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9 Jan 2001 : Column 1029

Electoral Commission

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Before I call the Minister, I remind the House that, as the occupant of the Chair said last night, this motion is narrow. It deals with whether those listed in it will be appropriate electoral commissioners. The debate does not provide an opportunity to reopen the issues decided when Parliament enacted the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 a few weeks ago.

2.9 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I beg to move,

(1) Pamela Joan Gordon for the period of four years;
(2) Sir Neil William David McIntosh KBE for the period of four years;
(3) Johnathon Glyn Mathias for the period of five years;
(4) Sukhminder Karamjit Singh CBE for the period of five years;
(5) James Samuel Younger for the period of six years; and
(6) Graham John Zellick for the period of five years;
and that Her Majesty will appoint James Samuel Younger to be the chairman of the Electoral Commission for the period of six years.

As we have been around this course once already, I do not propose to say much now, to allow other hon. Members the opportunity to speak. As I said yesterday, we believe that the six individuals who have been nominated have the appropriate mix of skills and experience necessary to establish the Electoral Commission as an effective independent regulator of the controls on party funding, and as a force for the modernisation of our electoral law and practices--and, boy, do we need modernisation.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) rose--

Mr. O'Brien: As the House would expect, we have undertaken all the necessary statutory procedures, including consulting the leaders of those parties with two or more sitting Members of Parliament. I think that the hon. Gentleman wished to intervene.

Mr. Howarth: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his courtesy at this hour of the night. I wished to ask whether he has had a chance during the past 25 hours to reflect on last night's proceedings. He may recall that I asked him about the impartiality of the two nominees who have spent a large part of their careers in the BBC if a referendum on the euro were to take place. Has he had a chance to consider that point?

Mr. O'Brien: Of course I consider any comment that the hon. Gentleman makes with a great deal of care. However, I do not have the fears that he seems to have about those who work for the BBC. I am sure that, from time to time, all hon. Members have reason to feel unhappy about the way in which something may have been reported; but, by and large, we can rely on the BBC to be as impartial as it should be. So I have no problem

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with the fact that some of those who have applied for the position of electoral commissioner have worked for the BBC.

Perhaps it is not that surprising that people who are interested in politics, but not in being politicians, might find their way into journalism and reporting in an organisation that seeks to be impartial, such as the BBC. I am not sure that we need have any great fear, such as the hon. Gentleman's, but he is entitled to express his views during the debate, and I am sure that he will do so. I shall, of course, seek to respond to the issues raised in the debate in due course; but for the time being, I commend the six individuals named in the motion.

2.13 am

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I am slightly surprised that the Minister thinks it appropriate to be so brief in his opening remarks. Although he says that he intends to respond to the issues raised in the debate, he mentions the fact that the House has been around this course before. However, in the latest part of the disastrous saga that has comprised the history of the election commissioners, the Government lost their business entirely last night because they could not persuade more than 17 of their colleagues and two Liberal Democrats to support them.

Given that the business collapsed last night, we might have thought that the Minister would feel it appropriate to go into slightly more detail about the series of disasters that has characterised the matter. However, it does not matter that the Minister has not done so, because we are starting again from scratch. This is a fresh debate on a completely new motion on today's Order Paper. It is as though last night's debate never happened, so it is important to put on record the history of the Government's disastrous mistakes. After I made my points yesterday, other points were raised by hon. Members. My right hon. and hon. Friends who did not have the opportunity to speak or who were able to speak only briefly may have an opportunity to make some fresh points in tonight's debate.

Let us begin by considering the way in which the Minister explained how the procedure first started. He told us that the Home Office placed an advertisement inviting applicants to fill the position of electoral commissioner and that it had received 223 applications by the closing date. We do not know who all those 223 were.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): They were all from the BBC.

Mr. Hawkins: My right hon. Friend suggests that they may have all been from the BBC, but we know that at least four of them were not. We gathered from the Minister that the number of applicants was subsequently whittled down--his unusual choice of phrase--to a shortlist of 16, who were then invited for interview by a selection panel chaired by Sir David Omand, the permanent secretary at the Home Office. The other members of the panel were Elizabeth Filkin, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards; Sylvia Denman, an academic lawyer specialising in equal opportunity issues; and Nigel Varney, the head of the Home Office party funding unit.

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At that stage, things began to go wrong. I am indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), the shadow Leader of the House, for beginning the process of unravelling exactly what went wrong.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): My hon. Friend has skipped too quickly over the process by which the list was whittled down to a shortlist of 16 for interview. Will he press the Minister on whether the permanent secretary at the Home Office was involved in that process and on what discussions he may have had with the Home Secretary and Ministers about producing a shortlist for interview?

Mr. Hawkins: My right hon. Friend makes a good point. In the light of the questions that have been raised by my right hon. and hon. Friends, the Minister might feel that it would be helpful to the House to have all that information placed in the Library and sent to all the Members who have taken part in the debates on the issue. It would be important for the House to have access to that information, particularly when we come at a later stage to the question of the Speaker's Committee. It will be the only way in which the House has scrutiny over those who will be electoral commissioners, if this Address is presented at the conclusion of our proceedings and if the six names become the electoral commissioners. We shall look forward to hearing from the Minister whether he is prepared to provide the important information that my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) seeks.

Mr. Forth: I hope that my hon. Friend will not think that I am ungracious, but I think that I am right in saying that, for some very peculiar reason, this matter cannot be resolved today. It is subject to one of the absurd deferred Divisions that take place on Wednesday. Although the clock suggests that that is today, in parliamentary terms it will be tomorrow. Although the debate is taking place now, a completely different group of people will troop through the Lobbies tomorrow and vote on the matter even though they have not taken part in the debate, because they have almost certainly all gone home.

Mr. Hawkins: My right hon. Friend is right. He knows that I am as bitter an opponent of these so-called modernisation measures as he is. However, I accept that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, want me to concentrate on the motion.

I turn now to the saga of how things began to unravel for the Government, although the Minister might prefer to gloss over that. On 30 November last year, even before my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton became involved, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) tabled a question asking when the commissioners were to be appointed following the enactment of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

One might have thought that when the shadow Home Secretary asked about Government legislation which only a few days before had become an Act, she would receive a full and proper answer. One might particularly have

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expected that answer to mention that the Home Office was about to make a formal announcement to the media. However, the only reply that my right hon. Friend received came on 13 December. It said:

So far, so good. It was therefore with considerable surprise that we discovered that the very morning after that answer was given to my right hon. Friend, the Home Office issued a press release announcing the names of the members of the Electoral Commission which the Government were putting forward. 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 on the Order Paper that the Government are now proposing and said that those people had been recommended for appointment. Apparently, there was no question then of the matter coming before the House.

We are now entirely agreed that this is a matter for the House, but it rapidly became clear that the Home Office had more than somewhat jumped the gun. That became clear so quickly because of the usual perception shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton in raising the matter at business questions on 14 December. She asked the Leader of the House:

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