|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Gerald Howarth: There is no doubt that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is right that the appointees to the Electoral Commission will be extremely powerful, and I agree with the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), my colleague on the Home Affairs Committee, that it is important that there is public confidence in the individuals nominated to that responsible position. The commission will not have absolute power, in so far as the Speaker's Committee will, I understand, be able to review some decisions that it might make. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that, in the public eye, it will be an important and powerful focal point in policing the whole business of funding political parties and the conduct of elections in this country.
We are considering the names before us specifically as appointees to the Electoral Commission, so we must consider the context in which they have been submitted to us, to ensure that they meet the requirements of that particular context and their proposal for appointment. The hon. Member for Battersea and I were present when the Home Affairs Committee considered whether there should be an Electoral Commission. I cannot recall that we gave the matter a great deal of consideration, but we did consider it and we recommended that there should be a commission. However, we made a number of other points in our conclusions and it is important to bear those in mind. Paragraph 147 of our report published on 10 September 1998 says:
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way on that point. Even if, during the rather opaque selection procedure, it were deemed to be desirable to have some representatives of the so-called media, does he think that it might have been better to have had independent media people or representatives of the printed media, instead of representatives of the BBC?
Mr. Howarth: My right hon. Friend makes a good point about the media. The plural of media is mediae, is it not? Finding an independent journalist is difficult. Some of them hold themselves out to be independent, but they are no more so than the Minister is on his side or I am on my side. We all know it; the trouble is that the journalists do not know it, because they are not honest with themselves.
There is a serious question about the BBC people, which I shall come to in a moment. Among the nominees there are also two with long experience of local government. I accept that Pamela Gordon was president of SOLACE, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives--an organisation, incidentally, which, in its representations to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, did not think that there was a need for an Electoral Commission. It is curious that the immediate past president of SOLACE should have been appointed to a commission which her organisation did not think needed to exist. No doubt she will be able to explain that when she has read the report of our proceedings in the House tonight.
I am not sure that we will find that local government officers are necessarily the people best qualified to deal with all the issues that the commission will have to consider. It is not just the funding of political parties that falls within the remit of the commission. Nor is it merely a question of transferring the boundary commission responsibilities to the commission. The commission will have to consider a wide range of matters to do with electoral law. It does not seem that there is anyone with business experience among the nominees, for example. We have the names of six nominees before us. I understand that the Act provides for a possible nine. When the Minister winds up, he may want to tell us whether consideration was given to including some business men. Perhaps the Government could find no business men who had not contributed to the Labour party in recent years and thus disqualified themselves. I shall return to that point.
The names proposed by the narrow selection committee are, in turn, a narrow cross-section of British society. It would have been meritorious to include someone who had some experience of politics at the sharp end.
That brings me neatly to section 3(4) of the Act, which states:
(a) is a member of a registered party;
(b) is an officer or employee of a registered party or of any accounting unit of such a party;
(c) holds a relevant elective office . . . or
(d) has at any time within the last ten years--
(i) been such an officer or employee as is mentioned in paragraph (b), or
(ii) held such an office as is mentioned in paragraph (c), or
(iii) been named as a donor . . .
My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) raised the question of staff. I shall not go down that road, save to say that that is a point that the Minister--[Interruption.] Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office could mention the Minister when he has finished to talking to his hon. Friends. I hope that the Minister will take on board what my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath said, as he made rather a good point.
Mr. Simon Hughes: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if we are going to ask whether people have been members of political parties, it is also reasonable to ask, as is done on other public appointment forms, whether they have been supporters, active participants or campaigners during the same 10-year period?
Mr. Howarth: That is a good point. I should have thought that if someone had been a campaigner, activist or supporter, that probably meant carrying a membership card, but you never know: such a person could have been a Liberal Democrat in one of those front organisations, who did not sign up as a member but acted as a mole. Front organisations could be included as well.
I want to come back to the context in which we are looking at these six names. We are very much helped by the Minister's press release of 14 December, in which he announced the names recommended for appointment. Interestingly, the press release was headed "Implementation of party funding Act begins." That was the title of the press release--not "Distinguished names
In his press release, the Minister said:
The Electoral Commission will play a crucial role in cleaning up British Politics--
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is now straying too wide of the motion. I should be grateful if he came back into line.