Electoral Commission (Limit on Public Awareness Expenditure) Order 2002

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Mr. Cash: I am grateful for the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester, and I concur with everything that he said. At the heart of the order is the question of the increase, but there are also justifiable concerns about the lack of information that has been made available to us, and the Minister has not answered a single question that I put to her. I assume that she will write to me in a few days.

I asked a number of specific questions arising from the corporate plan. The taxpayer pays for this, so it is for Parliament to decide whether to authorise such an increase. It is not good enough for Government, when introducing an order, to hide behind the fact that the Speaker's Committee may or may not have agreed the estimates. If we operated on that basis, we would be in deep trouble with regard to the question of public money. Recommendations can be made. It is certainly true that under section 2 of the Act the Speaker's Committee makes a report to Parliament, but that does not alter the facts. The National Audit Office produces a technical report, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome pointed out, but that is not the problem. As Conservative Members have observed, the problem is whether such an increase, with a further increase of up to £20 million anticipated for next year and each ensuing year—

Yvette Cooper indicated dissent.

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Mr. Cash: The Minister is shaking her head. I wish that she would examine the corporate plan. She is supposed to be speaking to the order, so I give way to give her an opportunity to answer the point. She shook her head when I referred to a £20 million increase for next year.

Yvette Cooper: I am happy to respond. I do not know what increase of £20 million the hon. Gentleman refers to. I assume that he is referring to table C, which sets out the net resource requirements: the figure of £7.5 million is specified for 2001–02 and £20 million for 2002–03, but that does not refer to the funding of public awareness campaigns. The increase of £1.5 million to £7.5 million takes place in 2002–03, not in 2001–02. I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to £20 million in that respect, but it bears no relation to the limits for public awareness, which is what we are talking about today. I am aware of no plan to increase funding for that beyond the £7.5 million specified, although obviously the matter is subject to further orders on the recommendation of Parliament and the Speaker's Committee.

Mr. Cash: I agree with that last remark and I shall not stray into the anticipated decisions of Parliament on the next order in ensuing years. I am talking about the description in table C on resource implications, which the Minister seems not to have read. It sets out ''Net Cash Required'' and the cash out-turn for 2000–01 is specified as £1.398 million. The plan with which we are dealing now is set at £7.941 million and the plan for 2002–03 at £20.219 million. It then stays at around £20 million for the next four years. It is astonishing that a 400 per cent. increase between last year and the present year is followed by a plateau and public awareness is not expected to increase for another four years irrespective of the multifarious problems that the Minister identified. We remain concerned about the justification for the increase.

It is inappropriate for the Government—whether through the Department for Transport, the Lord Chancellor's Department, 10 Downing street or the Treasury—to hide behind the decisions taken by the Electoral Commission or, indeed, any recommendations of the Speaker's Committee. I am extremely concerned to ensure public awareness of all matters relating to democracy. It is the responsibility of politicians to achieve that. I shall watch with great interest the way in which these so-called fact sheets are generated.

The Electoral Commission comprises honourable men and I have no doubt that they will strive mightily to achieve the right objectives, but organisations such as the BBC, whose charter includes an obligation to act impartially, might cause problems. The Minister said that the Electoral Commission was completely independent, but so are other bodies that fall into the trap. As Lord Neill said in debate in the other place, some organisations fail to comply with the neutrality expected of them. That is why I asked who exactly the people brought in with so-called specialist skills are. The funding may be justified, but we should know exactly what it was spent on.

The debate has been more interesting than I feared a couple of days ago. We are talking about central

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questions. It does not matter whether one is in favour of the Electoral Commission; the real point is that it has been given functions by Parliament so we must examine whether the amounts are justified. If there had been a smidgen of justification from the Minister, I could have supported the order, but she has failed in her duty to explain the order and how the increase is justified. We have asked questions and raised several principles, but the Minister has woefully failed to answer any of them. Therefore, we shall divide the Committee.

5.55 pm

Yvette Cooper: I should like to clarify two points. First, I am sorry, but the hon. Member for Stone has completely misunderstood table C. I tried to explain it to him. The increase to £7.5 million is in the year 2002–03. As he will see in the net cash requirement column, there is no substantial increase after 2002–03. In fact, it shows a decrease in the overall cash required, and there is no plan to increase from the £7.5 million. As I said, it would be for Parliament to discuss any future increase and for the Speaker's Committee to consider the Electoral Commission's work.

Secondly, page 55 of the report says:

    ''For example, the Home Office spent £3m just on TV advertising to launch rolling registration in Spring 2000; this bought two 30 second adverts which appeared . . . from 19 February to 11 March.''

To run a television advertising campaign for just a month-long period cost £3 million, and the advertising campaigns that we are discussing cost more than the £1.5 million in the nine-month period set out under the previous order. In the context of those figures, the £7.5 million proposed by the Electoral Commission and the Speaker's Committee is not unreasonable. The commission's work—raising awareness and providing people with the information that is their democratic right—is wholly worth while.

5.57 pm

Mr. Cash: I shall simply quote the key assumption set out in paragraph 10.3:

    ''The net resource requirement of £20.7m sought for 2002/03 is larger that for 2001/02 (£7.5m) because of the increase in the Electoral Commission's functions.''

It could not be plainer.

Yvette Cooper: Including the £7.5 million.

Mr. Cash: Any way, we have been round the point often enough. The report speaks of a figure that is significantly more than £7.5 million, and that is now on record.

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 4.

Division No. 1]

Cooper, Yvette Follett, Barbara Heath, Mr. David Keen, Alan
Lazarowicz, Mr. Mark Moffatt, Laura Rapson, Syd Woolas, Mr. Phil

Cash, Mr. William O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew Watkinson, Angela

Question accordingly agreed to.

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    That the Committee has considered the Electoral Commission (Limit on Public Awareness Expenditure) Order 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 505).

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Committee rose at one minute to Six o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee
Atkinson, Mr. Peter (Chairman)
Cash, Mr.
Cooper, Yvette
Corbyn, Jeremy
Follett, Barbara
Heath, Mr.
Hoey, Kate
Keen, Alan
Lazarowicz, Mr.
Moffatt, Laura
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Rapson, Syd
Tyrie, Mr.
Watkinson, Angela
Woolas, Mr.

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Prepared 24 June 2002