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House of Commons
Session 2006 - 07
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Electoral Commission

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Mike Hancock
Afriyie, Adam (Windsor) (Con)
Ainsworth, Mr. Bob (Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household)
Bacon, Mr. Richard (South Norfolk) (Con)
Baldry, Tony (Banbury) (Con)
Battle, John (Leeds, West) (Lab)
Burstow, Mr. Paul (Sutton and Cheam) (LD)
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias (Bournemouth, East) (Con)
Griffiths, Nigel (Deputy Leader of the House of Commons)
Heath, Mr. David (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
MacShane, Mr. Denis (Rotherham) (Lab)
Mitchell, Mr. Austin (Great Grimsby) (Lab)
Riordan, Mrs. Linda (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op)
Spellar, Mr. John (Warley) (Lab)
Tipping, Paddy (Sherwood) (Lab)
Touhig, Mr. Don (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
Vara, Mr. Shailesh (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con)
Vis, Dr. Rudi (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab)
Glenn McKee, Rebecca Davies, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 15 January 2007

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Electoral Commission

4.30 pm
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the motion in respect of the Electoral Commission in the name of Mr. Jack Straw.
[That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will, with effect in each case from19th January 2007, reappoint James Samuel Younger to be the chairman of the Electoral Commission for the period ending on 31st December 2008, and further reappoint Pamela Joan Gordon to be an Electoral Commissioner for the period ending on30th June 2007.]
On behalf of the Committee, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hancock.
I know from the procedures followed so far that there is general agreement on this issue and that, to date, it has not been considered controversial. The motion proposes the reappointment of the chairman of the Electoral Commission, Sam Younger, for two years and of Pamela Gordon for six months, with effect from 19 January 2007. The reappointments of Sam Younger and Pamela Gordon have been proposed by the Speaker following the statutory consultations with political parties. The party leaders raised no objections to either reappointment. The Speaker then gave his agreement to a motion being made in the House for the reappointments and wrote to my right hon. Friend, the Leader of the House, to ask him to arrange for today’s motion to be considered by the House. I should emphasise that, as the Electoral Commission is independent of the Government, this is a House matter and the Leader of the House and I are now acting at the request of the Speaker.
The proposed appointment of Sam Younger as chairman is for a two-year period, which comes on top of the six years that he has already served with distinction. For many years, Mr. Younger was at the BBC culminating as managing director of the World Service. Following that, he was director general of the British Red Cross Society. He became the first chairman of the Electoral Commission when it was established after the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was passed. He has therefore been instrumental in seeing the commission through all the issues that come with the setting up of a new organisation and establishing it as an important and successful part of the constitutional landscape.
Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Do any of those qualifications, impressive as they are, give Mr. Younger expertise in elections?
Mr. Spellar: May I reinforce the point that Mr. Younger may be a worthy individual, but is not the underlying problem with the Electoral Commission as perceived by all hon. Members as well as the report by the Public Administration Committee, which studied such matters, that all the people who sit on its board, including the chairman, are, by definition, uninformed on electoral matters? Moreover, their staff are uninformed on such matters, too. Does not the CV that my hon. Friend read out to the Committee demonstrate that underlying problem?
Nigel Griffiths: I shall certainly ensure that the chairman, subject to approval by the Committee today, is aware of my right hon. Friend’s comments. I am sure that he will be happy to meet him and colleagues of a similar mind to discuss such issues and to make sure that he is as well informed as possible of relevant procedures and processes.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. At the moment, several challenges face the Electoral Commission. We saw that at the time of the previous election, in respect of election fraud, and the way in which our elections are conducted. The extension of the chairmanship has obviously received the endorsement of all political parties, but there is a worry that the continuation of the appointment suggests a “steady as she goes” approach to the commission. Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain how the continuation of the post will affect the direction of the commission?
The Chairman: Before I call the Deputy Leader of the House, I remind members of the Committee that interventions should be short and to the point. If they intend to make long statements, I would much rather they did so in speeches, not interventions.
Nigel Griffiths: The political process is going through a period of considerable change and that will be challenging. Because of Mr. Younger’s involvement over the past six years, he is in a good position to reflect on those changes. He was the first chairmanof the commission when it was established by the2000 Act. I will be happy to convey to him any concerns that are raised by the Committee. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome for asking that CVs be circulated so that hon. Members have the opportunity to look at the experience of members of the Electoral Commission.
Some Members of Parliament have said that as people who have fought elections, they are the only people fit to serve on the commission. That includes hon. Members who have fought elections, lost, and come back. Mr. Younger will be in no doubt about the concerns of the Committee. I am sure that Mr. Speaker will be happy to facilitate a meeting between concerned Members and electoral commissioners. Of course, I will make sure that the commissioners have a copy of Hansard.
It is proposed that Pamela Gordon be reappointed to the commission for a further six months. That may appear to be a short extension. The reason is thatMs Gordon had been expected to finish her work with the commission this month, but has agreed to serve for a further short period to assist with the arrangements being made for the next tranche of appointments to the commission.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): May I invite my hon. Friend to bring Mr. Younger here to have a serious talk about postal voting? I am not going to object to his reappointment. I am deeply concerned that the rushed-through legislation on postal voting will seriously reduce participation in both local and national elections, should the present system be maintained. Given what has happened in the past, I have no problem with the need for some tightening of procedures. However—this is a serious matter—I predict that the collapse of participation in postal voting will mean that Britain becomes a country with one of the lowest levels of participation in major elections. May I ask him—
The Chairman: Order. Mr. MacShane, you were not in the room when I reminded hon. Members that if they were going to make interventions, they should be short and to the point. If you intend to make a speech, I suggest that you make it. However, I think that your intervention was far too long.
Mr. MacShane: I apologise, Mr. Hancock. I thought that that was a very short intervention.
Nigel Griffiths: I take to heart what my right hon. Friend said. Indeed, all hon. Members want to see a certain robustness in the postal voting system, but we also want to see postal votes made available with a minimum of complication to all those who wish to exercise that choice. I have put those points to the chairman of the Electoral Commission, and he is aware of my concerns. We shall all be examining the proposals that come forward very carefully, so that they can be seen to be both fair and practical.
As hon. Members will know, Pamela Gordon has had a long career in local government. She has been chair of the Electoral Commission’s boundary committee, and therefore has a good working knowledge of the issues that are of interest and concern to us.
On forthcoming appointments, there is an existing vacancy in addition to the vacancy that will be created by the completion of Pamela Gordon’s term of office. On top of that, two more commissioners’ terms of office end at the end of this year. I understand that Mr. Speaker and the commission have agreed that it will be sensible to try to fill all four posts through one recruitment exercise, which will be conducted over the early part of this year. That would allow two vacancies to be filled after July and the other two after January 2008. It would help to develop a rolling pattern in terms of office, to which I referred last year, and would assist continuity.
We are grateful to Pamela Gordon for the work that she has done for the commission and for her agreeing to serve for a further short period. I shall ensure that the comments raised by my three colleagues today are drawn to the commission’s attention as early in the recruitment process as possible. Obviously, there will be an opportunity for further consideration at the appropriate time, but in the meantime, I hope that the reappointment of the two commissioners will be supported by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee and I commend the motion to the Committee.
4.41 pm
Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock, particularly as this is the first time that I have had the privilege of leading for the Opposition in such a Committee.
I do not intend to delay the Committee any longer than necessary. To that end, I am happy to say that Her Majesty’s Opposition agree with the appointments of Sam Younger and Pamela Gordon. However, I share the concerns expressed by my colleagues about the importance of applicants having the requisite qualifications. It is fundamental to democratic rights, particularly when Britain is in the business of exporting democracy, that we have the best qualified people to monitor the Electoral Commission’s concerns. I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for explaining the reasons for Pamela Gordon’s relatively short appointment.
Finally, I am sure that you are aware, Mr. Hancock, that the Committee on Standards in Public Life is undertaking an extensive review of the Electoral Commission’s work. The results are due on Thursday. I appreciate the need to have this debate today given that the appointments take effect on Friday. However, it would be in the best interests of democracy if we had it after the results of the review, particularly if that review refers to the appointment and performance management of senior commission personnel. It might be that the Deputy Leader of the House has prior knowledge to the contrary. If he does, I would be grateful if he could enlighten the Committee.
4.43 pm
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I, too, welcome your chairmanship of the Committee, Mr. Hancock.
I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for outlining the proposals and to the Leader of the House for responding to my request for the circulation of curriculums vitae. As I have said previously, I think that it is inappropriate for us to accept a name put before the Committee without any supporting material. In this instance, the names will be familiar to many members of the Committee because of the high profile of the Electoral Commission’s work over recent years. Nevertheless, on principle, if the Committee is asked to consider an appointment, its decision should be informed by supporting material, which we have received.
I have no hesitation in supporting the reappointment of the two individuals concerned. However, I have one thing to say about the commission and its chairmanship. The commission has two prime requisites if it is to work effectively. One is to be aware of electoral procedures and to be able to make informed comment on existing and future procedures. As hon. Members said, that requires a working knowledge of the electoral system. Pamela Gordon, as a previous chief executive and chairman of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, undoubtedly has that experience, as do other members of the commission.
The other important attribute is independence. The Electoral Commission as a body, and particularly its chairman, must be able to demonstrate independence of political parties, which have vested interests in the outcome of the commission’s decisions. It is tempting to argue that someone who has been there, done that, and subjected themselves to the electoral process at parliamentary level should be appointed, but they are parti pris and almost inevitably a member of a political party with all that that implies for the capacity to take an objective view. That is why an independent chair of the Electoral Commission is important for public understanding of the integrity and independence of the body as a whole
Mr. Spellar: Can the hon. Gentleman imagine a legal appeals body with no lawyers or a medical appeals body with no medics? Surely some knowledge of the subject might be an advantage.
Mr. Heath: The Electoral Commission has people who are familiar with the electoral process and I invite the right hon. Gentleman to inspect their credentials, not least those of one of the names before us today, who has administered elections, for heaven’s sake, and knows exactly what is required. It is a spurious argument that has some cogency among those who may wish to undermine some of the commission’s decisions when it does not support a prevailing view expressed by political forces in the House, but that is a dangerous position.
The idea that the appointment of the commission’s chairman should be dependent on the outcome of the Committee on Standards in Public Life is also questionable, particularly given the press speculation today that the chairman of that body may not be reselected because he is thought to have taken too openly critical a view of some of the matters put before him.
I believe that these are the right appointments and that the Electoral Commission has done good work, although it could do better in some areas. It has required additional powers in some areas and Parliament has now given it those powers. I look forward to it taking a much more active role in ensuring the integrity of our voting system. Sam Younger and Pamela Gordon are the right people to be involved in that process.
4.49 pm
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I do not wish to detain the Committee long. I echo the concerns of the Committee about the timing of the appointments, the important issue of electoral fraud and other such matters, and seek reassurance from the Deputy Leader of the House on one or two matters.
Sam Younger is eminently qualified for the job,not least because he is on the Windsor Leadership Trust’s board. I seek reassurance on what influence the Government have over appointments, not in terms of what the Committee is doing today in overseeing the reappointment of these two individuals, but in terms of any discussions or pressure brought to bear. Will the Minister reassure us that no consideration was given in the reappointments to the outcome of the review to be announced on Thursday? Also, in future, could some consideration be given to appointing to such bodies Privy Councillors or Members who are coming towards the tail end of their political careers, who will have built up relevant experience during their time in Parliament?
4.51 pm
Mr. Ellwood: I apologise for the length of my earlier intervention. I have one comment to make—[ Interruption. ]
The Chairman: Order. I ask Members to allow the Chairman, at least, to hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. It is a bit unfair.
Mr. Ellwood: I am delighted to hear that you are keen to hear what I have to say, Mr. Hancock, even if Labour Members are not.
I emphasise the question with which I started: can the chairman issue a statement of intent when he begins his new appointment? We have heard that the commission will face a number of challenges, including not only dealing with the postal vote system, which has been mentioned, but harnessing new technology.
My only experience of getting in touch with the Electoral Commission was not good. It was during the European elections, when I had cause to seek clarification about a Liberal Democrat manifesto published in the south-west. There were seven slots for MEPs, and the Liberal Democrat manifesto had 12 photographs. Of those, only one was of a candidate standing for the European Parliament. The other 11 were of parliamentary candidates standing against me, although that election was some years away.
Mr. MacShane: Shocking.
Mr. Ellwood: Absolutely. I sought clarification about whether that was fair use of taxpayers’ money, as it was delivered as part of the election address paid for by UK taxpayers. Unfortunately, the Electoral Commission was unable to give me an answer; it said that the matter was not its responsibility. In these difficult times, I seek to question and clarify the powers of the Electoral Commission.
Mr. Heath: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Ellwood: I should be delighted to learn why there were so many photographs. If the hon. Gentleman can provide an answer, I will be glad to give way.
The Chairman: You might be delighted, Mr. Ellwood, but I do not think that the Committee would be.
Mr. Heath: If the hon. Gentleman wanted a reply to his query, why did he not post it to the organisation that had the capacity to deal with it and not to an organisation expressly forbidden by Parliament to do so?
Mr. Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. The Electoral Commission could not give me any indication, clarification or direction whatever. It did not know. Yet it is the first port of call for many seeking clarification about elections and how money is spent. Thank you for allowing me to participate, Mr. Hancock. I look forward to the replies of the Deputy Leader of the House.
The Chairman: I am looking round the room and, despite the fact that many hon. Members have been indicating from a sedentary position their wish to intervene, no one else wants to speak, so I invite the Deputy Leader of the House to respond to the debate.
4.54 pm
Nigel Griffiths: A number of points have been made, and I want to ensure that all right hon. and hon. Members are correct in their underlying assumptions. This is not a Government matter. I can clarify that the Government have no role in it whatever except, I suppose, that Parliament picks up the bill in some ways.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East says that he had a complaint that he did not feel was satisfactorily dealt with. Perhaps Mr. Speaker’s consultation of party leaders about electoral commissioners would be an occasion for raising such points. Of course those with specific political involvement are excluded from appointment as electoral commissioners, to try to ensure that the process is independent. I know that Mr. Speaker goes out of his way to ensure that that is so.
The debate has been informative and has given right hon. and hon. Members an opportunity to air their concerns. I undertake to ensure that those are drawn to the attention of Sam Younger, the chairman. I invite hon. Members to take the steps that I have outlined so that their views will be clearly heard in other circles from which there may appropriately be input to the appointment of future commissioners, to ensure that appointments will reflect as far as possible the sort of experience that those hon. Members would hope for.
The Chairman: Before I end the sitting, I want to thank hon. Members for their attendance, attention and good humour in conducting the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the motion in respect of the Electoral Commission in the name of Mr. Jack Straw.
Committee rose at three minutes to Five o’clock.

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