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Public Bill Committee Debates

Motion in respect of the Electoral Commission in the name of Ms Harriet Harman

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: John Cummings
Brown, Mr. Nicholas (Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household)
Bryant, Chris (Rhondda) (Lab)
Buck, Ms Karen (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)
Cunningham, Mr. Jim (Coventry, South) (Lab)
Goodman, Helen (Deputy Leader of the House of Commons)
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) (Lab)
Heath, Mr. David (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall) (Lab)
Holloway, Mr. Adam (Gravesham) (Con)
Hughes, Simon (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD)
Jenkin, Mr. Bernard (North Essex) (Con)
Kaufman, Sir Gerald (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
Marshall-Andrews, Mr. Robert (Medway) (Lab)
Purchase, Mr. Ken (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)
Robathan, Mr. Andrew (Blaby) (Con)
Streeter, Mr. Gary (South-West Devon) (Con)
Vara, Mr. Shailesh (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con)
Rhiannon Hollis, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fifteenth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 17 July 2007

[John Cummings in the Chair]

Motion in respect of the Electoral Commission in the name of Ms Harriet Harman

10.30 am
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): On a point of order Mr. Cummings. This is an important matter, not least given the criticism of the Electoral Commission over the last 12 months. Indeed, some people have accused it of being somewhat supine in its behaviour. A lack of leadership was mentioned by Sir Alistair Graham. Therefore, it is particularly regrettable that I have only just received the four CVs of the four people whom we are expected to appoint. I spoke to my secretary this morning—she opens my post—and I suspect that the Minister’s secretary opens her post. My secretary received these at 10.20. Although the Clerk may be responsible, I understand that there was some problem getting the CVs out of the Electoral Commission. It seems unsatisfactory that we should not receive the CVs until we start putting pressure on it or until we come to this Committee.
The Chairman: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s comments will have been noted by the authorities concerned.
10.31 am
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): I beg to move,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint as Electoral Commissioners—
(1) Maxwell Marshall Caller CBE for the period ending on 31st December 2011;
(2) Henrietta Campbell CB for the period ending on 31st December 2011;
(3) Ian Maxwell Kelsall OBE with effect from 19th January 2008 for the period ending on 31st December 2012; and
(4) John McCormick with effect from 19th January 2008 for the period ending on 31st December 2012.
The appointments before us have been proposed by Mr. Speaker, following an open recruitment process. This involved a competitive selection process chaired by Dame Rennie Fritchie, the Public Appointments Commissioner.
This is the first time that new appointments—as opposed to re-appointments—have been proposed since the original appointments to the commission following its establishment under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The appointments process has taken place under the direction of Mr Speaker. Under the Act, Mr Speaker’s proposals are required to be put to the leaders of the main political parties, who have all indicated that they are content with the appointments. Mr. Speaker has accordingly given his agreement to a motion being made in the House—[ Interruption.]
The Chairman: Order. Would hon. Members at the back please refrain from carrying out conversations during proceedings?
Helen Goodman: Thank you, Mr. Cummings.
Mr. Speaker has accordingly given his agreement to a motion being made in the House for the appointments, and wrote to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House to ask her to arrange for the relevant motion to be considered, which is what brings us here today. I should emphasise that, as the Electoral Commission is independent of Government, this is a House matter. The Leader of the House and I are therefore acting at the request of the Speaker, rather than on behalf of the Government.
Before I go on to explain more about the details of the motion and the appointments themselves, I shall just say a brief word about the relationship between these appointments and the proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and more widely for additional kinds of appointment to the commission. As colleagues will know, it has been felt in many quarters that the commission would be strengthened in its role if it were to include members with direct political experience. This is currently prohibited under the terms of the existing legislation.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life reported on the overall role and work of the commission in January this year, and proposed that the rules should be changed. It proposed that there should be four commissioners, out of a total commission of 10, who should be appointed on the basis of their background in different political parties, but should not be direct representatives of the parties. The review by Sir Hayden Phillips on party funding and earlier the report of the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee on party funding took a similar view. The Government, in their response to the Select Committee, have already indicated that they broadly agree with these recommendations, although further work is needed on the details.
A full response to the Committee on Standards in Public Life report will be published in due course. But the process of preparing and passing the necessary legislation will, of course, take time. In the meantime, appointments to the commission still have to be made and must be made under the terms of the existing legislation.
It does not fall to us today to debate current concerns about electoral issues, whether to do with postal voting or other aspects of the conduct of recent elections. However, such matters are, of course, relevant to the commissioners’ discharge of their functions and I will make sure that any points made are relayed to the commission and to the Ministry of Justice. No doubt the proposed new commissioners will read our proceedings today and take note for themselves.
The first two appointments fill the vacancy to be created by the end of the term of office of Pamela Gordon, together with one outstanding vacancy following the resignation of Professor Graham Zellick. The second two will fill vacancies caused by the completion of the terms of office of Glyn Mathias and Sir Neil McIntosh. Pamela Gordon, Glyn Mathias and Sir Neil McIntosh have all been re-appointed at least once since first—[Interruption.]
The Chairman: Order. Would hon. Members please refrain from carrying out loud conversations? Thank you.
Helen Goodman: Those three commissioners have all been re-appointed at least once since first joining the new commission in 2001. I would like to take the opportunity, on behalf of both the Government and the whole House, to thank all the commissioners for their work and for the service they have given to public life by their contribution to the commission.
Following the requests that were made at earlier such Committee debates, we have arranged for CVs of the four nominees to be made available to members of the Committee. I am sorry if hon. Members did not receive them until first thing this morning. However, I hope that they will find it helpful to see those papers now.
From its number, the Electoral Commission must choose a chairman of the boundary committee for England, a function which Pamela Gordon has hitherto carried out with distinction. It has also asked individual commissioners to take a lead interest in the other nations. The new appointees will enable the commission to continue that practice, with the added benefit that, for the first time, there will be a commissioner with strong personal links in Northern Ireland. The commission believes that that will make its activities there more effective.
I have every confidence that the appointments will contribute greatly to the work of the commission and help to take it forward through the challenges of the coming years. I commend the motion to the Committee.
10.38 am
Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings, for the first time in this Committee. I also congratulate the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons on her debut on the Front Bench for the Government.
We agree with the appointments and I do not intend to repeat at length some of the points that the Minister has already made. As far as Dr. Henrietta Campbell, Max Caller, Ian Kelsall and John McCormick are concerned, we have no objections. We, too, put on the record our thanks to the outgoing commissioners.
Secondly, the population as a whole has some 52 per cent. representation by women. It is regrettable that so far only one of the six commissioners is female. That proportion will not change with the new appointments. Although it is important that appointments should be made entirely on merit, I am minded to say that with a little more effort there might be a bit more balance in the commission in the future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby mentioned the comments made by Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Sir Alistair specifically criticised the Electoral Commission for lacking “courage, competence and leadership”, and I very much hope that the new nominees will take that criticism on board and have the courage to take on the Government if they feel that that is necessary. Sir Alistair also said that the commission’s mandate was “too weak”, and I very much hope that the new appointees will take that criticism on board and do whatever is necessary to increase their mandate so that the commission can be a lot more effective than it has been to date.
10.40 am
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cummings. I also welcome the Minister to her first Commons Committee in her new role and I wish her well.
Let me first echo the concerns that have been expressed about the notes that we received. I got my note yesterday, so I had a chance to check who these people are, but I make a request that Ministers ensure that we receive any such papers in good time in future if we need to look at them for such a Committee. In that way, everybody will be able to see them and, if necessary, to ask any follow-up questions bilaterally or to do a bit of research before the debate.
I pay tribute to the outgoing commissioners, each of whom I have met—some on more than one occasion. Many of them are very eminent, and they and the commission have done a good job. I am a supporter of the commission, although that does not mean that I am not a supporter of Alistair Graham and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which has also done a good and robust job. Indeed, Sir Alistair Graham did a sufficiently robust job that the Government did not want him to continue doing it, which is a pity, because he was good at his job, and I should have liked him to continue in office.
With the changes that the Minister foreshadows, I hope that we will have a strong commission that retains and increases the support of colleagues in both Houses and more broadly. I also hope that the commission will be seen to be effective in all the four countries of the United Kingdom and that it will be an independent body that makes clear what should happen and keeps on doing so even when the Government do not respond. Earlier in the year, there was the issue of how we identify voters, and the commission had a very strong view on that, but the Government did not accept it. I have set out elsewhere—I will not elaborate on this today—how the commission may put its proposals directly to the House through Mr. Speaker. In that way, if the Government want to amend its proposals, they will be seen to be amending them, rather than simply putting forward those proposals that they want accepted.
I also want to make a comment similar to that made by the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire. I want the Minister to put on record the commission’s gender balance as it is now and as it will be following the changes, its ethnic mix—how many non-white, or black and minority ethnic commissioners there are—and what, in broad terms, the age range is. The four appointments clearly reflect the four countries of the United Kingdom, and there appear to be people born in each of the four countries, although one wisely moved from England to Wales to do much of his work. As a result, there are two people with lots of Welsh experience, but four people overall, and it is good that they have lots of relevant experience in the four countries. However, I absolutely share the view that the commission will be at its most credible not only when the people brought into it have, as is proposed, experience of political parties—I understand, welcome and have argued for that—but when they are reflective of the electorate as a whole in terms of their age, gender, ethnicity and background.
I have three specific questions for the Minister. How much will each of the commissioners be paid? What do their contracts say about the number of hours or days per week or days per year that they will work? What is the minimum service that they will give? Would any other of their activities be regarded as conflicts of interest once they are appointed? Are they being asked to consider giving up anything that they are doing or are they expected to continue doing all the things that they are doing at the moment?
I welcome all the appointments, which seem to be good ones. The three parties have given their blessing to them, but we need to know the exact terms and conditions on which they have been made. We wish the appointees well and look forward to seeing and hearing from them regularly, and to a robust performance in future.
10.45 am
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons on her appointment.
I am a member of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, the proceedings of which are, of course, confidential; I shall not refer to them. However, my membership of the committee has resulted in my taking a strong interest in the work of the Electoral Commission, and I should like to make some brief points.
First, it is extremely important for the Electoral Commission to concentrate on its statutory remit, rather than stray beyond it into all kinds of other activities that, frankly, are none of its business. I am thinking of the training of electoral officers in local authorities, for example.
For a long time, the financial control of the Electoral Commission was poor, and I hope that the new commissioners will assist in making sure that that control is stringent and properly documented.
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): As I recall, the expenditure in the last year for which figures were published was in excess of £24 million. Has my right hon. Friend a more up-to-date figure of the total expenditure? As he said, one has to ask whether the commission should be meddling in other affairs or dealing with its core duty.
Sir Gerald Kaufman: I do not have the figures with me, but I can say that until very recently, the Electoral Commission did not have a financial officer, and that was a matter of great concern to me.
Secondly, it is very important for the Electoral Commission to concentrate above all on the achievement of a full and accurate register. We simply do not have one in this country today, and the commission should concentrate on that.
Thirdly, if the Electoral Commission makes any play whatever to take over the work of the boundary commissioners, the attempt should be very firmly rebuffed. The boundary commissioners do an extremely good job; they intervened to prevent the abolition of my constituency. Their work and inquiries and the meticulous way in which they carry out their jobs are such that their work should not be handed over to the Electoral Commission, on which a large number of other important jobs are imposed by statute. It ought to carry those out before its eyes grow too big and seek other work.
10.48 am
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): If there was a little muttering at the back earlier, Mr. Cummings, it was because we were all reading with amazement the detailed accounts of the members to be appointed to the Electoral Commission. We were marvelling at some of the things that they had done; I had not read about them until this morning either. It is amazing to learn that Mr. Caller is now an expert on London’s brick sewers; that is really important. I welcome the fact that the members to go forward come from all parts of the United Kingdom, and I particularly welcome Dr. Henrietta Campbell, the only woman member and only member from Northern Ireland.
I should like to ask one or two simple questions about things that perhaps I should know but do not. If I am to sit on a Committee with all these very honourable Members from both sides, I should like to make sure that I know what I am voting for. Will the Minister tell us exactly how many people applied for the jobs, if she has not already done so? I am sorry if I missed anything. How many people put their names forward? Who decided who the four would be? I was particularly interested, too, by the question asked by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey about remuneration and the time of work.
10.50 am
Helen Goodman: I shall first respond to the comments of the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire. The Government said in their response to the Constitutional Affairs Committee that they would
“welcome a change to the provisions in the 2000 Act to allow a minority of Commissioners to be people with experience of politics from across the political spectrum”,
but we do not yet have a timetable for implementing that change. It will be considered as part of the wider response to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which will probably be given in the autumn. Of course, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is always good to see proper representation of women and ethnic minorities, and I commend to him the possibility of Opposition Members encouraging women from their parties to be put forward.
The question whether the role of the Electoral Commission is appropriate—some hon. Members feel that it is too strong, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton made a clear case for not widening it significantly—will also be taken into account in the general response to the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
Simon Hughes: I am sure that the Minister will know that there are people who take the view directly opposite to that of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, and believe that there should be one boundary commission for the whole UK and that the job should go to the Electoral Commission.
Helen Goodman: Of course, and that is why it will be important for the House to debate the matter in the autumn. I am afraid that I do not have the information that the hon. Gentleman requested on pay, hours and precise contracts and terms of service. I shall write to all members of the Committee with that information.
Simon Hughes: I am conscious that the Minister has just taken up her role, but that is completely unsatisfactory. For somebody to propose the appointment of people to a public office and not be able to tell us before whether we decide to approve them how much they will be paid and how many days a week or year they are committed to working is absolutely unsatisfactory.
Helen Goodman: I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman feels that, but the salary and time commitments are within the remit of the Speaker’s Committee, which is also responsible for overseeing the resource use of the Electoral Commission.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall asked about the application process and the number of people who applied. I do not know how many people applied, but I asked precisely that question. There was an open competition with public advertisements. The initial sift was done by Odgers, and then a panel was set up under the chairmanship of Dame Rennie Fritchie. I hope that I have answered Members’ questions satisfactorily.
Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I am trying to follow this. It seems that the role of the Committee is simply to rubber-stamp a process that none of us, including the Minister, has been involved in. The process seems somewhat lacking in parliamentary scrutiny. I wish to put that on the record so that, in future, such matters can be approached with a little more careful thought and the role of Members of the House can be used a bit more effectively.
Helen Goodman: The responsibility falls to the Speaker and the Speaker’s Committee, and the panel was set up under their direction. The names of all the people who have been put forward were shared with the leaders of all the political parties before we brought them to this Committee. That is the process we are following. It was set out in the legislation, and it has been followed not just for reappointments but for all previous appointments.
I accept that hon. Members want some change in respect of who can belong to the Electoral Commission. That has been discussed earlier, and I shall take away their suggestions about the process as well.
Mr. Vara: I wish to clarify just one point. I raised the issue of a slightly more gender-balanced commission, and the Minister replied that perhaps it would be helpful if the Opposition were to submit more women candidates. The inference from that is that places are filled by appointment. In her concluding comments, she said that they were filled by open competition, that a recruitment company had been engaged and so on. I would like to make it clear that what I am saying is that the process of recruitment should ensure that there is a good gender balance. I very much hope that she will confirm that although nominations can be put forward by all political parties, that in itself is not good enough.
Helen Goodman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The fact of the matter is that at present we follow an appointments procedure that runs through a straightforward open competition. It would be perfectly possible, as he suggests, for the recruitment agency that is employed to take account of gender balance and the number of people who belong to ethnic minorities in its sift and its advertisements. Of course that is true.
My understanding is that at present the question of how political appointments are to be made to the commission is still unresolved. Some take the view that they should be nominees, but others believe that that would compromise independence, and that we should simply change the present restrictions on who can be appointed through the open process. That is an issue for us to address later when we deal with the response to the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
It is helpful to me to hear hon. Members’ views, but the issue before us today is simply whether we approve the nominations. I very much hope that I will have the support of the Committee in approving them.
Simon Hughes: I am grateful to the Minister for dealing with that point, but I would like to put one other issue on the record. She has not yet confirmed how many women there are or will be on the commission, and whether there are any people who are black or from ethnic minorities.
I am troubled. The people are fine, but all the questions have been around the fact that we are just given the names. We are not given the salary or enough other information. Unfortunately, I cannot vote on that. I intend no disrespect to the people, but we cannot be asked, whether by Mr. Speaker, the Speaker’s Committee or the Deputy Leader of the House, to vote for people without knowing what we are asking them to do or how much they will be paid. That is just not acceptable. I shall divide the Committee, because we cannot be asked to go along with such a process.
Mr. Robathan: I had not intended to intervene, but I wish to pick up on something that the Minister said. Of course political parties are interested in the make-up of the Electoral Commission, but I hope she can confirm that political activity or allegiance is not taken into account when appointing commissioners. Frankly, I hope that the Electoral Commission is entirely impartial.
Helen Goodman: I can tell the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey that the proposal that I bring to the House on behalf of the Speaker this morning is that there should be one woman on the commission as, hitherto, there has been. I cannot tell him if there are any members of minority communities. However, before he takes such a robust position on the unacceptability of the process, he should bear in mind that these appointments have been cleared with his party leader.
The point made by the hon. Member for Blaby about the independence of the commission is well understood. The proposal to allow members of political parties or those who have been politicians to sit on the commission would allow them to be only a minority. As I said earlier, that is not the issue under discussion today.
Helen Goodman: I am very sorry, but I shall disappoint my hon. Friend. At the moment, we do not have sufficient members for the commission to fulfil its role over the next few months. I therefore ask him to support the motion.
Kate Hoey: I think that we all share the concern that we are not here just to rubber-stamp things and that we are not here to vote for people—although we might know some of them, we do not know them all. May I ask the Minister again what would happen, for instance, in a month’s time if one of these people turned out to do something very strange? We would have voted through someone without knowing all the details. Could we at least be given a commitment by the Minister that, by this afternoon, there will be placed in the Library a copy of the remuneration of these people and of the times that they will work—all the questions asked by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey—and also whether their remuneration is different from that of previous members?
Helen Goodman: I am happy to accede to my hon. Friend’s request. The information will be in the Library this afternoon.
Simon Hughes: I would still want to divide the Committee.
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint as Electoral Commissioners—
(1) Maxwell Marshall Caller CBE for the period ending on 31st December 2011;
(2) Henrietta Campbell CB for the period ending on 31st December 2011;
(3) Ian Maxwell Kelsall OBE with effect from 19th January 2008 for the period ending on 31st December 2012; and
(4) John McCormick with effect from 19th January 2008 for the period ending on 31st December 2012.
Committee rose at four minutes past Eleven o’clock.

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