic? Why were the grovelling apologies made so quickly--within a day? Why, four days later, was a letter--which subsequently came into my hands--sent by the Home Secretary to his own Chief Whip?
All that happened entirely because of the perceptive interventions at business questions by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. On 14 December, she wisely asked:
Why will the House have to wait until mid-January before the electoral commissioners are appointed, as the Home Office press release states? Surely we could debate that in the coming week and have them in place for the new year. Will the Leader of the House consider that because it is important and needs to be addressed? Will that decision not further complicate the implementation of the Bill's main provisions on donations and expenditure?
It is interesting that my hon. Friend picked out the question of donations, which has recently brought the Government into such great disrepute, as early as 14 December. She continued:
I hope that the Leader of the House will share my concern about the way in which the business has been handled and the disrespect it shows to Members of the House for announcements to be made without providing a written answer or an opportunity for us to discuss it.
However, matters were worse still because the written answer received by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald was entirely misleading as no mention was made of the fact that a press release was about to be issued.
The Leader of the House tried to respond to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. She said:
As for the Home Office press release, I am afraid that I am not familiar with precisely what was said or why . . . However, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill has been extensively discussed. I understand that the House is interested in who the commissioners may be, but I am not aware of a suggestion that we should debate those appointments. Indeed, successive Governments have not thought that there should be accountability, other than through Ministers, for appointments that are made through the proper public appointment process.
However, that was not thought good enough because, as my hon. Friend said in a point of order at the end of business questions on 14 December last year, the Government had already promised a debate. The Government had apparently forgotten what they had
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promised in their own Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. During that point of order, my hon. Friend asked the Leader of the House
whether she will reconsider her response to my request for a debate next week on the appointment of the electoral commissioners? Section 3 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums 2000 requires an address to the Crown from the Commons for the appointment of commissioners. Does it not therefore seem highly appropriate that the Commons should address the subject?
In response, the Leader of the House said:
it will not be easy for the House to find time for such a debate--nor, indeed, do I immediately perceive the necessity for one.
That was said despite the fact that the Government's own legislation clearly stated that such a debate would have to be held and that the House would have to scrutinise the names.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) was right to describe this saga as a shambles. This is yet another example of the Government not knowing their own legislation, rushing ahead with press releases before any debate has taken place and showing utter contempt for hon. Members and the normal, proper constitutional requirements.