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Session 2007 - 08
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Political Parties and Elections Bill

Political Parties and Elections Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Joe Benton, Frank Cook, †Sir Nicholas Winterton
Ainger, Nick (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab)
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor (Epping Forest) (Con)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester, Central) (Lab)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Turner, Mr. Andrew (Isle of Wight) (Con)
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew (Chichester) (Con)
Whitehead, Dr. Alan (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
Wills, Mr. Michael (Minister of State, Ministry of Justice)
Wishart, Pete (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP)
Chris Shaw, Chris Stanton, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee


Professor Keith Ewing, Professor of Public Law, King’s College London
Professor Justin Fisher, Professor of Political Science, Brunel University
Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, Senior Research Fellow, Brunel University
Ian McIsaac, Finance Director and Registered Party Treasurer, Conservative Party
Roy Kennedy, Director of Finance and Compliance, Labour Party
Hilary Stephenson, Director of Campaigns, Liberal Democrats

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 6 November 2008


[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Political Parties and Elections Bill

Further written evidence to be reported to the House

PPE 02 Professor Justin Fisher, Professor of Political Science, Brunel University
PPE 03 Professor Keith Ewing, Professor of Public Law, King’s College London
1 pm
The Chairman: Before I welcome our distinguished guests this afternoon, I want to say a few words to the Committee. Before we begin to take evidence, I would like to respond, briefly but fully, to a point raised in Committee by Mr. Reid on Tuesday and again, informally, this morning by Mr. Duddridge. Mr. Reid drew attention to the short time between the end of the evidence sessions and the deadline for the tabling of amendments for Tuesday’s sittings, and asked whether starred amendments might be selected.
My co-Chairmen and I appreciate that there is limited time before the rise of the House this evening, but the decision to structure the Committee’s time in this way was taken by the Programming Sub-Committee and I remind the Committee that it was done so after considerable discussion. The programme motion was approved by this Committee on Tuesday morning, when one of my co-Chairmen was in the Chair. It was in the gift of the Committee to provide itself with a bigger gap after the evidence sessions. The deadlines for the tabling of amendments are there for the benefit of all Committee members, who need sufficient time to consider the amendments before they are debated.
I also note that the issues discussed in the evidence sessions so far are not entirely new. The views of the Electoral Commission, for example, and two of our three distinguished academics have already been submitted in written evidence to the Committee. In such circumstances, and in line with existing practice in Public Bill Committees, I can confirm that my fellow Chairmen and I do not intend to select starred amendments. That is my statement; if Mr. Duddridge wishes to rise on a point of order, I am happy for him to do so, but he should remain seated, so that his voice can be picked up by the microphone.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): On a point of order, Sir Nicholas. I wish to remain seated. Notwithstanding what you said, I ask you to look at the matter a second time. The Opposition Front-Bench team found that there were significant new pieces of information this morning—tangible differences—that were not mentioned in the written submissions and of we were not aware before. As the Whip, I shall not go into policy issues, but there are significant changes—that is the Opposition’s position. Furthermore, during the Programming Sub-Committee, if I may refer to that, we were given reassurances. While there was no commitment to take starred amendments, an indication was given that the Committee would be able to review the issue—and on that basis we were happy to proceed. I do not know whether there is another way forward, whereby we could table starred amendments, then circulate them to the various parties on Friday. They would still be starred amendments on a day on which the House is not sitting, but we would be happy to circulate them then.
There are significant amendments that we want to table as a consequence of evidence. This meeting does not break up until 3 o’clock and we do not know when the business of the House will be completed—it could even be completed very shortly after us, so that there would not be time for us, physically, to go and table the amendments.
The Chairman: I note what Mr. Duddridge says. I remind him and other Committee members that they have until 6.30 pm to table amendments. I have not received notice—the Government, who would be more in the know, have made no such indication—that today’s business will finish early but, at the moment, I do not anticipate that it will do so. I am certainly prepared to listen to any representations made by the Opposition parties. I would be happy to receive any evidence, perhaps in writing, as to where they believe the evidence given this morning, perhaps by the Electoral Commission, differed dramatically from the evidence that it submitted in writing. My fellow Chairmen and I should certainly give the matter consideration. However, I cannot promise that we shall change our ruling and select starred amendments. [Interruption.]
The Chairman: Briefly, Mr. Djanogly.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Further to that point of order, Sir Nicholas. My understanding was that the point of hearing the evidence in these sessions was to see whether we needed to table amendments to the Bill as a result. According to your ruling, we shall have a very short time this evening to go through Hansard—if that has been produced by the time our proceedings end. It would be of help if the Clerks could advise us whether that would be the case, because we shall have to take Hansard, study it—some complicated concepts and issues were discussed this morning—and review whether further amendments need to be filed, all within a matter of hours. As my colleague said, that would only be if the business of the House lasts until 6.30 pm today.
The Chairman: Two things. First, the Opposition could advise the Chair as to what important amendments they believe need to be tabled, based on the evidence given so far. Of course, next week—I am in the Chair on Tuesday morning—the Committee can make what progress it chooses. It could well be the case that the areas covered by the amendments that the Opposition might wish to table will not be taken on Tuesday morning. Therefore, to an extent, the Opposition and the Committee as a whole are in control of their own business in that connection.
Secondly, if I may say so, it is a little unreasonable to ask us to provide written evidence of where we think that we might need to table amendments, bearing in mind that all the relevant people are sitting here in front of you for the whole period, Sir Nicholas. We cannot even be sure that the House will run until 6.30 pm; debate may close earlier. Thirdly, to provide one example, you were in the Chair, Sir Nicholas, when the Electoral Commission said that it would like to add to the evidence. It produced a specific example relating to its concerns about the appointment to the commission board, and the change of the 10-year rule to five years. [Interruption.] I am pleased that the Minister wishes to speak, but I do not wish to prejudge whom the Chair might call.
The Chairman: I am going to call the Minister, then I will stop taking points of order. We have distinguished witnesses here and we must finish taking evidence from them by 2 o’clock. If necessary, we can continue the points of order then, but I prefer to call the Minister first.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): Thank you, Sir Nicholas. In the spirit of helpfulness with which Government Members have approached the matter, we want amendments to be tabled as long as they are genuinely based on new information. We want to be helpful and will be as accommodating as possible on an informal basis, but only if there is genuinely new information. I am always prepared to be enlightened, but so far the discussion has been a recycling of familiar points on all sides. We have a useful memorandum, and there are genuinely new points that need to be considered. However, we will be as flexible as possible.
The Chairman: I intend to make progress. Perhaps we need to sit after 3 o’clock, informally, to see whether we can resolve the matter. I do not wish to embarrass our witnesses who, in some cases, have come at great inconvenience to themselves. We should do them the courtesy of listening to them at this stage, and we will find another way to resolve the problem. The Minister has indicated that he is prepared to be flexible, and the Chair wants to ensure that all important matters are debated. I suggest that we make progress. If the Whips on both sides of the Committee wish to come to the Chair during the discussion over the next two hours, I would be happy to receive representations.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): That procedure excludes me, and I am the person who has the example.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): He is a Liberal; he cannot help it.
The Chairman: Mr. Howarth is being very agreeable.
Mr. Tyrie: That is exactly the point I raised. In a similar area, the chief executive of the Electoral Commission said that for the first time, he found difficulty with the switch from ten to 5 years for the bar on party political affiliation before appointment to the board.
The Chairman: I have heard what has been said. I have indicated that I wish to make progress and I intend to do so. I am sure that Mr. Duddridge and Mr. Lucas can make representations to the Chair as we perform our business this afternoon.
On behalf of the Committee I extend a warm welcome—at last—to our three distinguished visitors. For the record, will you identify yourselves?
Michael Pinto-Duschinsky: I am Michael Pinto-Duschinsky.
Professor Justin Fisher: I am Professor Justin Fisher.
Professor Keith Ewing: I am Keith Ewing.
The Chairman: Thank you. The first question will come from Mr. Djanogly.
Q157 1Mr. Djanogly: Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I hope that the evidence session does not produce too much information that might require amendments to the Bill. Gentlemen, I fear that you could have done better in an earlier session. I would like to address the broader issue. To date, we have been considering the nuts and bolts of the Bill. I would like us to step back for a moment and consider the Electoral Commission as a whole, which we have not yet done.
It has to be said that many hon. Members, certainly in the Conservative party and perhaps in other parties, have been reviewing the performance of the Electoral Commission in recent years and have thought it in many ways deficient. That has led quite a number of people to say that the commission should be abolished as an institution. That is not the official position of our party or any other party, as we have a Bill here to improve its performance, but that would be a valid starting point for you to give your views on whether it is a valid institution and whether the general thrust of the Bill is correct in terms of its reform, if you think that that needs to be done.
Professor Keith Ewing: From my point of view, the Electoral Commission is essential. I cannot contemplate us having a system of regulation of elections, donations or party funding without an independent agency of this kind. I am reinforced in that belief by the fact that most other mature Westminster-style democracies have agencies of this kind. It would be inconceivable now not to have such an organisation.
I am aware of complaints and concerns in the House and elsewhere about the performance of the commission, I think since it was established in 2001. I am not sure who is ultimately responsible for the failure, as some see it, of the commission to perform as well as it might, but I suppose I feel slightly that much of the criticism has been unfair, in the sense that this body has been presented with a very detailed framework of legislation and much of it, or the drafting of it, has been quite difficult. Much of it is very technical. Much of it is incomprehensible. I think it has been as steep a learning curve for the commission as it has been for everyone else.
My sense is that since the loans for peerages affair, there has been a significant improvement in the performance of the commission. Certainly over the last 12 months, the regulatory role of the commission has greatly increased and the profile of the commission has increased, and I think overall the performance of the commission has improved. From my point of view, there should be a healthy tension between Members of the House and the commission. They should not be in each other’s pockets. It should be a conflictual, not a consensual, relationship. I would see that as quite healthy.
That leads me into a measure of scepticism about the desirability of some of the reforms proposed in the Bill. I am not convinced of the case for political commissioners. I do not know of any other Westminster-style democracy where such an idea has taken root. In most countries, electoral commissions—
Michael Pinto-Duschinsky: Save for the United States?
Professor Keith Ewing: That is not a Westminster-style democracy. Let me finish the point. I am not confident that this is a good idea and I have a certain hesitancy about the proposals to deal with civil penalties, but perhaps we could explore those in more detail when others have had a chance to speak.
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Prepared 7 November 2008