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3 July 2006 : Column 594
8.15 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I, too, welcome the debate. I share the view of the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) that it is important. However, as he pointed out, it is the first time since the Electoral Commission was formed that such a debate has been held. In many ways, the arrangements that the Electoral Commission has with the House—in terms of how it reports to the House, how it is scrutinised and how it performs its function—have played the role of an inspired invention. I am talking about resolving through the legislation the difficulty of how such a commission would work—deeply involved as it was going to be in matters that could be politically controversial, even though it clearly should not be politically biased in its own right. How that situation was resolved in the legislation, and the function of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission in that respect, constituted that inspired invention.

However, in reality, as the hon. Gentleman said, the Electoral Commission is the equivalent of a medium-sized non-departmental public body. It has a staff of 150 and a budget of £26 million. Normally, as far as the Government are concerned, the structure for such bodies—particularly, say, next steps agencies—will be a parent Department, a framework agreement and a series of relationships with that Department in order to specify how the accountability is to be undertaken. No such framework exists for the Electoral Commission. There are a number of other unique elements of that relationship with the House that do not in any way parallel the relationship of any other body of similar size.

In practice, the Speaker’s Committee has performed something of a scrutiny role towards the work of the Electoral Commission through its meetings. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, those are not held in public. He gives understandable reasons for that, but it does have something of a result. The Speaker’s Committee accidentally, rather than deliberately, scrutinises what the Electoral Commission is doing. We have an indirect form of running accountability to the House, through the short time allotted to questions to the Chairman of the Speaker’s Committee each month.

I ask myself whether the commission might be more formally scrutinised through the medium of a Select Committee, as a departmentally attached agency might be. I can suggest a candidate for that role: the Constitutional Affairs Committee, of which I am a member. In any event, the Chair of that Committee, or a Committee designated by the legislation, sits on the Speaker’s Committee by statutory authority. It might be possible for the Speaker’s Committee to change its function. It could take upon itself a scrutinising role through the appointment of senior Back Benchers to form a scrutiny committee. Perhaps a good alternative would be for that Select Committee function to be more formalised in connection with the way in which the Electoral Commission works.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned what I think is a very restrictive definition in the legislation of who may be appointed as an electoral commissioner, or even an assistant electoral commissioner. It is enshrined in the legislation that if a person is to be appointed to such a post, they cannot have been a member of a
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political party or held any form of office in one, and cannot have been employed by a political party or, indeed, have been a named donor to one. It is understandable that a number of those restrictions may be imposed, but it is perhaps less known that also set out in the legislation are similar if slightly less onerous restrictions on all members of staff of the commission. Therefore, almost the entire commission will never have had any dealings with political parties, certainly not for a very long time.

As the duties and responsibilities of the Electoral Commission lie at the heart of the functioning of the democratic system of government in the UK, and political parties are an integral part of that, the involvement in the political process of the electoral commissioners and the staff of the Electoral Commission is a pertinent question to consider. As I have said, those who put themselves forward as candidates for the post of electoral commissioner are outside the political process, and it might be necessary to readdress the legislation, but the question that arises is whether there should be additional commissioners appointed through the medium of political parties, or whether the nomination of commissioners in its own right should be addressed. After all, political even-handedness is not the same as political celibacy. It would be beneficial to the functioning of the Electoral Commission if the position on the political involvement of both commissioners and staff were reviewed.

As the hon. Member for Gosport also mentioned, the Electoral Commission has devoted a considerable proportion of its resource not just to regulating elections but to the promotion of electoral awareness and to providing information on the practice of elections and referendums. Within the terms of that remit, it has promoted electoral awareness well, but it must be said that the limitations have meant that only one area has been addressed—voter disengagement, and the issue of not knowing what to do about voting in an era of what one might say are atomised families who might previously have gone to the polls together.

The results of the commission’s audit of political engagement show, however, that other factors are at work. In particular, there is a distaste for voting among those in their 40s, not just among the newly enfranchised. The question whether such distaste results from the inability of parties to engage voters or from a more problematic anti-politics societal norm is a difficult one to answer, but either way it presents the Electoral Commission with a difficult task if it is to promote voting on a wider basis than simply providing information about how to do it. In essence, the challenge is one of promoting the norms and necessities of democracy and politics themselves, which might be considered outside the commission’s remit.

In considering what the commission does to advance awareness of the electoral process, it is tempting, therefore, to argue for a bifurcation of that promoting role. There certainly is a need for information and reminding, and for research into the process of voting—certainly about whether the present geographically based system of casting votes is seen to be appropriate to new generations
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of voters, and whether changes in its structure can overcome other issues such as the security and integrity of the vote.

However, the process of argument about the role that politics plays in democracy in the UK and why the political process, including elections, is important might be a remit too far for the commission, and the development of political democracy foundations similar to those established in Germany, such as the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, which represent the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats respectively, might be a better course of action to address the issue. That would entail, of course, the development and resolution of the argument about state funding for political parties, since the establishment of such foundations could not be seriously contemplated within the present structure of voluntary funding of political parties.

That brings me to the role of the commission in policing the regulation of political parties and the control of campaign finance. Other Members have mentioned that the Electoral Commission has in general been relatively effective—within, frankly, a flawed regulatory brief—at implementing and policing the recording and controlling role. The commission has been less effective in the regulation of donations to political parties, partly because of its own issues about asking questions about donations that might be considered at the margins of its remit, and partly because of the limitations of that remit itself.

The question that might be asked of the Electoral Commission is this: what exactly does it regulate? Its name suggests that it regulates elections, but its practice suggests that it regulates the conduct and practice of elections and the functioning of political parties where they relate to elections. As elections are an important but by no means the sole activity of political parties, that entails the close regulation of some party activity relating to the democratic process, but no regulation of other matters, even where those matters are closely connected. For example, the registration of parties in order to nominate candidates is regulated, but the process of nominating candidates for elections is not. The activity of such candidates once nominated may be regulated, provided that it is within the period of an election, but the activity and funding methods of adopted candidates outside an electoral period is not regulated.

In reality, political parties do not make such distinctions, and in any event they do not operate financially and in soliciting and managing donations in identical ways. Therefore, it may be said that the first problem arises from an implied assumption in the legislation that UK political parties are in essence machines for electing people to posts—essentially the American party model—and the second problem arises from an apparent assumption by the Electoral Commission that, provided certain reporting rules and accounting conventions were laid down, it would be possible to gain a coherent picture of parties’ funding and hence donations.

The Conservatives and the Labour party do not work, and never have worked, in identical ways. The ways in which the parties fund themselves differ fundamentally. The Conservative party was formed in Parliament and gained supporters’ associations that
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raised money for the party, while the Labour party was formed outside Parliament and operated as both a federation and a centralised party, combining funds in the middle in order to get into Parliament.

The regulation of donations by the commission therefore often fails to record accurately the real income of parties and does not pick up innovations such as the recent funding of local parties outside the campaign period to promote nominated candidates with the use of money that might otherwise be declared as central donations. Proper regulation under those circumstances would probably entail an extension of the assumption of regulation of political parties generally, and might therefore also entail a required operating standard for political parties themselves. That might call into question the reasonable right of political parties to organise themselves in the way that they feel is best appropriate to their political and geographical circumstances. Regulation that covered the whole range of party financial activity, locally and nationally, regardless of the method of organisation, might be more appropriate, and certainly a more transparent and understandable way for the Electoral Commission to discharge its regulatory function effectively in future.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend accept that some of us face particular difficulties inasmuch as, as Labour/Co-operative MPs, we represent two parties? The two parties could operate differently, and therefore any regulation must carefully take account of diversity, because I would hate to have to choose which party I wanted to follow.

Dr. Whitehead: My hon. Friend makes an important point about how we regulate for diversity. I was emphasising the fact that, because of that issue, the commission has, not through any lack of resolve or resourcefulness on its part, but perhaps because of the way in which the legislation and its remit are cast, struggled to regulate campaign and party expenditure. It has regulated well expenditure that clearly occurs within campaigns, but that is and always has been an artificial construct.

One could argue that campaigns in marginal seats start on the day that the original result is declared and the seat is then appraised as being, or becoming, a marginal. Efforts to regulate the campaign better by defining more accurately what the campaign period is will probably be doomed to failure. Indeed, as hon. Members will be aware, that is precisely the difficulty that arose during consideration of how we might legislate for that in the Electoral Administration Bill. Again, the question arises of proper regulation implying oversight over the whole activity of party politics—the entire expenditure of parties both locally and nationally.

My plea to the House in respect of the future conduct of the Electoral Commission is that the commission works well where its remit is clearly defined and where that remit can be undertaken transparently and expertly; it works less well where the remit itself remains unclear, or the arrangements under which the commission can work within that remit are incomplete. Perhaps, as the hon. Member for Gosport hinted, it is time to review and make sure that the remit
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within which the Electoral Commission works in its regulatory, its advisory and its promotional functions is more clearly defined. In that way, we might ensure that on the sticky issue of how parties are regulated and funded, among other matters, the procedure is clear, and the role that the commission plays in it is therefore also clear.

8.31 pm

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): In today’s estimates debate, it is appropriate to consider whether the Electoral Commission is giving the taxpayer value for money. I believe that it could improve the service it provides and reduce its costs if it took certain steps, which I shall outline.

The commission employs about 150 people. I acknowledge the tribute that my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) paid to their enthusiasm and youth—I was glad to hear that—and to the excellent role played by the chairman. The commission costs the taxpayer approximately £26 million—a figure that could be cut by up to a half immediately if the commission accepted the suggestion inherent in the remarks made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), that all the activity to encourage participation is well beyond the role that the Electoral Commission can realistically be expected to perform. The fact is that, as I am well aware following my recent involvement in the by-election in Bromley and Chislehurst, participation in general elections and in local elections is affected by very different matters from putting an advert on the side of a London bus telling people to go and vote and giving them more information. The issue is far wider and bigger than that, and, to be frank, the Electoral Commission is wasting its time getting involved. The activity was imposed on the commission by the Government—it was not in its original remit—and I think that the commission should get well clear. Quite apart from anything else, that sort of marketing activity requires different skills from the regulatory role that is the commission’s core business.

The commission should concentrate on its core business. As we know, it has taken a conscientious and straightforward approach in advocating individual registration and personal identifiers. The fact is, however, that the Government have in large measure refused to implement those measures through the Electoral Administration Bill. At that point, the commission should have had the robustness to say openly that the Government, to their credit, set it up precisely to take such delicate issues out of party politics but then, when the commission made sensible proposals, the Government voted them down, and that is to fly in the face of the logic of setting up the commission in the first place. The Government have adopted a nonsensical position and the Electoral Commission should have been more robust in making that plain. I realise that there are difficulties in the way of the commission making those points in public with force. None the less, it should have tried, especially in view of the information dug up by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) about the advice given on the Government’s consultation document by various Labour consultees that are in favour of individual registration and personal identifiers. That was brought out dramatically
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in our last debate on the Electoral Administration Bill, and I am pleased because it shows that there is support, not merely from the official Opposition, the Liberal Democrats and the minor parties, but from the Labour party for that sort of sensible improvement. As we have always said, Britain and Zimbabwe are the only countries that do not have individual registration, and it is ridiculous that it should be so.

Several hon. Members have spoken about the Speaker’s Committee and accountability and their points were well made. With due respect to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport, who has done a conscientious and comprehensive job, as has the Speaker’s Committee, whose independence and neutrality we accept absolutely, the fact is that the Speaker’s Office and the Speaker himself have many, many other responsibilities. The amount of time that the Speaker and the Speaker’s Committee can devote to these issues is limited. I do not know how many times the Committee has met to consider the matter of the Electoral Commission, but I suspect that the number of such occasions is quite small in any one year. That suggests that, as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test said and my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) has said on more than one occasion, we need to examine the arrangements for accountability to this House. Various suggestions have been made—some rather complicated—but the matter should be grasped as soon as possible. The present arrangements are not entirely satisfactory, even though the Speaker’s Committee is very conscientious.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) pointed out, with great force, in his intervention, the whole business of whether the Electoral Commission should take over the work of the boundary commissions is a total mess. It is profoundly unsatisfactory and there seems to be no clear decisiveness about what will happen.

Mr. Steen: Is my hon. Friend aware that 351 seats in this House cover approximately 61,000 electors, despite the fact that this House has instructed the boundary commission to make each parliamentary seat cover 70,000 electors? Does he agree that the present boundary commission arrangements are not only not working, but they are going against what Parliament has recommended; and that if the boundary commission’s responsibilities are not to be transferred to the Electoral Commission, something else should be done so that we get parliamentary seats of the size that this House has recommended—something that has been prevented by the present arrangements?

Mr. Horam: My view is that votes should have equal weight, wherever they are in the country. That is the principle that I would like to see adopted by the boundary commissions. At present, we have four boundary commissions and votes in different parts of the country carry different weights, and that is unacceptable. I would like the Electoral Commission to take that on board and I would like the Government, whatever their views on the matter, to listen to the views of the Electoral Commission. I do not take a strong view either way on whether the Electoral Commission itself should take over the work of the boundary commission, which would be quite a big
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bundle of work, or whether the boundary commission should remain in some form but supervised by the Electoral Commission. Whatever happens, given that the present round of boundary arrangements is being completed, the Government have plenty of time to consider the matter fundamentally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes says, this is very important, so let us have clear decisions from the Government.

8.38 pm

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): As we know, the Electoral Commission is responsible for overseeing several aspects of electoral law, such as the registration of political parties, the monitoring of significant donations and the regulation of party spending on electoral campaigns. A further responsibility is promoting public awareness of, and involvement in, the democratic system. I understand that that responsibility commands 50 per cent. of the commission’s budget, and I will refer to that aspect of its role first.

Over the past nine months or so, we have been discussing and debating low turnout in elections and the associated problems of falling electoral registration. In the Second Reading debate on the Electoral Administration Bill last October, hon. Members acknowledged that there was a crisis in registration. The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), talked about “democracy deserts” and the fact that 3 million people, most of whom share some of the characteristics of being poor, council tenants, black, or living in inner-city areas, would not be on the register, whereas those who were better off would be. The problem is illustrated in my constituency and local authority area. Registration levels in Salford vary from 75 per cent. to 92 per cent., with some wards having registration levels as low as 64 per cent., which represents less than two thirds of the people in those wards.

Low registration leads inexorably to low turnout, and the turnout recorded in last year’s general election was 61 per cent. The Electoral Commission’s most recent audit of political engagement showed that beneath the headline figures there were now considerable disparities in the extent of political engagement among certain social groups. That shows that social and political exclusion are strongly related and mutually reinforcing. The report says that professional workers are more likely to feel knowledgeable about politics than manual workers or the unemployed. Only a minority of those in very deprived areas are interested in politics, while a quarter are now unwilling to engage in any activity around influencing decisions. Perhaps most depressing of all, the extent of political knowledge and interest in acting and participating is lower among younger people than it is among the population as a whole. Anyone who is active in political campaigning will know that there is a cohort of younger people who have never voted and are becoming less likely to do so as the years pass. I find it depressing to canvass a 30-year-old who says, “I have never voted.”

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