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Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): As we are in a vein of transparency, openness and frankness, will the hon. Gentleman care to put on record the date on which the Leader of the Opposition agreed to the proposed names?
Mr. Hawkins: I have not yet dealt with the consultation on the names. I am simply setting out the very uncomfortable facts of the saga of the complete abuse of the procedures of the House and the Government's own legislation.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border has said, that saga has been a shambles. The Act was enacted on 30 November, but only now are we beginning to discuss the membership of the commission. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), for Penrith and The Border and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) will wish to express their own views, but it is particularly important to understand that the Government's handling of the matter has gone badly wrong. I hope that, in winding up the debate, the Minister will have the grace to apologise to the House for everything that has gone wrong during this appalling saga, even though he said nothing about that in his opening remarks, from which no one would guess that anything had gone wrong or that the Home Secretary had to send grovelling apologies to Mr. Speaker and leading figures in the main parties.
We must now consider some of the outstanding issues that arise from the Act. The Opposition have continually raised issues relating to the Act and its operation, and questions remain about the commission's membership. My right hon. and hon. Friends would want me to draw attention to those matters because they would also wish to raise them. Nothing in the legislation forbids the Electoral Commission's staff, as opposed to its members, being members of political parties. The official Opposition remain concerned about that because the duties in which
Mr. Hawkins: Of course I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall try to restrict my comments, but I hope that you will accept that the Opposition's concerns about the staff of the commission are issues that are affected by the membership of the commission. However, in the light of your ruling, I will not pursue that point.
Mr. Hawkins: In the light of that point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I deal with the official Opposition's concerns about the accountability of the commission's members? Parliamentary answers, particularly that at column 528W on 28 November in response to a question about the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, seem to imply that Members of the House have no ability to hold the members of the commission to account. However, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton at business questions, the Leader of the House said that
The Act includes a provision to set up a special Speaker's Committee to oversee the work of the Electoral Commission. It will be needed to oversee the commission's finances and spending. I understand that the establishment of the Committee is under discussion, but can the Minister tell the House when he expects that the Committee will be established? It would be a matter of great concern to the House if members of the commission operated for a long time without the proper procedures to oversee their work being put in place. Has the Speaker's Committee been appointed yet? I am happy for the Minister to clarify that matter when he winds up the debate.
Mr. Hawkins: Once again I defer to your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. For the benefit of hon. Members, I was seeking to address the way in which the members of the commission will, we hope, at some stage be accountable to the House. However, I shall leave that point there.
I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will realise from the points that I have made that many matters of considerable concern remain. Although the members of the Electoral Commission have been agreed by all the main political parties, it is important to debate a number of outstanding questions. I hope that the Minister will deal with those questions after he has heard from my right hon. and hon. Friends.
Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): I welcome the appointment of the commissioners and hope that they will have time to get on top of their jobs in time for a possible spring election. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) upbraided the Government for jumping the gun; I congratulate them on getting on with the job. It is important that the commissioners should have the maximum amount of time to get on with the job that they have to do.
It is only five weeks and a few days until the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 comes into force on 16 February. From then, there will be only some 10 weeks until 3 May, the date that is constantly being mentioned as a possible election date. I myself have no information about that. The commissioners will need all that time and more to familiarise themselves with the job. Indeed, I had understood that the motion might be brought to the House before the new year, but it was certainly important that Home Office Ministers were able to get on with the job of selecting candidates for nomination.
Mr. Forth: Following the hon. Gentleman's reasoning, if there were to be an election on a date in April which has been widely canvassed, dissolution would have to take place three or four weeks beforehand--early in March. Does the hon. Gentleman think that if the appointments take effect in February and the general election comes along so soon, three or four weeks will be sufficient for the commissioners to get up to speed and to do their job effectively?
Mr. Linton: There is no provision for the Prime Minister to have to take into account the implementation dates for the Act before deciding on the date of an election. Clearly, however, once that date has been chosen, the electoral commissioners will have to consider what measures can reasonably be implemented in time for that election. That decision cannot be made in the absence of any knowledge about when the election will be held. I merely make the point that the sooner the commissioners are allowed to get on with the job, the more they will be prepared for an election. The earlier the suggested date of the election, the stronger that argument.
Unlike the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, I was concerned by the stringency of the conditions for commissioners which were introduced in an amendment in the House of Lords in October or November. [Interruption.] That was nothing to do with membership of the BBC. The conditions were that commissioners could not in the past 10 years have been an officer of a political party, have made a recordable donation or have held a relevant political office. That may all be perfectly justifiable, but it may also mean that we have in these six people six political virgins with very little experience of the electoral process. It is true that experience in these matters is not everything, and I recognise that the single
The importance of having people whose impartiality can be accepted by all is very much underlined by the situation in Canada. In this country, political parties are not yet familiar with the power carried by the chief electoral officer. We have been spoilt by centuries of lax enforcement of electoral rules and, indeed, by a system of self-enforcement, in which rules are rarely enforced unless the political parties themselves report a suspected default. Since the parties may feel vulnerable on that point, they rarely report such defaults. Political parties in this country will get a rude shock when we have in place a commission with officials paid to check that they adhere to the law and to prosecute any party that fails to do so. Certainly in Canada, the chief electoral officers--
Mr. Linton: I was merely trying to draw the attention of the House to the importance of electoral commissioners because Canada's commission, known as Elections Canada, performs a vital role during elections. The commission is personified by the chief executive, or chief electoral officer, but he answers to the electoral commissioners. I was merely pointing out that, in Canada, the power of chief electoral officers such as Jean-Marc Hamel, and particularly in Quebec--