Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



  40. So we shall have a code of practice by 2003.
  (Mr Creedon) That is the aim; we hope so.

  41. Are you as part of this process going to look at the very different levels of registration, particularly the low levels of registration in the city areas, which because of the way parliamentary boundaries are done, for example, leads to under-representation of those areas in Parliament because fewer people registered means effectively the constituencies have more people in, although the same number of electors. Is that an issue you are going to address?
  (Mr Younger) Yes; certainly that is part of the review. I am sure the review is liable to say this is what good practice should be. It may also recommend that something needs to change in the legislation, to require certain things which are not there at the moment. On the issue you raise of that consistency, the default position is that it is all a matter of good practice, but it would still be open to that review to conclude that there are areas where it requires an amendment to law to ensure that it is done properly.

Christine Russell

  42. After 18 months of existence you are still very much at the toddler stage. How are you going to cope if you get confronted with a snap Euro referendum?
  (Mr Younger) Funnily enough I was asked that very question in the Speaker's Committee in February with our budget. At that stage I said, "With great difficulty, but we would have to". To some degree the answer is still the same, but we are a bit further down the track than we were. One of the things the Speaker's Committee agreed to in our budget for this year was that we were able to put in place a referendum team to plan for any possible referendum, whether it be the Euro or a referendum on an elected regional assembly, which we may be confronted with. Those are the two possibles on the horizon. We have that team in place now. It is involved in a programme of process mapping of everything which needs to be done if we are going to run a referendum effectively. Several issues are being raised and we need to think our way through to our approach and there are several areas where we need to talk urgently to Government. There are various issues surrounding the way we administer a referendum and it is really important to us to know well in advance. Given the nature and the politics of the Euro referendum issue in particular, we could find that when legislation setting up a referendum comes in, it is coming through to a very tight timetable. There are certain things we are hoping we can get clear with Government first, as to what is going to be in the legislation. Just one example, a small one, is that under the legislation I as Chair of the Electoral Commission am Chief Counting Officer but there is no provision which allows me to appoint Counting Officers in the different regions of the UK. That is something it is sensible for me to do because the idea of a Chief Counting Officer in London with 350 different returning officers reporting in from all over the country seems to me undesirable. What we should like to do is establish that that will be in the legislation when the legislation is there, so that we can plan on that basis.

  43. What about the financial resources? Have you already done your sums and have you communicated those to someone in Government?
  (Mr Younger) No; those sums are being done at the moment by that team and are a part of what we shall be discussing with Government. The funding of the Commission's activity and indeed other activity surrounding any referendum would be included in the Bill establishing the referendum. It is not something which is part of the ongoing budget of the Electoral Commission. All that is there in the Commission budget at the moment is the resource for a referendum team to do the planning. Everything else would be part of what is there in the Bill. We are talking, if it all came through the Electoral Commission, of very large figures because they would not be a great deal less than a General Election which is somewhere between £50 and £100 million if you add everything up. It is not something we would exactly be able to do off a general budget because there are all the mechanisms for paying the administrators, returning officers, counting officers, Consignia, everything else.

  44. There has been speculation that this Euro referendum could be held on the same day as the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections. Would you tell the Committee what particular constitutional matters could give you a headache there?
  (Mr Younger) There are two issues. I am wary about giving too strong a view as it is something the commissioners happen to be going to be discussing at a meeting tomorrow, because we have been asked the question a number of times. There do seem to me to be two sets of issues involved. If you are thinking specifically of a Euro referendum, one is the issue which has been raised very strongly by the administrators, above all in Scotland, where there are local elections next May as well as Scottish Parliament elections and a feeling that a Euro referendum on the same day would be a straw which would be extremely liable to break the camel's back. That is one set of issues, but there is another set of issues, which we need to look at in terms of the danger of an election on a party basis cross-cutting with a major issue of principle which is not on a party basis. The guiding light for us has to be what is in the best interests of the voter. Is there a real danger of voters being confused and under-informed one way or another, if you do pull different ballots on different bases together. That is the discussion we shall be having tomorrow and I hope we shall be able to come out of that with some statement of view, a statement of view, I hasten to add, which does not have any statutory power or influence, it is simply a statement of view from an independent body looking at these things.

Helen Jackson

  45. You mentioned the administration. What number crunching have you done in terms of cost? The public might be interested to know if there is a significant reduction in cost by holding elections on the same day.
  (Mr Younger) I have to say that I have not done number crunching of what the saving would be.

  46. Will you be going to do that?
  (Mr Younger) It is certainly something we can look at. At the moment the main emphasis is on what the referendum costs would be. Actually it is fair to say, thinking about it, that a lot of the costs would be the same even if you did combine them, because of the amount of time you would need your counting staff there. The only area where we would save is on presiding officers and poll clerks. On the other hand you might need to increase the staffing in individual polling stations to cope with different ballots and different ballot boxes. It is only pure top-of-the-head, but if you did have them on the same day, I am not sure the saving would necessarily be huge. It is something we should certainly take a look at.


  47. What about the Parliamentary Parties' Panel? Has it met?
  (Mr Younger) Yes. Just to remind the Committee in case they are not familiar with the Panel, it was a requirement under the legislation that we establish a panel. We convened it for the first time pretty early on—February 2001. It has met quarterly since then.

  48. How is it we do not know?
  (Mr Younger) The legislation required it to be a Parties' Panel made up of the Treasurer or his or her nominee. The Parties' Panel therefore has been very much Party Headquarters Panel. It has been one talking about very practical issues. It was extraordinarily useful in the runup to the election, talking as a group about the impact of the legislation, and it has been very valuable and remains very valuable. One of the things I have been conscious of is that because that has turned out very much a party engine room panel, in the first instance there has been a bit of a lack in terms of consultation with Members of Parliament. Initially when one looked at the Parliamentary Parties' Panel, I guess probably I, along with others, thought that it would be two or three senior MPs from each party. But it is not. That is not the way the Treasurers have done it.

  49. How trusting of you, Mr Younger. You have not been involved with politics for very long.
  (Mr Younger) What we are planning now is to find other avenues for consultation with Members of Parliament specifically.

  50. Where would those talks be recorded in brief and factual terms?
  (Mr Younger) The Parliamentary Parties' Panel?

  51. Yes. Who would know what you had been talking about?
  (Mr Younger) They are minuted. Those minutes are usually formally approved at the subsequent meeting. Interestingly, it is not an Electoral Commission meeting. The Parties' Panel meeting is chaired by one of the parties on each occasion. It is their agenda not ours.

Andrew Bennett

  52. Do you place these minutes somewhere where the public can look at them?
  (Mr Younger) They are certainly open to scrutiny.
  (Mr Creedon) We do not publish them at this stage.
  (Mr Younger) We could of course put them up on the net; I do not see any reason why we should not.


  53. Would you think seriously about this? I think people might be interested.
  (Mr Creedon) Indeed; yes. It is the Parties' Panel and you need to speak to the parties about putting them in the public domain.

  54. Yes, I understand what it is. I also understand that people would be interested in what is going on. Did anybody ask you about the division of responsibility between the old DTLR and the Lord Chancellor's Department?
  (Mr Younger) No.

  55. Did you have a view?
  (Mr Younger) I suppose my view is that having welcomed, just over a year ago, the pulling together of all issues related to elections under a single Department, meaning we had a single set of officials and Ministers to deal with, I am disappointed that it is now split out again into two different areas. One reason is that it means on a lot of these reviews we are doing, there are going to be many issues on which we need to have representatives from both Departments involved, whether it is the funding of the administration of elections, whether it is issues relating to local election pilots, because, as I understand it, responsibility for the pilots is resting now with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, but any legislative requirements arising out of those pilots rest with the Lord Chancellor's Department. I have worries there. I also have a concern, but I am not saying this is a concern I necessarily have any reason to think is going to be borne out at this stage, that having had a good deal of clarity and commitment in DTLR behind the proposition that arising out of all these reviews we would pull together any propositions for potential legislative change by the spring of next year and that they would be looking to bring in legislation in the autumn 2003, I am nervous as to whether that momentum will be maintained under the new system.

  56. Did you make your views known?
  (Mr Younger) I have not hidden them. I have not made formal representations.

  57. That is a nice phrase, which might almost qualify you to be a Clerk of the House. I did say: did you make them known? I take it the answer is yes.
  (Mr Younger) Yes, it is fair to say that those have been known.

Andrew Bennett

  58. At the moment you are here before this Select Committee because at the moment we have responsibility for the areas. In the future, the new Select Committee which will deal with urban affairs will have a little bit of responsibility for what you do, but then there is not actually a Select Committee which has firm responsibility for the Lord Chancellor's Department. I understand that the Home Affairs one is really saying that there should be a separate Select Committee. Do you think that it is important that you are accountable to a Select Committee of the House?
  (Mr Younger) It is very important that we are exposed to questioning from Select Committees of the House. The way that the Electoral Commission has been set up with a responsibility and accountability to the Speaker's Committee of the House of Commons does seem to me to be right and very important in terms of making sure that we are not an organisation which has an accountability through a Department of State and therefore we are independent of the Government of the day. At the same time, there is potentially a gap in the opportunity for Parliament, which needs to be there to hold us to account for what we are doing, which is why at the Speaker's Committee I suggested to the Chair that we did come to speak to this Committee.

  Chairman: Nay, you volunteered. I pointed out how unique this made you in the annals of this particular Select Committee.

Andrew Bennett

  59. Would it be sensible then perhaps for the Speaker's Committee to meet in public? I understand why originally the old Speaker's Commission, I think it was, looked at these issues in private so that deals could be struck between political parties, but given that you are independent of the political parties, would it not now be sensible for the Speaker's Committee to meet in public so there is a public opportunity to see how you are being questioned and made accountable?
  (Mr Younger) I have to say that is a question for the Speaker's Committee, not for me. I am not a member of it; I appear in front of it.

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