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It therefore shared the view of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the commission should be wholly independent of the Government and be seen to be scrupulously impartial in its dealings with political parties. It was therefore deliberately not constituted as a non-departmental public body, but was made directly accountable to Parliament. During the passage of the legislation through the House, the Government introduced stringent restrictions on the extent to which commissioners could be involved in active politics.

The arrangements for setting the Electoral Commission’s budget were designed to reinforce that independent status. That responsibility was given to a statutory committee—the Speaker’s Committee—of nine Members of Parliament, including Mr. Speaker and of which I am a member. The Committee is deliberately constituted so that no party has a majority of the membership.

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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I understand that in the evidence given to the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, the budget was then about £26 million a year, which represented about three times the figure that a broad range of similar activities had cost when they were subsumed within the Home Office. I support the work of the Electoral Commission and am very impressed by its chairman, but is the hon. Gentleman convinced that the extra two thirds, whatever that may be—£16 or £17 million—represents good value for money for the extra responsibilities that the Electoral Commission has within its brief?

Peter Viggers: I will be dealing with exactly that point in a few moments if the hon. Gentleman will contain himself. May I just deal with the matter of the Speaker’s Committee?

As there has been some discussion in evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life about an alleged lack of transparency in the operations of the Speaker’s Committee, I should perhaps note in passing that it was a deliberate decision of the House, welcomed by all the principal parties, that Mr. Speaker should chair the Committee that bears his name. In 2000, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill as originally envisaged, provided for Mr. Speaker merely to appoint members to the Committee. Mr. Speaker’s predecessor agreed with the Government that she would become an ex-officio Chairman of the Speaker’s Committee, and that decision was welcomed by all the principal parties. The view has been taken that it would be inappropriate for a Committee of which the Speaker is an active participant to meet in public. That is the basis on which the Committee currently operates. There is obviously a trade-off to be made between the degree of transparency and Mr. Speaker taking an active part in the Committee’s work. For my part, I have no doubt that the benefit of the authority of his involvement far outweighs the effects of the inevitable but limited reduction in transparency.

The Speaker’s Committee also approves the Commission’s five-year corporate plan. The Government intended the functions of the Speaker’s Committee to mirror as closely as possible those of the Public Accounts Commission in relation to the National Audit Office. They nonetheless had anxieties about how those arrangements would work in practice and included safeguards in the legislation designed to prevent what they described as runaway expenditure. The Speaker’s Committee is therefore required to consult the Treasury on both the estimate and corporate plan and to have regard to any advice that the Treasury may give. It must also have regard to the most recent annual value for money report on the Electoral Commission produced by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Both the Treasury input and the NAO reports are very much more than a tick-the-box exercise. The NAO typically reports each year on a specific policy that accounts for a significant amount of the Electoral Commission’s expenditure, such as its public awareness strategy, on which the NAO has reported to us twice. In many cases, the NAO’s choice of subject reflects the concerns that the Speaker’s Committee has expressed, so there is a welcome synergy between us. It is also a very transparent input; the Speaker’s Committee publishes these reports for all to see.

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The Speaker’s Committee has a significant part in promoting understanding between the Electoral Commission and the House. However, it is not the only body with a role in this place. I welcome the fact that various departmental Committees have examined the commission’s policy stances on a number of important issues. While it is the duty of the Speaker’s Committee to be mindful, on behalf of the House, of what we call the three Es—economy, efficiency and effectiveness—it is open to others to hold the commission to account in the context of its wider interests for its policy stances. The two strands of parliamentary strategy are complementary, not competitive.

Taken overall, I would submit that there are few tranches of public expenditure of a similar size for which Government are responsible that are subject to the same level of sustained and systematic parliamentary scrutiny as is the Electoral Commission.

About five years on after the creation of the Electoral Commission, where do we stand? The commission started out with an agenda that its chairman described to the Speaker’s Committee in November 2001 as “very ambitious” in relation to its newness and the existing resource level. The commission has grown. Its net resource requirement for 2006-07 is £26.18 million, and it now has an average full-time equivalent staff of 150, compared with 25 in March 2001.

The commission has thoroughly documented its work in the successive annual reports that it has presented to Parliament. I will comment later on some aspect of its record.

Over the past five years, the political outlook has changed considerably. The conclusions of the Jenkins Commission, which clearly had a marked effect on the Government’s thinking about the role of the commission, have not been implemented. The electoral modernisation has thrown up real doubts about the wider impact of some of the changes that have been made, such as easier access to postal votes. More recently, the controversy over loans to political parties has raised doubts among the general public over the effectiveness of the controls enacted in the year 2000, and further dented public confidence in politicians and political parties. At the same time the level of voter engagement remains historically low.

Not surprisingly, this change in political outlook has impacted on the Electoral Commission and raised questions as to whether the original 1991 blueprint still meets the current requirements. Thus some have expressed the view that the commission’s remit is too broad and that it would be a more effective body if its remit were concentrated on its core regulatory functions. Others have accused it of lacking political awareness, suggesting that it would be more effective if some, at least, of the commissioners had experience of active politics.

The commission has had its disagreements with Government on a number of issues—notably on the extent of the piloting of postal voting in the European elections and the acceptability of all-postal voting at elections, and the need for improved safeguards for our current system of postal voting on demand. There is particularly the debate about individual electoral registration.

In that context, it is worth recalling the key principles on which Henry Samuel Chapman built the
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first secret ballot law 150 years ago—the rock on which our current system ultimately rests and which

People tend to remember the secret ballot and tend not to know about limited vote tracing, both of which are very important.

That an independent body has a difference of view with the Government over a policy issue is not inherently a problem, but each of these is a sensitive political issue, and there is a risk in these circumstances that such disagreement may lead to a loss of confidence in the political process at a time when there is general concern about overall levels of political engagement. Some, such as the Government in their evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, have therefore raised the issue whether the commission’s policy development role continues to be appropriate.

There have been two general elections—in 2001 and 2005—since the Electoral Commission was established, but the most recent general election was the first in respect of which the relevant provisions of the 2000 legislation, including the provisions relating to notional expenditure, applied fully. For all these reasons, and others besides, it seems right that the opportunity is now taken on a number of fronts to take stock of the arrangements put in place in 2000, and to consider how best to move forward. One contribution to this process is, of course, this debate. I welcome the many Members who wish to participate. If the debate did not start at 7 o’clock as we originally intended, I do not think that it is for me to apologise. I am grateful for the attendance. The debate is an important part to the process of discussion.

There are three other strands that I should mention. The first is the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s inquiry, which is currently in hand, focusing on the core issues of the mandate, governance and accountability of the Electoral Commission. In practical terms, this means examining the current responsibilities and the balance between the commission’s executive and advisory functions. The inquiry is expected to be completed by the end of the year. I have been pleased to give evidence to it on behalf of the Speaker’s Committee. I will do so again, and I look forward to seeing the Committee’s conclusions.

The Speaker’s Committee has taken steps to satisfy itself that its conclusions that the estimates and corporate plans that it lays before the House are, in the words of the 2000 Act, consistent with the

Those are the three Es that I mentioned earlier. The Committee was itself planning a general inquiry that would have encompassed issues relating to the commission’s governance and accountability, but deferred these elements when it learned of the proposed inquiry by the CSPL. Instead, the Speaker’s Committee asked the Scrutiny Unit—that is the scrutiny unit at the House—to carry out a detailed study of the commission’s business and financial planning processes, how it assesses the effectiveness of policy outcomes and how the statutory roles of the Treasury and the National Audit Office contribute to the discharge of the Committee’s duty.

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The Speaker’s Committee entrusted this review to the scrutiny unit, which has the necessary specialist expertise to conduct precisely this sort of review. I understand that this is the first exercise of this type that the unit has undertaken. The Committee was pleased with the thorough job done by the unit, and the positive response of the Electoral Commission to the recommendations addressed to it. The Speaker’s Committee is still considering the detailed recommendations that the unit addressed to it, designed to improve the effectiveness of its scrutiny. Already, however, it has set up a sub-committee, which I chair, and the Minister for Local Government is good enough to participate in our discussions. This is to give consideration to the recommendations, and I expect to be putting forward recommendations as to their implementation before the full Committee before the summer recess.

Finally, there is Sir Hayden Phillips’ review of the funding of political parties. It is also relevant to the work of the Electoral Commission. Given the extension of the terms of reference in 1997 to the Electoral Commission, specifically to cover party funding issues, it is perhaps surprising that a separate review was felt necessary as a result of the controversy over loans to political parties.

I propose briefly to analyse three specific aspects of the work of Electoral Commission, including its record in each and some of the concerns that have been expressed. They are: first, governance and accountability; second, regulatory functions; thirdly, advisory functions.

In broad terms, the accountability arrangements to the House appear to have worked satisfactorily. As I have already said, the arrangements for regulating its finances have operated effectively, and the run-away expenditure feared by the Government has not materialised. All the existing commissioners whose original periods of office have expired have been reappointed; none of the reappointments has proved controversial in the House. The commission has been to keen to participate in Select Committee inquiries, and this has provided an opportunity for its policy stances to be examined critically.

Less satisfactory, perhaps, have been the arrangements for the political parties to make an input to the commission. While the political parties panel, constituted under section 4 of the 2000 Act, has provided a mechanism for party inputs at an official level, the parties and the commission appear not to have developed a similar mechanism at a political level. Given that commissioners are by definition people with no political experience insofar as that relates to donations, political employment or standing for election for at least 10 years before their appointment, this has been seen as a weakness, in that the commission has had little exposure to front-line political reality. This, some would argue, has been reflected in the overall way in which it has interpreted its role, and on occasion in the nature of the proposals that it has made.

In relation to its regulatory functions, the commission has continued to register new political parties. The number on the register has more than tripled since 2001 to 394. The commission has also received and published details of more than 13,000
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donations to political parties totalling more than £180 million, and some £86 million of campaign expenditure at six elections and one referendum, since 2001, while investigating where there is doubt about whether the existing rules have been followed.

A welcome change, for which provision will be made in the Electoral Administration Bill, will be the one-stop-shop for Members, whereby the information needed by the Commission for its register of recordable donations may be drawn from information given to the Register of Members’ Interests. However, as the recent controversy over loans to political parties has shown, there is evidence that public confidence in some parts of the political arrangements is fragile at best.

It is right to record that the Electoral Commission has successfully completed the 126 reviews of local authority electoral boundaries in England that it inherited from the Local Government Commission for England and has implemented all the consequent changes in good time for the next election in the reviewed area. It successfully conducted the regional government referendum in the north-east of England in November 2004.

Simon Hughes: On the local government boundary issue and the transfer of functions to the Electoral Commission, is it the view of the Speaker’s Committee that that job has been well done? If it is, has the committee taken the view that therefore it would be logical—this point was made earlier by one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues—for the commission to be given as soon as practicable the responsibility for all other boundaries, because the precedent is a good one?

Peter Viggers: My best answer to that is that the Speaker’s Committee takes the view that the Electoral Commission has fulfilled its role satisfactorily—even very satisfactorily—but that it does not follow logically that the work of the boundary commission should be referred to it. I hope and trust that the Minister will refer to that matter later.

Mr. Steen: As I understand it, my hon. Friend is saying that the commission’s job with regard to local authority boundaries has been very satisfactorily dealt with—as my hon. Friend, if I may call him that, the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) pointed out. Why is my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) not as bullish about parliamentary boundaries? Is it because he has not got the remit to speak, or is it that he feels certain reservations that he does not feel able to share with the House?

Peter Viggers: It is for the Government, and not the Speaker’s Committee, to take the initiative on this issue, so my diffidence is entirely justified.

The Electoral Commission has built up a role in providing authoritative advice and guidance to those involved in running our elections—the electoral registration officers and returning officers. It has to be borne in mind that it is the officers, not the commission, who have the direct responsibility. However, we should consider some of the figures being put forward for the number of errors on the electoral roll—both people who are not on
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it who should be and people who are on it who should not be. Dr. Pinto Duschinsky, in evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, recently suggested that there might be up to 7 million errors—a projection of an estimated under-registration of 3.5 million. That figure is disputed by the Electoral Commission. There clearly remains substantial scope for improvement on that score.

The commission has also worked hard to promote public awareness of, and participation in, the democratic process. However, it is certainly open to colleagues to comment if they feel that the Electoral Commission need give that area less emphasis in future. That is a matter for colleagues to advise on.

The Electoral Commission has come a long way in the past five years. It has established itself as a serious and respected player on the electoral scene—from a standing start. It has not been helped in that process by some of the rough edges on the legislative framework—at least some of which arose from the rushed enactment of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Electoral Administration Bill addresses some of those matters, but there remain a number of other issues, such as the qualification for office, which may also be relevant.

The considerable achievements are a tribute to the hard work and dedication of the Electoral Commission; the chairman, Sam Younger, and his fellow commissioners; Peter Wardle and his predecessor as chief executive; and all the staff. I visited the Electoral Commission recently to reopen their refurbished offices and I was greatly impressed first by the youth of the staff and then, in discussion with them, by their commitment and enthusiasm. They are a good team. I also pay a personal tribute to Dr. Christopher Ward, the Clerk of the Speaker’s Committee, who has been enormously helpful to the Committee.

I know from the Speaker’s Committee’s own examination of the commission that the commissioners accept the need to consider at this juncture whether their priorities are clear enough and, in particular, whether they have achieved the right balance between their different functions. As the commission recognises, a key issue that it currently faces is the extent to which the balance between its different roles—between its regulatory and advisory functions—may need to change in the light of the developments since it was first established in 2000. As I said at the start of the debate, tonight is a first. It gives the House an opportunity to reflect not only on the considerable achievements of the Electoral Commission to date, but on how we would like to see it move forward in the light of the challenges that we face in the electoral field and elsewhere. I look forward to hearing colleagues’ views. I apologise for taking so long, but there are certain matters that it is important to put on the record.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should say that the division of time between the two debates has not worked out quite as it normally does. A lot of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. In order to get as many people in as possible, it would be most helpful if hon. Members could curtail their remarks if they can.

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