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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps I did not make myself clear. We are dealing with the suitability of the people listed on the Order Paper; that has nothing to do with Canada.

Mr. Linton: I merely make the point that it is important that the six should be seen to be impartial and win the respect and the authority that comes from that impartiality, as has happened in Canada. I must follow your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If you feel that any parallel drawn with Canada--even one of electoral commission to electoral commission--is inappropriate, I shall not pursue the point.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have nothing against Canada. The hon. Gentleman is making general remarks; that is not the purpose of the motion.

Mr. Linton: I merely question whether the candidates are prepared for the role that electoral commissioners play. I hope that they are aware of its importance. I understand that the acting chief electoral officer, for instance, has been seconded from the Home Office. I have nothing against the individual concerned, but it is important that the electoral commissioners understand that, as a body, they need a completely different culture from the Home Office, which has been responsible heretofore for the conduct of elections, and that they need to stamp their own authority on the conduct of elections.

I think that this is the only country in the world where the main electoral authority--the Home Office--cannot even tell people the result of an election. It will simply refer people to a newspaper. In any other country--certainly one that has an electoral commission--the body

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would regard as one of its prime responsibilities the ability to provide chapter and verse on the result of elections.

I wish the six candidates well and emphasise that it will be vital that, if their appointment is agreed, they carry in their ability and, above all, in their impartiality the confidence of all parties represented in the House.

12.22 am

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): As I said in an intervention on the Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) had no objection on behalf of my party to the names before the House. Therefore, we will be supporting the motion--in both what I say and in any deferred vote.

It strikes me that there is a relevant question about the appointment process and the questions put to the six people when interviewed and asked whether they were ready to take up their posts. It relates to the timetable for their function, which could be exercised immediately.

The Minister will know that my colleagues and I supported the idea behind the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. We disagreed over some matters, but generally supported the process. We supported in general the recommendations of the Neill committee and, indeed, nominated somebody to sit on it who fully participated in the process. We also support the idea of an electoral commission. So, questions concern its practical functioning from now on.

I shall summarise the functions in order to preface my questions about the interviewing of the individual candidates. The electoral commissioners should monitor elections and election law; be the registrar for parties; receive and publish details of donations to parties and third parties in campaigns; receive and publish parties' accounts; choose the organisations to receive core funding in referendum campaigns; receive election returns from the acting returning officers; have the power to investigate parties and their accounts, especially in cases of alleged breach of rules; advise on election rules; and have an administrative role in support of all those functions.

Potentially that is a huge remit of work, and there is provision in the schedule for staff, for example. If the motion is approved tomorrow under the deferred voting procedure, the Address will go to the Queen and the Queen may approve the commissioners. It could be, as the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) said, that there will then be about two months before the next general election. There could be 14 months, of course. There are real questions about how equipped the commissioners feel they are personally to give time and commitment, to meet and sit and to do their job.

A matter of controversy recently, and rightfully, is one that the Act sought to address. It is no accident that everyone becomes excited about donations to political parties. There is huge interest in them, not least because everyone would like to have huge donations to his or her political party. Let us be honest about that. That is why regulation of the process was needed.

It is clear that until 16 February, the date when the new electoral register will come into force and the date when the Act will come into force, there is one procedure that does not require certain disclosure. From 16 February

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--there had to be a cut-off date--there will be another procedure. I do not want to have an argument about the legal propriety of saying something before 16 February and saying something after that date. We know what the rules are.

There are some fundamental questions that the commissioners might have been interviewed about, and I shall be grateful if the Minister says what commitment they gave to be able to deal with these matters before a prospective spring general election this year, which is the earliest possible date for it. First, what capacity will they have to ensure that donations given from 16 February until the beginning of an election, and from the beginning of an election to the end of an election campaign, are monitored properly, and that the public have confidence that they are able to do the job of reporting? How soon will they report? How soon will the public know of any donation given following the appointment of the commissioners?

Let us say that the commissioners take office next week. After 16 February, how soon will the public know that if a donation is made, it will be made public in the way that is set out in legislation? Is there a possibility that, before the coming general election, the commissioners might take a view about the wisdom of donations above a certain amount, irrespective of the fact that the legislation allows donations to be unlimited? There is no doubt about that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is using the motion to widen the debate beyond the commissioners. I would be grateful if he would think about that and come back into line.

Mr. Hughes: I shall be careful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall tie my remarks specifically to the questions that the commissioners may have been asked. The Minister said properly that he had a hands-off approach to the interview process. However, it is important to know what those commissioners said about how available they were to perform their role and what personnel back-up they said that they had or would expect to have if they were able to do their jobs properly. It is important to know also what freedom they would have in the recommendations that they might wish to make. I understand your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am trying to test the limits of the commissioners' powers in the context of discussions with them about how they will use the authority that is given to them by both the Act and appointment.

I do not intend to detain the House for long, but there are four questions that seem appropriate to ask. Do the commissioners have power to make recommendations before the election? They have power to make reports at any time. Do they have power to make recommendations about a change to the upper limit on donations? Was that discussed? Is it something that they can feel free to do? Secondly, would they have power--this is hugely important--to make recommendations about whether Members of this place or the other place should be able to make donations? There must be a potential conflict of interest. To make a self-evident point, there must be a potential advantage to a Back-Bench Tory, Labour or Liberal Democrat Member who might suddenly produce a huge sum for his party. He might regard that as

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advantageous to his political career in this place. When a member of the Government gives a donation, there must be an issue as to how he is perceived thereafter.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying wide of the mark. He must discuss the motion, which refers to the commissioners--not other duties that they might undertake or wider issues.

Mr. Hughes: I am trying hard to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and shall seek to keep within that stricture when raising the final two questions.

In the interview process, was there a discussion with the six commissioners about whether they had a view, or would be willing to form one, on whether there should be any prohibition on awarding honours to donors and whether they would be able to make such a prohibition? Were the commissioners party to discussions, which we in this place were, about whether they ought to encourage small donations and, if that was the case, whether the tax process should be changed to enable that?

If the nature of the commissioners' powers and the freedom that they will have were discussed, it would be helpful for the House to know that because, like the hon. Member for Battersea, I think that on 16 February, the nation will suddenly realise that there is body to police elections. The public will expect that policing body to have teeth and they will be greatly disappointed if six perfectly eminent and respectable people are unable to be the tough policemen and policewoman that they and the House expect. Our electoral process will benefit from those people being powerful and effective. The question is: has that been discussed with them and will they be given the power, from 16 February or before, to be as tough and as strong as the public hope and expect them to be?

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