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Political Parties and Elections Bill

Political Parties and Elections Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Peter Atkinson, 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

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 11 November 2008


[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Political Parties and Elections Bill

10.30 am
The Chairman: As I normally do, I welcome hon. Members to the Committee, which is considering the Political Parties and Elections Bill. This is the first time that we have sat in the traditional situation of a Public Bill Committee, having previously acted as a Select Committee to take evidence from distinguished witnesses.
Before we begin consideration of the Bill, I have a few preliminary announcements to make. I am always concerned about the comfort of hon. Members. Although conditions might not be quite so typical of this time of year, hon. Members may take off their jackets during Committee sittings, if they so wish. Will all members of the Committee ensure that electronic gadgets, such as mobile phones and pagers, are turned off or switched to silent mode during our proceedings?
I also wish to inform the Committee that, in accordance with Mr. Speaker’s statement last Wednesday on arrangements for today, 11 November, I shall interrupt proceedings at precisely 11 o’clock and invite hon. Members to observe two minutes’ silence.
Several amendments were signed by hon. Members last night, making some of them selectable today. A revised selection list is available in the room, and it sets out the list of amendments that have been selected. Members of the Committee signed some of those amendments late last night, so that list is the one that should be used.
We shall now proceed with clause by clause scrutiny of the Bill. In accordance with the programme motion agreed by the Committee, we will deal first with clause 4 and amendment No. 16, tabled by the hon. Member for Epping Forest, who I am delighted to call to speak.

Clause 4

Selection of prospective Electoral Commissioners and Commission chairman
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 16, in clause 4, page 3, line 24, at end insert
‘in accordance with Commissioner for Public Appointments’ Code of Practice.’.
I welcome you to the Chair, Sir Nicholas. The Committee looks forward to the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship during what I am sure will be constructive and positive consideration of this important Bill. I wish to say at the outset that, as the clause is about the Electoral Commission, now is an appropriate moment to pay tribute to all the work that Sam Younger has done as its chairman. He is about to retire from that post, and I am sure that, through his sterling work over the past few years, he has gained much respect for the commission.
I welcome most enthusiastically the appointment of Jenny Watson as the new chairman. I gained experience of her excellent work when she was chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission because, at that time, I was shadow Minister for equality and worked with her. Indeed, Members on both sides of the House have worked with the Equal Opportunities Commission and enormous strides have been taken in that area of policy in recent years. I am sure that, equally, Jenny Watson will bring to the Electoral Commission enthusiasm, ability and respect for her work.
Amendment No. 16 is simple and it would merely clarify the situation. The amendment suggests an addition to clause 4. The clause says that
“each person whose appointment is proposed in the motion has been selected in accordance with a procedure put in place and overseen by the Speaker’s Committee”
and we ought to add after that the words
“in accordance with Commissioner for Public Appointments’ Code of Practice.”
As well as clarifying the current situation, the amendment would entrench it in law, which would be right.
The Electoral Commission has said that it supports the principle of amendment No. 16, which would require the process of appointing all electoral commissioners to be in accordance with the public appointments code of practice. To date, the principles of the code have been observed in all appointments of electoral commissioners, but there is no requirement in law for that code of practice to be observed.
The Bill would be improved and clarified by the amendment. Over the next few weeks of consideration, we shall seek to clarify the Bill in many cases, and this is a simple one. As we discussed in the evidence sessions last week, there are many areas in which the Bill is not clear, and law that is not clear is not good law. We have here a simple example in which matters could be clarified.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I join the hon. Lady in welcoming you to the Chair, Sir Nicholas. In the weeks ahead, I am sure that we shall all benefit from your deft and wise guidance through proceedings on this important Bill.
I also join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the work of Sam Younger at the Electoral Commission. He had a distinguished career in the BBC, which he followed by making an important contribution to the work of a significant body in our public life. I pay tribute to him as he retires.
Once again I join the hon. Lady, this time in welcoming Jenny Watson to the chair of the commission. I am sure that she will follow her distinguished predecessor in an appropriate manner.
Sadly, after joining the hon. Lady in so much, I must begin proceedings by resisting her amendment, although I welcome the spirit in which she moved it, and our side of the Committee welcomes probing amendments and the opportunity to clarify still further our intentions in the Bill.
Although electoral commissioner appointments are not OCPA regulated, I agree that the process must command public confidence—clearly, we can all agree on that. The individuals selected should be those who have demonstrated that they best match the skills, knowledge, practical experience and personal qualities required for the appointment in question.
Previous electoral commissioners have always been selected on the basis of open competition. We note that the Committee on Standards in Public Life has recommended that commissioners with political backgrounds should, similarly, be selected by open competition, but in respect of these particular commissioners, we believe that party leaders are in the best position to judge those within their parties who would be best placed to assist the commission to become more politically aware. That is why we have included the provisions that will enable the leaders of the qualifying parties to put forward names for consideration as nominated commissioners. From the names put forward, the Speaker’s Committee will select the best candidates on merit.
I hope that the hon. Lady is not suggesting that the leaders of political parties are automatically disqualified, by virtue of their office, from selecting the candidates best suited to fill those appointments.
Mrs. Laing: No, I am not suggesting that. I agree with the Minister.
Mr. Wills: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I also hope she agrees that, in securing public confidence, which I absolutely agree is fundamental to the work of the commission, what is important is not so much how the commissioners are selected, but how they do their job. It is crucial that they do their job without bias or partisanship and in accordance with their remit. I have every confidence in the leaders of all the qualifying political parties in selecting candidates in line with those criteria. I hope that the hon. Lady, having heard the assurances and secured agreement on the fundamental principles, feels able to withdraw the amendment.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I, too, welcome you to the Chair for this phase of our deliberations, Sir Nicholas, and I join the hon. Lady and the Minister in paying tribute to the work of Sam Younger, who has been an excellent chair of the Electoral Commission. I wish him well in his future choice of career, and also welcome Jenny Watson to this challenging post.
As the hon. Lady said, the Electoral Commission supports the amendment in principle. It is worth bearing it in mind that clause 4 regulates the appointment of all commissioners, not just the political commissioners dealt with under clause 5, and it would be useful to add the provision to the law in general.
The Minister says that there could be a difficulty in how the amendment would apply to the political commissioners; looking at the detail of the code, it might not be entirely appropriate to how that particular set of appointments will work. Nevertheless, when he challenged the hon. Lady on whether party leaders were suitable people to make such appointments, the opposite of his point applied. If they are suitable people, it is not entirely inappropriate that they should in some way be bound by the code.
Mr. Wills: On a point of clarification, it is not the party leaders who will make the appointments, but the Speaker’s Committee. The party leaders will put forward names for selection by the Speaker’s Committee.
David Howarth: I am grateful for the Minister’s clarification, but as I understand it the code will apply to the entire process of appointment, which will include nomination by the party leaders. The question still arises as to the extent to which the code is appropriate to be applied to that stage of the process—nomination as opposed to final appointment.
If the Minister accepts the principle that the ideas that lie behind the code—the perfectly simple ones of transparency and open competition—he should be prepared to accept, for a later stage, a different version of the hon. Lady’s amendment. As it stands, the amendment rather baldly uses the term “in accordance” with the code, but if it said “in accordance with the principles of the code”, and perhaps “subject to any necessary adjustments for the purposes of clause 5”, which is about political commissioners, that would still get the essential point across while meeting the hon. Lady’s objective, which is that there should be some statutory mention of the code in the legislation.
I certainly support the principle of the hon. Lady’s amendment, and I urge the Minister to be more forthcoming.
Mr. Wills: As I hope to demonstrate throughout consideration of the Bill, we are open to suggestions from all parts of the House. I will certainly reflect on some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman, and perhaps I might clarify precisely what he is driving at in conversation after the sitting.
At this stage, I would be anxious about changing my position on the amendment for the reasons that I have outlined. Party leaders have an important role to play for the new type of electoral commissioner, so we are inclined to keep the position as it is. If the hon. Gentleman can find a way to resolve all the different issues together, we shall be happy to listen to suggestions later. However, at the moment, I ask the Committee to reject the amendment.
10.45 am
Mrs. Laing: I have listened carefully to the Minister’s undertakings, as I have to the agreement and support of the hon. Member for Cambridge, for which I am grateful. We said that the code of practice ought to be observed if not to the letter, then certainly in principle. I understand the Minister’s argument, but I do not see why the amendment cannot be accepted.
We are discussing one of the many areas in which the Bill’s clarity could be so improved, but it is one of the minor areas. Over the next few days, there will be far greater matters in relation to which the Bill’s clarity needs to be improved, so I would rather leave the Committee time to consider the far more difficult issues that we shall face later in our proceedings. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): It is a great pleasure to be a member of the Committee under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas.
I wish to say a word about Sam Younger. He has been a tremendous chairman of the Electoral Commission in difficult circumstances, as the first man in the job. He has worked tirelessly and extremely hard to do his best, and to work together with all political parties. I have worked on an informal group that he created at which he made every effort to listen to the views of political parties. Other members of that informal consultative group, one of whom I see in Committee, have helped the Electoral Commission a good deal.
Sam Younger deserves a great deal of thanks from the entire political community for having steadied what could have easily been a difficult ship. We wish him well in what he does in future, and wish him success, too.
I want to clarify a point and ask the Minister whether I have understood clause 4 correctly. Under subsection (2), the Speaker has to agree that a motion be made, but the rest of the clause is framed in terms of action by the Speaker’s Committee. Will the Minister clarify whether that means in law that the Speaker has a veto over the decisions of the Speaker’s Committee in respect of the clause? Depending on the answer that I receive, I might take this further.
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