Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12.32 am

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:

8 Jan 2001 : Column 841

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) pointed out that it is extraordinary that, out of 60 million people, there are two nominees who have a long history--they were not just passing through on a short stay--in the BBC culture. They have been deeply embedded in it. That strikes me as surprising.

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.

8 Jan 2001 : Column 842

That brings me neatly to section 3(4) of the Act, which states:

That does not stop someone who has been a member of a political party in the last 10 years being appointed a commissioner. If the public are to have confidence in the commission, they need to know whether any of those people has at any time been a member of any political party in this country. Membership of a political party in the last 10 years, unless the person concerned was also a substantial donor during that period, would not automatically disqualify him or her from membership of the commission. Hon. Members on both sides of the House sing the same song, and we all know that, when someone in a position of influence in a supposedly non-partisan body such as the BBC has had a political past, we are endlessly reminded of it. We remind the Government that Greg Dyke was a member of the Labour party and a big donor to it. The Government remind us that Christopher Bland was at one time a Tory councillor. We make a note of such things, but the public ought to be reassured that the six people whose names have been submitted to us tonight have not been members of any of the main political parties.

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

8 Jan 2001 : Column 843

to serve on Electoral Commission"--which suggests that the Government are fixated on the business of party political funding. They have issued that press release at a time when the Labour party, not the Conservative party, is in the spotlight in relation to that matter. The Labour party has provoked deep dissatisfaction and unrest among its own members, including former distinguished occupants of the Labour Front Bench, at the way in which business men are falling over themselves to give money to the party.

In his press release, the Minister said:

The Government themselves make that claim--

Those are the Minister's words, and the emphasis that he has chosen to give the public in that announcement on recommended names concerns the issue of funding. I have no quarrel with the Prime Minister's comments on Sunday in so far as he said that without state funding of political parties in this country--

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.

Next Section

IndexHome Page