Electoral Commission (Limit on Public Awareness Expenditure) Order 2002

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Mr. O'Brien: Far be it from me to offer my hon. Friend any clarification which is rightly the Minister's responsibility. However, it is notable that at the time of the order's drafting, the meeting of the Speaker's Committee comprised mainly those from the old Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Since then, there has been a transfer of responsibilities. Because of that break in the chain of responsibility, it is surprising that those responsible for drafting the order are not available to the Committee.

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Mr. Cash: I am puzzled by that and wonder whether it is a point of order. It is not normal for Ministers from one Department to deal with matters relating to an order that has been drafted by a different Department.

The Chairman: Is the hon. Gentleman raising a point of order?

Mr. Cash: I am.

The Chairman: Who represents the Government in the Committee is not a matter for the Chair: it a matter for the Government.

Mr. Cash: Fine. I have no doubt that the Minister will be able to explain the matter.

Mr. Tyrie: We are much better off.

Mr. Cash: That may well be, though I would not like to engage in a personality or beauty contest.

I turn to compliance with the Act and the costs that are relevant to it. In particular, the issue relates to the Electoral Commission's costing for the strategy for public awareness. It may be surprising, but the commission says:

    ''It does not directly address the issue of public awareness in relation to a national referendum.''

As I said, the commission will establish a small team to look at national referendums, but not the conduct of them. I would be interested to know who will be on that team. No doubt the Minister will write to me about that.

The commission says that the issue of national referendums will be considered separately. Therefore, the vast increase in costs is without prejudice to the fact that it will not even touch the national referendum, which its corporate plan has already conceded is likely to take place within the time scale of the plan and the order. That is peculiar. Simple subtraction leads one to wonder why the sum has increased from £1.5 million to £7.5 million, when it does not include anything—that is worth speaking about—to do with national referendums. I want the Minister to consider that, and to comment on it.

My next point addresses the manner in which the commission has deliberately interpreted its brief. It says that it has done so in broad terms, and then it makes an interesting—if not an astonishing—remark:

    ''We do not regard the task of 'education' as being limited to (or even primarily concerned with) the schoolroom. We believe that it is necessary to regard the provision of education and information as means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. In line with this approach, the Commission has adopted as its principal corporate aim in this area: 'to encourage greater participation in and increased understanding of the democratic process.''

That is why it is asking for this uplift of £6 million. It goes on to say:

    ''Underpinning this aim is a series of strategic goals.''

Those goals address understanding what motivates people in deciding whether to register or to vote, rolling registration, encouraging and facilitating voting, improving public knowledge, and so forth, as well as promoting public awareness of electoral and democratic systems in the UK and the institutions of the European Union.

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The commission then says that it is committed to observe four guiding principles—hence the money that we are asked to authorise. It goes on to set out those principles and to deal with turnout. That is addressed under the heading of ''Context'':

    ''It is now a commonplace to assert that turnout at the 2001 general election was the lowest since the First World War, and the lowest ever turnout in the UK under universal adult franchise. Around 59 per cent. of the electorate voted in 2001 compared with just over 71 per cent. in 1997; amongst 18–24 year olds, the figure is estimated as far lower under 40 per cent.''

    The House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration regards the general election turnout as representing a ''crisis in public participation''.

It quotes that Committee as saying that,

    ''the reasons for [the low turnout] may be debated, but not its seriousness for our democracy. We find it extraordinary that this collapse in electoral participation, put alongside other evidence on civic disengagement, has not been treated as a civic crisis demanding an appropriate response.''

The commission then says that it,

    ''can, and must, provide an important part of that response.''

One of the questions that this Committee must address is whether, leaving to one side any national referendum, an uplift of £6 million is justified in pursuit of such objectives. That should be answered in the negative.

Low turnout is a serious concern not only in this country, but elsewhere in Europe—and in the world. I addressed why that is the case in a debate about 18 months ago on the strengthening of Parliament. The reasons include cynicism and disillusionment, as well as spin, on which the Government stand accused of having completely failed the nation. In my view, they are guilty of that.

That problem will not be solved by transferring functions to the Electoral Commission, which then asks the taxpayer to provide money. It is up to the Government, the political parties and the politicians of this country to restore trust and faith in the political system. An increase in the Electoral Commission's functions will not achieve that.

Mr. O'Brien: Extremely important and serious constitutional and electoral points have been made, and I support my hon. Friend's specific point that no hon. Member would believe that money can make up for the deficit of trust in the political process. That is the responsibility of Members of Parliament, and especially Ministers. Is my hon. Friend aware that the commission's criteria require any of its proposals to be scrutinised by the Speaker's Committee—we have already discussed the absence of minutes and determination—for consistency with economy, efficiency and effectiveness? That underlines his point on effectiveness, and raises the serious question of whether a 400 per cent. increase looks like an economy.

Mr. Cash: I have no doubt that the National Audit Office will consider that question. In the light of the quotation of Lord Neill with which I opened my remarks, it will be an interesting question. Given the open-ended manner in which the commission may make decisions, the NAO will have to answer a serious

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question. I shall certainly refer the matter to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

I have no doubt that the commission has a problem in attempting to perform functions that have been conferred by the Government through their voting majority. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act is part of the problem with public awareness and the difficulty with which we are faced. Creating enthusiasm for public awareness might not be resolved in the way suggested.

The Electoral Commission says:

    ''Advertising and promotional activity cannot be sole solution to the current decline in voter participation.''

It might not be the sole solution, but let me go on. The commission says:

    ''Reviving public enthusiasm for democratic politics and institutions requires long term planning.''

It needed people such as John Bright in the mid-19th century—between the 1830s and 1867—to get democratic politics on to the statute book. I do not think that they needed an electoral commission to do that. They used oratory, persuasion and conviction, and gained trust. As Disraeli said, ''Trust the people''. I pay tribute to Labour politicians, such as Aneurin Bevan, who fought with great determination, and Lloyd-George and many others who fought with their minds and hearts to persuade the public. They did not need a 400 per cent. increase of money.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is being extremely eloquent, as usual. However, I should like to hear mention of public awareness from time to time.

Mr. Cash: Public awareness, of course, was exactly what the Reform Acts 1832 and 1867 were all about. There was not a 400 per cent. increase in money given. Of course, public awareness led to many demonstrations. It is said that John Bright addressed 200,000 people at one meeting. I have no doubt at all about the real problem. As Shakespeare wrote in ''Julius Caesar'':

    ''The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

    But in ourselves, that we are underlings.''

I am not at all sure that the Electoral Commission will be able to fill the vacuum, but politicians—including myself, my hon. Friends, Government Members and even you, Mr. Atkinson—all have a responsibility in that respect.

I do not think that reviving public enthusiasm for democratic politics and institutions through long-term planning will be the solution. That rather technocratic approach will not win. The Electoral Commission says:

    ''The apparent scale of disaffection with voting means that radical solutions''—

with regard to public awareness—

    ''may be required. Identifying and testing innovative ways of tackling the root causes of low turnout will be important. That inevitably means that here will be an element of risk involved''.

Heavens above! There might be some risk in getting across the message to people that politics and democracy matter. The commission continues:

    ''performance indicators must take account of this.''

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I suggest that that is something of an accountants and administrators' dream.

Monumentally, the commission then says:

    ''The Electoral Commission cannot provide all answers. The role of politicians, political parties and the media are also critical.''

This is the corporate plan of the Electoral Commission. It rather takes one's breath away. The plan continues:

    ''There are also many other organisations and institutions with a role to play, and a track record of successful innovation and implementation in the promotion of active citizenship.''

The plan is like the annual report of a major multinational. It says:

    ''Our strategic aim and underpinning goals can only be achieved through the development and delivery of operational plans which draw on a wide range of approaches to voter awareness.''

It continues:

    ''There will be times when providing information and seeking to persuade the electorate to change their attitudes or behaviour are not enough.''

I do not know what springs to mind, Mr. Atkinson—

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