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Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I sympathise very much with the hon. Gentleman’s complaints. He mentioned American campaigning techniques, and I
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am sure that he will agree that it is significant that sometimes less than half the population participates in elections, even presidential ones. His most important point was about the high level of expenditure. Does he agree that the only way to overcome that problem is to have very low, rigidly enforced limits on election spending, so that we do not go the way of the US, where parties are bought by big business?

Angus Robertson: I sincerely hope that the Electoral Commission will consider the issue of by-elections and the new by-election spending limit. I think that £100,000 for a three or four-week campaign is far too much.

The point about local media coverage is that in Moray we have independent local newspapers that are read by the entire local electorate, but I fear for by-elections in places where the local media have less ability to report impartially on what is being said and done. I would not like to be part of a debate about people’s concerns that elections were being bought. We are running the risk of that happening in by-elections, which, as we all know, are important for all political parties as tests of opinion between general elections.

The Electoral Commission has a role to play but the political parties have a role, too, including through the party bodies that bring representatives of all of us together in the commission. Perhaps we should have a mature discussion about ending some of the campaign techniques that undermine the democratic process that we are all trying to support, as is the Electoral Commission.

9.30 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Some of the things that the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) said were relatively controversial. I remind him that I visited Moray, where I spent an enjoyable day, and I am sure that I told him that I was going there—but by-elections are robust events and local newspapers are often prayed in aid; they certainly have been in every by-election in which I have been involved for 20 years.

Angus Robertson: By Lib Dems.

Simon Hughes: No, by all parties, if the papers can be used to support the party in any way. We could have that dispute, but I shall be happy to continue the conversation outside.

However, there is nothing wrong with asking the Electoral Commission to look at by-elections, which is the relevance of this debate, and I have no objection to that. I share the view that has been expressed on both sides of the House and elsewhere that party expenditure is properly an issue for the commission. In many ways, I regret the fact that that job was suddenly taken from the commission’s remit and given to Hayden Phillips—not that I have anything against him, but it seems logical to give the commission the task of looking at spending. There is clearly an issue in respect of the spending that starts in seats—whether the hon. Gentleman’s seat, mine or any other—not just a month before the general election, but six months, a year or two years before. That is local spending, although it is
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technically disguised as part of a national budget. All those things justify giving the Electoral Commission the responsibility of looking further at expenditure.

I welcome this debate on the Electoral Commission. My colleagues and I are grateful to the Liaison Committee for proposing the first debate of this kind. We each have a maximum of 10 minutes for our wind-ups so, on behalf of my party, I shall simply make the points that I think are most important. I apologise to colleagues, therefore, for the fact that I cannot reflect on all the other contributions.

The proposal for an Electoral Commission was a good one and we supported it. It is right that the commission came into existence; it has done an important and good job and we support its continuance. The commission has spent a significant amount of money, but that has been scrutinised. Apart from one year, when there was a critical comment about some of the spend, the scrutiny process has endorsed the commission as having spent its money wisely. That is a good commendation, much better than what we hear in many areas of public life, not least Departments such as the Home Office.

The debate plays into the review undertaken by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was the genesis of the Electoral Commission, and is thus especially timely. Like the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) and others, I have given evidence to the Committee and we await with interest its conclusions at the end of the year. Like the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), I come in to bat strongly in favour of the Electoral Commission. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, both on his own behalf and reflecting the views of his Committee, when the Electoral Commission proposes something, the assumption should be that it has the authority to carry the day unless there is a strong argument against it. But that requires two or three things to happen.

First, a minority of the commission’s members should be from political backgrounds, because that will provide the antennae and there will be authority from inside and outside. Nobody will be able to say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about—it’s not like this in real life.” The real life element will have been inserted. I am clear that that should happen.

I am clear, too, that the structure of accountability, which was conceived for the best of reasons, needs to be reformed, so that it becomes a fully open and accountable process of scrutiny and moves from the present position whereby the Speaker, quite properly, cannot participate fully, because it would be prejudicial to his role as the independent guardian of the House’s interests if he were to express views. Therefore, whether with Mr. Speaker or his successors, we need to find another structure to open up the process.

Such things should happen in open forum and the minutes should be recorded, and the Committee might therefore meet more often and be able to take more political responsibility. That would pick up some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) and other hon. Members. Any failings—for example, on service voting—might have been picked up much more quickly and action taken much more rigorously.
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It would have helped the Electoral Commission to do its job better. I can see no disadvantage—but, yes, there must be a minority of political appointees. Four such appointees in a commission of eleven or more would seem entirely appropriate.

One topical debate is still going on: we are debating whether personal identifiers should be part of the registration and voting process, and the Electoral Administration Bill is still before Parliament. My view is that if the Electoral Commission makes a proposal, there should be a mechanism whereby that proposal comes to the House, and that if the Government want to amend the proposal, that is seen as a Government amendment to the independent proposal. We will need to find a mechanism whereby that legislation could be promoted, for example, by the Committee and given special status. That is not impossible and there are parallels in other legislatures.

The next big question is whether the Electoral Commission has tried to do too much, and whether it has concentrated on the right things. My judgment is that it has sought to do what it thought were the relevant things. There are some very good election reports on all the major elections, including on specific sub-issues, such as expenditure at certain elections and the electronic counting of votes, which was tried for the first time at the London elections. Some good policy reports have added to information. An example of one of the ones that matter is the funding of electoral services, which are often underfunded by local authorities.

There is an argument that political advertising should be subject to the Advertising Standards Authority. [ Interruption. ] Seriously—I have argued for that on many occasions before. Those are real issues, on which the Electoral Commission should be able to do the work. I would not join those who say that it must do only its core job; it can do other jobs too, and it has done them well, by and large. It is clear that it chose to concentrate on party funding. That is very important; the electorate want the reforms to be made. Mercifully, we are moving in the right direction, but we are not yet there.

There has been a set of exchanges about the boundary commission reviews. The hon. Member for Gosport confirmed that the boundary commission review of local government boundaries in England had been done well. I am clear that the Electoral Commission should take over, as soon as possible, the review of UK parliamentary boundaries, and I am clear that there should be one UK parliamentary boundary commission for this Parliament. That would save a lot of money to start with. We would not necessarily get constituencies of absolutely the same size. There are some very good Scottish examples. In my view, it would be illogical for the Western Isles, and Orkney and Shetland, as well as Anglesey in Wales not to be seen as natural constituencies. However, the same principle could and should apply across the UK. If there is a case for smaller electorate in a very depopulated or rural area, that principle should be seen to apply equally in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but we must not continue with different electoral norms for this Parliament in the four countries. That is no longer acceptable. We should have the same electoral norm for this Parliament, other than for exceptions that could arise in any of the four countries.

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I want to make two last substantive points. What key issues are now on our common agenda? One of them is to ensure that we increase the number of people who are not only registered but vote—an issue that has been raised by other colleagues. A guy called Gordon Spencer, whom I met at an organisation in my constituency, has recently undertaken, as part of his degree, a piece of research based on my constituency, focusing on what makes people turn out to vote, or why they do not vote. I have a copy of that, and it contains examples of the information that we all need. The information shows, most tellingly, not that people were uninterested but that there were practical issues that made a difference. For example, people were away on the day and had not registered for a postal vote; polling stations were not in convenient places, and were not open for long enough in the day. There are many practical answers to the question of how we can increase the ability of the electorate to participate in elections, and we should do that. We are moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.

Kelvin Hopkins: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hughes: No. I must finish in a few seconds.

I hope that the Electoral Commission will carry out an urgent piece of work on one last matter. We now have many different election systems in many different parts of the UK. That in itself is becoming confusing. I hope that the commission will review that diversity of experience. There is a simple proposition which would make all our lives easier, and I ask the commission to consider it. Given the exact nature of the process in each of the elections, at least we should move to a situation that wherever they are in the UK, at every election people can express their preferences by a one, two, three system rather than some using preference and others by putting crosses on ballot papers. There would then at least be a greater likelihood of people understanding the system, expressing a preference and participating more significantly. I ask the commission to consider that, and I hope that we as a Parliament will then consider the recommendations that it makes to us.


Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I did not agree with that. However, some themes have come out of the debate—for example, that the Electoral Commission should have more authority. I agree with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and with my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) that it would be wise for the people on the board of the commission to have some political experience, provided that it is not so much as to be overbearing—a modest amount of political experience, which is balanced. That would be a good thing.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who said that the commissioners should do less and do it well. I think that the commission is at its best when it is working from experience in an area at the core of its functions. I would like to see it do more of that and less of the work on the margins.

I am pleased that we are having an annual debate—or are we? It is certainly nice to have the first debate. I have said for some time that it would be useful to have an annual debate about the Electoral
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Commission. I hope that that will happen in future. I agree with the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) that we need more scrutiny. However, I would like the commission to remain independent and to report to Parliament. I would not want to see it come under the aegis of the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport, who opened the debate. He does a good job and handles sensibly his role in representing the Speaker’s Committee in Parliament. He takes much trouble with hon. Members if they ask a question. He will often ask them whether they want further information over and above the answers that have been given. That is much appreciated. I join the tributes that have been paid to Sam Younger for the work that he has done.

The issue of the Boundary Commission is a difficult one. I have some doubts about the idea of the Electoral Commission taking over the work of the Boundary Commission. That is partly because I see the work of the Electoral Commission more as a regulator than as an executive body taking forward work such as drawing lines on maps. I would like to see the Electoral Commission considering how the Boundary Commission functions and making comments, based on experience, of what lessons can be learned. There are some points to be made about the figures that are used and whether they are sufficiently up to date.

The process of Boundary Commission reviews is long and some improvements could be made. However, if the Electoral Commission is doing the work, there is a risk that some of the exercises that we would expect from a regulator will not be followed through.

I agree that the boundary committee and the various boundary commissions should come together in one UK-wide body that has particular expertise. In terms of the period over which the Electoral Commission has been working, five years is a good point at which to have a reconsideration. We cannot be entirely complacent. Obviously it is right to say that some good work is done by the Electoral Commission, but if one looks at, for example, the integrity of the ballot and the public perception of that integrity—that must be an important test for the Electoral Commission after five years—many people would say that the standing of the ballot in Britain is probably at its lowest for many years. I notice that, today, the Electoral Commission has brought out its report on the last local elections. It reports that, again, allegations of fraud were a feature of the local elections in 2006, and that the public’s perception of whether postal voting is safe from fraud and abuse has fallen from 51 per cent. thinking it is safe or very safe to just 37 per cent. thinking that. We cannot be complacent about the way in which things are working.

I agree with the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) that there is great concern about the number of individuals who are registered. There are some areas where there is a registration desert. The only point that I would make to her is that the levels of registration are unchanged from 10 years ago. A Government who have been in power for nine years have to take some responsibility for the fact that there has been no significant improvement in levels of registration over that period. Nothing has been done so far to ensure
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that people are actively canvassed and that data are matched—things that we know can be done, from the experience in Australia.

On party funding, I agree that there is an important role for the Electoral Commission. I was as surprised as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey that the Government did not choose the Electoral Commission to do the review that Sir Hayden is now doing. As I said at the time, although we have the highest respect for Sir Hayden and his background, the truth of the matter is that we are talking about something that is the core work of the Electoral Commission. One would expect the commission to be doing the job.

As far as by-elections are concerned, I am perfectly happy for the Electoral Commission to look at that. That is an important suggestion. The idea that it is a disgrace—I think that this is the point that the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) was making—to describe your candidate as a bonny fighter in a by-election is extraordinary. It is particularly unfair of him to make that point with such a good candidate. I certainly do not agree with him about that.

This is a short debate and I can make only a short winding-up speech. If one looks at the overall picture, the worry is about the integrity of the ballot. There has been no shortage of advice about that. It is true that, over the period, the Electoral Commission has changed its mind about postal voting and it has come to individual voter registration rather later than some of us, but its advice has been clear over recent months: we need individual voter registration and identifiers if we are to have a clean system in this country and to get rid of the fraud. It is extraordinary, and a disgrace, that the Government have not been prepared to take the advice of the body that they set up for that very purpose. All the other parties in the House, with the exception of the Scottish National party, which seems to have thrown a wobbly on the issue, agree that we need individual voter registration and we need it now. It is a disgrace that the Government have not done that.

9.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): This has been an excellent debate, with a great deal of consensus across the House. I will more or less throw away my original notes and respond, if I may, to some of the threads that ran through the debate.

Members raised three main issues: first, the boundary commission and the Electoral Commission; secondly, the political experience of the commissioners; and, thirdly, the way in which the Electoral Commission reports. Before I move on to that, I welcome the opportunity that we have had to talk about the work of the Electoral Commission. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), whose efforts have made it possible to obtain this slot in today’s estimates debate. I thank the Liaison Committee for accommodating that request.

There are many issues relating to the commission about which we may disagree. However, we all agree
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that the role that it has to play in ensuring the health of our democratic system is very important. So, as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said, it is timely, after five years of experience of the commission, that we have a review and learn some lessons about what it has done.

The commission’s stated aim is to promote openness in the financial affairs of political parties, to develop electoral law and practice, and to increase awareness of the democratic processes across the United Kingdom—in short, to promote integrity, involvement and effectiveness in the democratic process. I want to say a few words about how the commission has done that over the past few years.

It is clearly of great importance to our democracy that the commission look at the way in which political parties fund themselves. Nevertheless, a great deal of controversy has been generated recently about donations and loans, so it was appropriate for the Government to hand that matter to an independent figure who could look at it in the round, which is why Sir Hayden Phillips has been asked to review party funding. The Electoral Commission will work closely with him in coming to a conclusion.

I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is present, because in response to hon. Members’ comments about funding, particularly at election times, I am pleased to put on record the fact that he now agrees with me that there should be a cap on funding across the piece. I am pleased that he will be taking that forward in much more detail.

The commission has worked closely with the Government over the past five years in developing electoral law and practice. It has dealt with the passage of seven Bills through Parliament in that time and has worked closely with the Government in trying to ensure that it is properly engaged once those Bills become law. The Electoral Administration Bill currently before Parliament is a very good example of that partnership.

I should like to rebut a couple of comments that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and one or two others made about personal identifiers. The Government have said all along that in principle we are in favour of personal identifiers, which is why we have accepted amendments on postal voting and personal identifiers. The hon. Gentleman was quick to quote from the consultation, so let me explain to him and other Opposition Members that the responses expressed a variety of opinions, very often beginning along the lines of that from the London borough of Hillingdon, which said:

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