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It is fair to make criticisms of the new organisation’s role so far, and some hon. Members have done that. I am sure that the commissioners and members of staff are not too proud to learn from us and other observers where they are going wrong or to try to make reforms to put that right. The debate on the subject and the two reviews that are currently taking place, which have featured so often in other hon. Members’
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contributions, are timely. It is a good time to speak about how well some things have gone and how others need attention and change. However, I do not agree that one of the Electoral Commission’s statutory responsibilities should be removed.

The Electoral Commission has several statutory responsibilities, which I would hesitate to rank because they are all important. Perhaps, after the most recent controversy about parties using loans instead of donations for funding, openness and transparency in the financial affairs of political parties attracts people’s attention. That is one of the Electoral Commission’s responsibilities and includes registering political parties, monitoring and publishing significant donations to parties and regulating their spending on election campaigns.

Beyond that, the Electoral Commission has important responsibilities such as reporting on the conduct of elections. We should pause and think about the reports that we have received in the few years since it was set up. They include reports on elections—not only two general elections but local elections and the pilot schemes for different ways in which to organise voting in local elections, for example, through setting up polling stations in popular places such as shopping centres, organising all-postal ballots or attempting electronic voting and counting. These all make a valuable contribution to our understanding of what works and what does not, and to encouraging more voters to come out and take part in the democratic process. The assessments from the commission have helped us in our understanding of these approaches.

The Electoral Commission has done its job in identifying the weaknesses in the postal voting system since the acceleration in the use of postal votes, and it has made recommendations to the Government on the issue. In fact, when we pass the Electoral Administration Bill into law, we shall be enacting some of the commission’s recommendations on making postal voting more secure in this country. We ought to give credit where it is due in that regard.

An important role for the Electoral Commission in the next few years will be to oversee the implementation of the new legislation. For the first time, consistent guidance will be given to all electoral returning officers and, also for the first time, the commission will be able to insist that the same information be supplied by all electoral returning officers. In a recent discussion that I had with Sam Younger, he told me about requests for information that he had made to returning officers to enable him to compile his reports. He said that some authorities had not even replied, because they were under no statutory obligation to do so, they were busy with other things, and did not regard it as a priority to give him the information that he needed. That will change under the new legislation, and the commission will be able to get the information that it needs to compile its reports, so that people like us who are interested in these matters will be able to read them afterwards.

A good point was made about the slowness of the response in regard to service personnel, but the commission would probably say in its defence that this is an extremely complex issue and that it has made
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recommendations to the Ministry of Defence. So far as it is able to play its part in promoting greater awareness of the electoral system among service personnel and the importance of their registering to vote, wherever they are in the world, the commission is doing its job.

I want to talk about the statutory responsibility to promote public awareness of our electoral systems. I disagree with the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam)—and with the hon. Member for Chichester in so far as he agreed with the hon. Gentleman on this matter—in that I believe that the commission has an important role to play in promoting such awareness. I am not saying that that should be a substitute for our doing our job of making politics interesting, making ourselves trustworthy and attracting lots of people to come out and join the democratic process. However, there is a role for the commission to provide independent expertise, advice and information to those who want it.

I shall give the House an example of this working in other areas, where other regulators have more than simply a regulatory role. The Financial Services Authority—another Labour innovation since 1997—has a statutory obligation to promote financial understanding. The Food Standards Agency operates in a completely different area of policy, although, curiously, it has the same initials. It is another Labour innovation since 1997, and has the role, alongside enforcement and regulation, of promoting knowledge and understanding of healthy and safe foods. Those examples show why the Electoral Commission should have a role in promoting public awareness. It can be trusted, it is independent and it can be authoritative in providing information.

I commend the work that the commission already does in that area. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) said in an earlier intervention, education in politics and citizenship has not been part of the national curriculum until recently. In fact, such education was established in 2001, and it is now part of the compulsory curriculum for all secondary schools. One strand of citizenship education is political literacy, and the Electoral Commission has contributed to the teaching of that subject through its “Democracy Cookbook”, a valuable source of teaching aids for teachers and others in a learning environment. I therefore congratulate the commission on its work in that role.

Like other Members who have spoken, I think that the Electoral Commission has done its job well as a committee on local government boundaries and is worthy of taking over that role for the boundaries of our constituencies, too. The adage that we should walk before we run is sensible, and if the Minister tells us that there is still a little more walking to be done before the sprint stage is reached, I shall take her advice. The commission is earning its spurs, however, and I am sure that it will in due course be a reliable reviewer of constituency boundaries.

With regard to referendums, the commission has the primary responsibility for their conduct. On the small number of occasions on which it has exercised that role, the commission has done extremely well—although perhaps the Government have not enjoyed the result of one of those referendums—in overseeing the conduct of the referendums, setting up the parties
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for the yes and no camps and ensuring that the question is fair. I foresee quite a call on its services in conducting further referendums in future.

Looking to the immediate future, a lot of work will be done on electoral registration and raising the practices of all local authorities to the level of the best, both in the registration of people’s entitlement to vote and their ability to cast their votes in local and national elections. The two reviews being conducted at present will lead to recommendations to us to amend the 2000 Act, and I gather from tonight’s debate that there will be a willingness to consider sensible and well-thought-through recommendations for change to that law, some of which will be welcome. When we come to legislate, I hope that we will consider not just the receipt of money by political parties but the spending of it, especially between formal elections in this country. I would like to see annual limits on spending introduced and perhaps, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House says, an end to the arms race in political spending in this country, with some flexibility in the years of general and European elections.

It is easy for Members of the House who disagree with the Electoral Commission’s recommendations to say, “We are hardened politicians and we know this business; they are all novices,” because those on the commission are not even allowed to have an experience of politics, as that debars them from being a commissioner or member of the senior staff of the organisation. That is a criticism, and it undermines the authority with which the commission speaks to us, the politicians. I am one of those who supports a change in the rules about who may be a commissioner or senior officer of the commission, and a lifting of the bar on people who have modern, relevant political experience. That could benefit the whole organisation in providing an understanding of what we are about, what is practical and what will not pass through this place. Ultimately, that would benefit the commission and our country’s democracy.

9.13 pm

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I have served on the Speaker’s Committee almost continuously since it was created. I now do so ex officio as chairman of the Constitutional Affairs Committee. I used to do the job that the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) did so well tonight. The Constitutional Affairs Committee has the Electoral Commission as well as the Department for Constitutional Affairs within its remit. I should also mention that I have given evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life for its review of the commission. As a declaration of interest, I should mention that my wife serves on the Committee on Standards in Public Life, but I am not speaking on behalf of any of those aforementioned bodies. As time is limited, I just want to refer to the governance points, and to follow some of the arguments made so far.

Generally, as the debate has revealed, the Electoral Commission has done several good things, but it has not dealt successfully with several areas, and several problems have been identified. Some internal problems were identified by the scrutiny unit report, to which the hon. Member for Gosport referred, and which I agree was a very good piece of work.

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My first key point about the commission is that I think it needs authority in the political world. It ought to be a body whose recommendations it is very difficult for the Government and Parliament to turn down. That is what we want for electoral commissions in all other countries, and it is what I want for our Electoral Commission. As a number of Members have said today, however, it is undermined by the lack of political experience on the commission. It is too easy for us in Parliament to say, “Sorry, but you do not know enough about it. You have good intentions, but we know what it is like.”

Sometimes that it true. We may indeed be more aware of, for example, the fact that proposed improvements would not achieve their intended purpose, because we know how parties operate. I think it would be right for the commission to include a minority of members who have experience of the various political parties but are no longer in the front line of activity in that context, and I think we should change the statute to make that possible.

As was pointed out earlier, it was not originally envisaged that Mr. Speaker would chair the Speaker’s Committee. His chairmanship was seen as a way of giving the committee, and hence the Electoral Commission, more authority. That places limitations on the committee. It is clear that if the Speaker’s valued independence and impartiality are to be preserved, the minuted discussions about whose absence—in a thoughtful speech—the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) complained cannot be allowed. If they are, the possibility will arise that the Speaker’s views will start to be quoted. Similarly, the Speaker cannot be questioned on the Floor of the House. The hon. Member for Gosport does the job in his place. The Speaker is a very busy man.

The decision to give the committee authority by making the Speaker chairman had certain consequences for the way in which it could operate. It is important to remember, however, that it does not operate in quite the same way as a Select Committee. Its responsibilities are comparable to those of a Minister in relation to a Department: it is responsible for the Electoral Commission’s estimate, and effectively it brings that estimate to the House. It does not merely scrutinise how the commission has spent money; it decides in the first place whether it can spend that money—whether the money can be allocated for its purposes.

The Speaker’s Committee does a great deal of work of that kind. It challenges the commission’s budget. It makes the commission very aware that certain areas of expenditure are under-challenged, that they may not be continued, and that the budget may have to be varied. It does its work through a regular cycle of meetings, with the assistance of the scrutiny unit and, of course, the National Audit Office, which provides it with extremely helpful material. Its function is different from the normal function of a Select Committee.

At the same time, the Constitutional Affairs Committee has a scrutiny role in relation to the Electoral Commission’s work, its policy proposals and the Department’s relationship with it. It is necessarily an intermittent role. Our Committee has numerous
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other responsibilities concerned with numerous other aspects of the Department’s work—including legal aid, the judiciary, other public bodies, national archives and the Public Guardianship Office—although we do question the chairman of the Electoral Commission, and also the chief executive. A number of our recent reports have involved questions to him. We are currently engaged in an inquiry into party funding, an issue that has been mentioned a good deal this evening. We have elicited the views of the commission and many others on that. Nevertheless, it is the case—and will remain the case following any future changes—that the Committee has few responsibilities in this regard.

Do we need to modify the system? There are obviously clear advantages for the Electoral Commission in its being responsible to the House directly, rather than through the Department. I am very glad that that was made part of the system. Indeed, the Constitutional Affairs Committee has suggested that a similar route would be appropriate for the Information Commissioner. We have observed the difficulties presented to him by the fact that his budget was set by the Department and set very late in the day, and the problem—a theoretical problem, at least—that one of the Departments he is scrutinising is responsible for his budget. The direct route to Parliament is therefore valuable.

The hon. Member for Chichester and others have suggested that a new committee, perhaps chaired by a senior member of the Opposition, could conduct its proceedings openly. We might then lose something of the authority conferred by the Speaker’s presence, and it might become a little more difficult to resist Government pressure. It is quite useful to have the Speaker on one’s side if one has to do battle with the Treasury over the estimates. However, it is a serious proposition that we should look at. Even if such a committee were created, the Constitutional Affairs Committee would still be involved because the policy issues that the Electoral Commission is involved in are very much its sphere.

The logical division of responsibility between the Speaker’s Committee and the Constitutional Affairs Committee is that the Speaker’s Committee does pay and rations and the Constitutional Affairs Committee does policy, to put it broadly. It never works out quite like that, for reasons that I will not go into in this short debate. I do not think that we could put all those responsibilities and the responsibility for presenting the estimate in one body, but now that we have established the authority of the Speaker's Committee and the relationship is clearer—it is not as messy as has been suggested by some—we should perhaps consider moving to an arrangement in which the Speaker did not need to chair it and its role could develop from there. I do not have a rigid view about that, but I suppose I would be staking my Committee’s claim if in conclusion I said that any Constitutional Affairs Committee, whatever its membership—four of its members have taken part in today’s debate—would want to continue its scrutiny of the key areas of policy of great constitutional importance with which the Electoral Commission is concerned.

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9.21 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Like others, I would like to concentrate in the short time available on something that has not yet been mentioned: the oversight of by-elections. By-elections have been in the news in England and Wales, but I would like to share an experience of a recent Scottish Parliament by-election that I think should give all Members of the House cause to consider how elections are conducted. In meetings with the Electoral Commission, I have already suggested ways in which the commission should look at the issue.

There is a juggernaut heading in the direction of politics in this country which I find disturbing. It comes through the effective trebling of spending limits in by-elections to £100,000. The political campaigning time is as short as possible; most parties think it to their advantage to call short campaigns in a by-election. As we all know, with some imagination, £100,000 can go pretty far.

I would like to make Members aware of some of the most dubious campaigning techniques that are being used. Again, I will concentrate on my experience in the Moray by-election, held only two months ago to replace Margaret Ewing, who many people in this House will remember served here between 1974 and 1979 for East Dunbartonshire and between 1987 and 2001 for Moray.

It is important to point out that I am raising the issue not out of sour grapes, because at the by-election my party secured its biggest ever majority. It was our most successful campaign ever. I am not going to go into how bad it was for other parties, but it was not good for them.

The campaigning spending in that by-election was published last week. The Conservative party spent £91,000, the Lib Dems £42,000, the Scottish National party £33,000 and the Labour party £10,000. What happened in that by-election? The Conservative campaign was launched on the day of the cremation of Margaret Ewing. The majority of the materials used by the Conservative party, which has traditionally been the main challenging party in Moray, did not contain the word “Conservative” or “Tory”. Clearly the impression was trying to be created that its candidate, Mary Scanlon, who had been of high standing as a Conservative Member in the Scottish Parliament for the Highlands and Islands, was “another bonnie fechter”, creating the impression that she was following in the footsteps of a Scottish Nationalist. It is beyond credibility. Posters were put up on lampposts throughout the constituency without mention of the party’s name.

The real shocker was that apparently handwritten letters were sent to constituents that claimed to be from independent councillors who never gave their permission for their names to be used in the campaign. That led to headlines on the front pages of Scottish newspapers describing the Conservatives’ campaign as “deceitful”.

The Conservatives were closely followed by the Liberal Democrats, who produced materials that claimed that the SNP candidate was from Aberdeen. That is not true. He does not live in Aberdeen. Indeed, he lived in the same parliamentary constituency as the
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Liberal Democrat candidate, who was described as “local”. I have given the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) notice that I intended to raise this issue. Clarification has been sought of why such misinformation was used repeatedly in campaign materials, despite the fact that it was established as not being true. Two months later, I still await a reply from the hon. Gentleman.

Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), who cannot be here tonight, alerted me that this issue might be raised. My understanding is that the candidate came from a village on the boundary of Aberdeen. As one goes into the village, the sign says that one is entering Aberdeen. In common parlance, that would make the claims true.

Angus Robertson: Is the hon. Gentleman denying that the candidate lived in the same constituency as the Liberal Democrats’ candidate?

Simon Hughes: I am just saying that the village in question is known as being in Aberdeen.

Angus Robertson: The hon. Gentleman obviously has not been there, because he clearly does not know what he is talking about. The point that I am trying to make is that, for significant campaign expenditure, techniques of character assassination imported from the United States are being used in by-elections, whether in Moray, Bromley and Chislehurst or south Wales. That should stop.

Mr. Heald: What the heck is wrong with us describing an excellent candidate as a bonnie fighter?

Angus Robertson: There would be nothing wrong with that if the party had the honesty to add the party name underneath the candidate’s photograph and on the rest of the literature. The party sought to create an impression that she was something that she was not. That is not honest and that is not how political parties should campaign.

Worst of all for the Liberal Democrats was the revelation that they took their own quotes from a report in The Northern Scot—regularly voted the best weekly newspaper in the UK—and reproduced them in campaigning literature as the opinions of the newspaper itself. The editor of the newspaper asked whether they really thought that readers and the people of Moray would be stupid enough to believe that the newspaper would prejudice its reputation for impartial political reporting. That scam has been tried elsewhere by the Liberal Democrats, so they cannot pretend that the manipulation of the comments was a mistake.

I venture to suggest that many hon. Members have seen some of those campaign techniques in their constituencies and in by-elections. It has to stop. Such dubious campaign techniques do nothing but undermine the democratic process.

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