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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Although it is true that we are starting afresh tonight, the hon. Gentleman is giving the House interesting background information, and we are here to discuss the suitability of these people to be commissioners--and that is all.

Mr. Hawkins: I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will allow me to set out a little of the background to show how the official Opposition were able to ensure that this debate is taking place at all.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I will not. The hon. Gentleman must confine his remarks to the suitability of the persons named to be commissioners.

Mr. Hawkins: I shall seek to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but you will understand that the official Opposition's concern about how this motion comes to be before the House is linked to the suitability of the persons named. Given the Government's problems on the matter, it is almost impossible to disentangle those two issues.

No less a person than the Home Secretary had to write a grovelling apology to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. He had also to write to his Chief Whip and to Mr. Speaker--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman may find it difficult to disentangle the two issues about which he is talking, but he must try a little harder; otherwise, he will have to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr. Hawkins: I shall certainly do my level best, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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Under questioning from my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton about the particular issue that we are debating tonight and the Home Office press release announcing the names of the commissioners, the Leader of the House said:

The Leader of the House appeared to suggest to my hon. Friend that the matter that we are debating--the suitability or otherwise of particular names of particular commissioners--should not be debated at all. However, the Home Secretary realised that the Government had promised in the 2000 Act that the matter would have to be debated properly and that a motion that an Address including the names of commissioners be presented to Her Majesty would have to be tabled. That caused the apologies, the letters and, in due course, the debate.

There is no doubt that matters have gone badly awry. The 2000 Act includes provision to set up the Speaker's Committee to oversee the work of the Electoral Commission, and the establishment of that Committee has to be discussed. Can the Minister tell us when it will be established? It will be part of the House's ongoing responsibility to scrutinise not only the current electoral commissioners, but any future commissioners who may be appointed under the legislation. The House needs to know what the Government have in mind on the timing of the appointments of the no fewer than five Members of the House--not including Ministers--who will be on the Speaker's Committee to carry out that ongoing scrutiny. I hope that the Minister can deal with that point.

Last night, my hon. Friends the Members for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) and my right hon. Friends the Members for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) raised a number of substantial concerns about the particular people suggested by the Government. Should they catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, they will have the opportunity to outline those concerns.

I should make it clear that the official Opposition were consulted quite properly about the names, as provided for under the 2000 Act, and we are not suggesting from the Front Bench that there is anything wrong with those particular individuals. However, it is undoubtedly right that, after a lot of work by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, and after the Government had to admit that their own legislation requires the debate, every Member of the House should have the opportunity to scrutinise the individual names.

We hope that the Electoral Commission and the commissioners will do their work thoroughly and properly, but it is essential--I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends and all other Members of the House will agree--that appointments should always be subject to the overall jurisdiction of the House, no matter who becomes a commissioner in future. Unless the House ultimately controls the destiny of those matters, we will have

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subcontracted the issue relating to elections in a way that I, and no doubt my right hon. and hon. Friends, would find deeply disturbing.

Having made those points, I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will have the opportunity to explore the issues that are of interest to them. I also hope that we will hear a great deal more from the Minister about how the House will be able to continue its scrutiny not only of the current commissioners, but of any future commissioners, through the Speaker's Committee.

2.29 am

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): The question before us, which is relatively narrow, is simply whether Sam, Pam, Neil, Glyn, Karamjit and Graham are the right people to be put on the commission to carry out the tasks with which they have been entrusted.

In the press release issued by the Minister explaining that the members of the commission would be Sam Younger, Pamela Gordon, Sir Neil McIntosh, Glyn Mathias, Karamjit Singh and Professor Graham Zellick, he describes briefly the tasks that those six people will be expected to perform. Their overriding task, which is listed first in the press statement, is to scrutinise electoral issues such as party funding and referendums, and ensure the delivery of the Neill principles of integrity and openness. They will also provide independent oversight of the new funding framework for UK political parties.

Of course, those six people--Sam Younger, Pamela Gordon, Sir Neil McIntosh, Glyn Mathias, Karamjit Singh and Professor Graham Zellick--will also monitor the political parties compliance with the controls on their income and expenditure. In between times, they will keep under review the law and practice in relation to elections and referendums, although none of them seems to be legally qualified, except Professor Graham Zellick, who is a vice-chancellor of a university and may have a legal qualification. Members of the commission will promote awareness of electoral systems, take over responsibility for the review of parliamentary and local government boundaries, and comment on the intelligibility of referendum questions. That is a tremendously wide- ranging groups of important activities for those six people. The question is whether they are qualified to do the job and why the Government picked them, rather than others. We are told by the Minister that Ministers had no involvement at all in the selection process.

These matters need to be probed more closely. Of course, Ministers were not on the selection panel of the final four, but we need a straight answer from the Minister to the question whether, at any time, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir David Omand, had any discussions with the Home Secretary or the Minister about the selection list, the whittling down of the list to the 16 people who would come in for interview, and any opinions after those people were interviewed. I imagine that the permanent secretary would not have had discussions with the Secretary of State following the oral interviews, and that the decision had presumably been made by the board. The four interviewers would have made the final decision on the selection of six people out of 16.

Unless systems have changed radically, I suspect that at some time the permanent secretary may have had a discussion with the Home Secretary about the criteria for

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selection, and the qualities that the Home Secretary might have in mind in drawing up a final shortlist of 16. The Minister was careful in his choice of words. He said that Ministers were not involved in the final selection process. That may be absolutely correct. Of course, I believe what he says, but were Ministers involved at any stage in the selection process?

Apart from being consulted about the original advertisement in The Guardian--the Home Office still usually uses that newspaper to advertise such posts--and the criteria, were Ministers consulted at all by civil servants, particularly by the permanent secretary, on any of the names to be included in the list at any stage? Let us consider the qualities of the people required to do the job. Some people are required to promote public awareness of electoral systems.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. With his unique knowledge of the background to the mechanisms which may be used, does he agree that there is at least a prima facie case for presuming that Ministers would have laid down criteria such as gender, ethnicity and regionality in the selection process in order to arrive at the sort of outcome that Ministers would have wanted? Will my right hon. Friend speculate on the extent to which that might or might not conflict with qualifications and competence?

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