Political Parties and Elections Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Wills: It would help me to understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns if he said exactly what he meant by “a veto”. The clause states that the Speaker agrees
“that the motion may be made”,
and the motion is the subject of consultation, and so on. If the hon. Gentleman means that the agreement of the Speaker is necessary for the motion to proceed, yes, it does mean that he has a veto—that is my understanding of the clause—but not otherwise.
Mr. Tyrie: I am somewhat concerned because, in the past, there have been stories about differences of view on the Speaker’s Committee, members of which—indeed, a majority—have not been in agreement with the Speaker about action that should be taken on supervision of the Electoral Commission. I am concerned lest we find ourselves building into law the potential for further difficulties of that type.
The issues are obviously sensitive, and not ones that I intend to develop further, unless absolutely forced to do so. The Minister will already be aware of some of the instances that I have referred to, or to which I am alluding indirectly, not least those that concerned the reappointment of Sam Younger. It is important that we clarify the issue. Will the Minister look at the drafting and consider whether, on Report, he might frame the clause in terms of the Speaker’s Committee, rather than the Speaker?
Mr. Wills: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks and, as always with anything he suggests, I shall consider them extremely carefully—I bow to his great experience in such matters. He has given a great deal of thought to the whole area, so anything he suggests we take seriously. However, I am slightly concerned about some of the implications of what he said.
It is inevitable, and in the nature of any Committee, that there will be disagreements. I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is referring to exactly, but I am not surprised to hear that different members of the Committee, including the Speaker himself, have different views about how to proceed. However, the hon. Gentleman will be well aware that we in the House elect a Speaker to act as Chair of proceedings, and we have to have faith and trust in his judgment. That is why we elect him.
Every day, the Speaker has to make judgments with which not every Member will agree. It seems right and proper that, broadly, he should continue to fulfil that role here. As the hon. Gentleman spoke, I could not, on the face of it, see a better way to proceed. We are always in search of perfection, so if he has a better way I am happy to consider it.
I hope that I have given the hon. Gentleman some reassurance. As he said, these are sensitive and delicate matters, but we must have faith in the office of Speaker and in him doing his job, to which we all elect him.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Four Electoral Commissioners to be persons put forward by parties
Mrs. Laing: I beg to move amendment No. 15, in clause 5, page 3, line 35, after ‘(d)’, insert ‘(i) and (ii)’.
The clause also concerns the appointment of electoral commissioners put forward by political parties. I think that I am correct not to address clause 5 generally, but to limit myself to amendment No. 15.
The Chairman: Correct.
Mrs. Laing: I shall do so, and spare my remarks on the principle of the clause until later. Although it is not obvious on reading, the amendment would amend the clause, which would in turn amend a small part of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The effect of the amendment would be to prevent someone who had been named as a donor to a political party within the preceding five years from becoming a commissioner proposed by any party. Set out in section 3 of the 2000 Act—the section to be amended by clause 5, which we are considering—are clearly stated rules about who can and cannot become a politically appointed commissioner. It seems logical that, if somebody has been a donor to a political party within the past five years, they should not hold the office of commissioner.
While supporting amendment No. 15, the Electoral Commission suggested that, if donors to political parties were to be prevented in such a way from being nominated for appointment as a commissioner, such practice should include people who have appeared as lenders on the register of loans to parties. That is an omission. I am sorry that I did not include such a provision in the amendment because, if we are considering the principle of donors, lenders also come within that principle. However, that does not alter the principle of my proposal.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a point, but has she considered this one? When donations are given by trade unions to political parties, that might not be known by the individuals concerned. For example, the other day, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) said that he had been recognised as a donor, although he had never knowingly been a donor. What would happen if he were made a commissioner under such circumstances?
Mrs. Laing: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. He has illustrated for the first time, but not, I suspect, for the last during our consideration of the Bill, what I shall politely call the grey area around trade union donations to political parties, who the people are who give the money, why they do so and what it means. My hon. Friend rightly suggests that we should consider that. When drafting the amendment, it was too complicated to include donations through trade unions, but that is an area we shall consider in greater detail later in our proceedings.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): The hon. Lady has had an interesting exchange with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. From time to time, trade unions make mistakes, as all organisations do, but she is on to something interesting. She describes this as a grey area for trade unions. What about the very dark, black area of the unincorporated association? How should we decide the remit of the principle that she is trying to establish in relation to those shadowy donors who take part in the Midlands Industrial Council and the various golf clubs, which are major donors to the Conservative party? She is on to a good point and I congratulate her on spotting it.
Mrs. Laing: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We could get into an artistic argument about shades of grey and black. I do not accept that, on one side of the argument, things are grey and that, on the other, they are murky black. There are areas that are not quite clear on all sides of the argument, which is why we have to clarify the Bill. However, we are considering amendment No. 15 and now is not the correct time to consider shades of black or grey in the area to which he referred.
All I am trying to do with the amendment is tighten up the criteria for political appointments. Conservative Members consider that people who have direct political experience will enhance the Electoral Commission.
The Chairman: Order. I invite the Committee to stand to observe two minutes’ silence.
11 am
The Committee observed a two minute silence.
Mrs. Laing: I merely conclude by saying once again that we would like to tighten up and clarify the Bill with the amendment.
David Howarth: Again, the principle behind the amendment is well worth supporting. As the hon. Lady said, there may be some defects in the drafting, but I would urge the Minister to take on board her points. The objective of the amendment is to remove from the list of permitted political commissioners those who have given donations to political parties, treating them as they would be treated at present. The principle behind the amendment is a good idea, because one of the main functions of the commission is to regulate donors. Although there are times for making sure that those who are regulated are represented on regulatory bodies, with the particular sensitivities surrounding the area of large donations it would not be a good idea, or add to public confidence in the commission, if the electoral commissioners were to have among their number major donors to political parties.
I have some reservations about the detail of what is proposed in the amendment. The hon. Lady referred to lenders not currently being covered in the amendment. There is also the question about the extent of donation that should, in effect, disqualify someone. Minor donations, although registrable, might not be of an extent or scope that would bring the general principle into play. Nevertheless, the principle is worth considering. A slight difficulty with the amendment is that one of its effects would be to make it more likely that a political commissioner would be an activist or a former employee of a political party, as opposed to a volunteer. In general, volunteers are more likely to be donors than party officials or party professionals. That might be seen to be a move in the wrong direction, because we want to encourage voluntary effort in politics. Nevertheless, it is not a knockdown objection to the amendment. In bringing more political experience to bear in the commission, we are trying precisely to bring in the experience of people who have been more on the inside of politics so that the commission gets the benefit of poachers who are being persuaded to turn gamekeepers. Although that is a disadvantage of the amendment, it is not a knockdown objection to it.
I do not want to join in the previous conversation about trade union donations, but I urge hon. Members who are interested in that topic to consider new clause 11. I hope that the Committee will have enough time to discuss that important proposal in detail.
Mr. Wills: The debate has illustrated the complexity of the issue. I want to help the Committee to find a way through it, and the easiest way to do so is simply to resist the amendment.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Elaborate.
Mr. Wills: I am being invited by the hon. Gentleman to elaborate, and I shall be delighted to do so. As we have discovered, the area is complex. It might help the Committee if I set out our understanding of the effect of the amendment. It seeks to alter the section that disapplies the political restrictions for nominated commissioners. The Committee will be aware that the Bill disapplies for nominated commissioners the restrictions that prevent a person from being appointed as an electoral commissioner if he or she is a member of a registered party or has at any time in the past 10 years been an officer, an employee, held an elected office or been named as a donor in the register of donations. The practical effect of the amendment, as the hon. Lady set out, is to prevent any person who has been named as a donor in the register of donations, reported under chapters III or V of part IV of the 2000 Act, from being appointed as a nominated commissioner. That seems illogical. We cannot see a logical reason to leave such a restriction in place for nominated commissioners, while waiving it in respect of the other restrictions. Nominated commissioners, by definition, will be affiliated to a political party, and we can see no reason, as such, why they should be barred from appointment because of any previous donations they have made to their party or, indeed, any other party.
It is worth pointing out to the Committee that, were the amendment to be accepted, it would have the effect of excluding politicians who had made a declarable donation. Given what I think is broad agreement that it is desirable to have electoral commissioners with political experience, I hope that the Committee accepts that we might potentially be knocking out a whole swathe of otherwise highly qualified candidates for that role. Having reflected on the matter, I hope that it will resist the amendment if the hon. Lady presses it to a Division.
In all such matters, it will of course be for the Speaker’s Committee, a body for which each member of the Committee has the utmost respect, to ensure that there are no likely conflicts of interest before a nominated commissioner is appointed. I have every confidence that they will be able to do the job well.
David Howarth: What the Minister says about the effect of the amendment is correct. It would exclude practising politicians who are also donors. However, it would not exclude all of them. A big field of candidates would still be left. Laying aside the particular wording of the amendment, does he agree that it would not be a good thing for public confidence in the commission were commissioners even to be proposed who were very major donors to political parties? That would look as though the parties were putting forward people who had given lots of money to the party in circumstances that would not be looked on very favourably by the public.
Mr. Wills: Of course, I understand the concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman, but we must be careful how we approach the subject. It is not axiomatically a bad thing for people to make donations to political parties, even very large donations. If people are public spirited and want to give money to a political party of their choice, I do not see anything wrong in that. We all in the House agree on the various considerations—no undue favours sought or undue advancement—and that a donation should be given purely to a political party that best espouses the values that the donor wants to see embodied in our public life. What is crucial is that the donation should be transparent and that no favour or advancement should be secured as a result. That is the crucial principle.
I am slightly anxious about the underlying assumption of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, because this is an important issue. We should not proceed on the basis that everyone who gives a donation to a political party—whichever political party it is—is automatically doing it out of some malign motive. Many donors do it in advancement of their beliefs, ideals and values—that goes for donors of all political parties.
David Howarth: I agree with the Minister wholeheartedly about donors to political parties giving money in support of their values, rather than to advance their individual positions. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between a small donation—we all want to encourage a situation in which political parties are funded by a large number of small donations, instead of a small number of large donations—and an extensive, large donation in the context of someone receiving a public appointment, which is what we are discussing. The connection is much closer in such circumstances than it is in general.
Mr. Wills: Again, of course I understand the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman has intervened. None of us wants to see the practice of democratic politics tarnished as it has, sadly, all too often been in the past. We can all agree with that, of course. We have to be extremely careful. Underlying his point—I thought he was going to make a slightly different point—is that it is not just a matter of the facts, but the perception of the facts. If he were to make that point, I would happily agree with him on that too.
We have to look at what process is in place. The process will be transparent and subject to the Speaker’s Committee—in which I hope everyone on our Committee has confidence—which will be in a position to evaluate case by case precisely the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. It would be rash to try to draw blanket prescriptions; we should leave it to the Speaker’s Committee. I am sure that, in making the appointments, the Committee members will read in Hansard what the hon. Gentleman and I have said and take those concerns into account.
Previous Contents Continue
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 12 November 2008