Political Parties and Elections Bill

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David Howarth: I might have misunderstood the process underlying clause 4, if not clause 5. When people are nominated by party leaders, will all those names be published, or only the names of the successful candidates?
Mr. Wills: Sadly, I am not in a position to enlighten the hon. Gentleman on the precision of the clause. I am not sure that the Act is specific about that. I am looking for guidance, in case there is some arcane detail of which I am not aware—if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me. I would not like to mislead the Committee or the hon. Gentleman, whose legal expertise is considerable.
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Mr. Tyrie: The Minister says that he hopes that the Speaker’s Committee will take the trouble to read the Hansard that we are creating now. In that spirit, perhaps he could go a little further. I found the argument of the hon. Member for Cambridge wholly convincing and I think that the Minister did, too, but he is slightly stymied just now. He is not quite sure of all the facts necessary to decide which way he should take policy. Perhaps I am mistaken in that.
Mr. Wills: You are.
Mr. Tyrie: I am mistaken in that. Does the Minister agree that there is a donation the size of which will lead to the impression of the possibility of undue influence being exercised as a consequence of that donation, and does he think that that should have some bearing on a Speaker’s Committee decision on whether to appoint someone, particularly with reference to, for example, a former trade union leader whose trade union has made very large donations to the Labour party, or with reference to a very large individual donor to the Liberal party or the Conservative party?
Mr. Wills: As always, I have followed with great care what the hon. Gentleman said. May I say that I did not “hope” that the Speaker’s Committee would read the Hansard? I have every confidence that it will read the Hansard and take it into careful consideration as it makes its decisions with all the care and deliberation that it usually brings to these matters. The hon. Gentleman was making a rather logical point until he raised the question of leaders of trade unions. With that, he is getting into very different territory. If he thinks about it for a moment, he will see that the leader of a large trade union whose union had made a large donation corporately to the Labour party was in a very different position from the large individual donor. I hope that he will reflect on that before we set any more red herrings going in that area.
Let me address the substance of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. He was saying—I am sure that he will correct me if I have mistaken his drift—that hypothetically the donation could be so large that it would give rise among the public to a perception that undue influence was being gained as a result of the size of the donation. The hon. Gentleman is nodding. Logically, of course that could be the case. I cannot speculate, but it would be rash to rule out the possibility of such a perception taking root. Of course it would.
Mr. Tyrie: So the hon. Member for Cambridge is right.
Mr. Wills: With all due respect, that does not follow. I should say, for the benefit of the much-quoted Hansard, that the hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, suggested that the hon. Member for Cambridge was right. I suggested that that was not a logical conclusion to draw. The hon. Member for Cambridge said that we should draw a line that would automatically exclude large donors, whatever the size of the donation. I said that it would be rash to make that assumption. What I am saying and what I have said before is that we should approach these issues case by case. I have every confidence that the Speaker’s Committee will be able to make those judgments. At some point, we have to have confidence that it will be as concerned as everyone on this Committee that public perceptions of that type should not take root. We know that in this area there is a problem with public perceptions of the probity of our political life. The Bill is designed to address many of those concerns, and the Government will do everything that we can to address all the concerns. We have to have confidence that the Speaker’s Committee shares the concerns and will address them.
Mr. Turner rose—
Mr. Wills: I was about to finish, but I am always delighted to give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Turner: I am grateful. Is the Minister allowing for Mr. X to give a gift of £50,000 and find himself operating this new position in relation to the Electoral Commission and for Mr. Y to give £50,000 and not be so occupied? The same amount of money is being given and there is nothing else in public that distinguishes them.
Mr. Wills: Of course there will be all sorts of specific circumstances, and I do not want to speculate on what they might be. The tax status of a large donor might be brought into play, for example. That is a matter for the Speaker’s Committee. At some point, we have to decide as a Committee whether we want to draw a line—as suggested by the hon. Member for Cambridge—and say, “Above this level of donation, such donors should not be included in the criteria for eligibility as an electoral commissioner.” I am anxious about the exclusion of donors, as a matter of principle. They may well be people of considerable political experience. I am sure that we can all think of examples of large-scale donors who play active roles in the management of their political parties, and who regard themselves as people of great political judgment and experience.
The Speaker’s Committee needs to look at such matters and make a judgment about whether public perception, among other things, would be such as to tarnish that appointment. I am suggesting that matters should be handled on a case-by-case basis. All the evidence suggests that the Speaker’s Committee commands the respect of the House and the wider public, and that it proceeds with due impartiality and without bias. I am not aware of an allegation of partiality or bias on the part of the Speaker’s Committee, and it is a working assumption that it will proceed on that basis. To draw hard and fast rules would be unfair to the majority of donors who contribute donations to all political parties out of public spirit. We should want to encourage them to continue doing so.
Mr. Tyrie rose—
Mr. Wills: I see that the hon. Gentleman wants to speak again.
The Chairman: Order. I request that interventions are brief and very much to the point.
Mr. Tyrie: I always do my best. The Minister said that he thinks that the Speaker’s Committee commands the respect of the public. The trouble is that the public have no idea about such Committees. They are completely opaque bodies that make decisions anonymously. It is not that they command disrespect, but they do not command public respect. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree?
Does the right hon. Gentleman find it curious that he is opposed to the idea of drawing a line or imposing a cap on the donation that might lead eventually to the ineligibility of someone from one of the appointments, when all three major parties support, in principle, a donations cap in order to restore public confidence more generally in the issue of donations to political parties?
Mr. Wills: As always, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his succinct contribution to the debate. Of course, most members of the public are not intimately familiar with the workings of the Speaker’s Committee, but we can assume that our democracy is sufficiently transparent that, if there were significant concerns, they would have percolated into the wider sphere. However, we are not very far apart on that point.
There are areas in the Bill and in other such issues where we accept that there should be donation caps. That is a matter of fact, but we are talking about the selection of electoral commissioners who will be expected to bring their experience—not their partisanship—to the exercise. They will be judged, as I said earlier, not by how they are selected, but by how they behave when they are selected. That is the key. If they behave in a partisan way, and the selection process is seen to be flawed as a result, the Government will, of course, consider the matter again.
It behoves us all to keep a careful eye on how all legislation, particularly in this area that is so important to our democracy, works. If it turns out to be flawed, it needs to be changed but, at the moment, we have no evidence that it will turn out so. A lot of evidence suggests that it will work perfectly well and achieve all the goals that the hon. Member for Cambridge and the Committee want to accomplish. I see no member of the Committee rising to speak, so I invite the hon. Member for Epping Forest to withdraw the amendment.
I agreed 100 per cent. with the Minister when he said that people who donate to political parties are acting honourably. They are contributing to democracy in the same way that people who donate to charities are contributing to good causes. The workings of democracy in our country are a good cause. Giving money to political parties is an honourable and respectable thing to do, and should be encouraged. Some of my best friends give donations to political parties. We should be encouraging such donations and not allowing certain elements of the media to denigrate those who donate. My point has been made. This was an interesting probing amendment and, with the leave of the Committee, I beg to ask leave to withdraw it.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I beg to move amendment No. 112, in page 3, line 39, leave out ‘Four’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 113, in page 3, line 40, leave out from ‘(1)’ to ‘the’.
No. 114, in page 3, line 41, after ‘party’, insert
‘shall’, and after ‘forward’, insert ‘a person’.
No. 115, in page 4, line 6, leave out ‘three of the’.
No. 116, in page 4, line 7, leave out ‘three largest’ and insert ‘qualifying’.
No. 117, in page 4, line 22, leave out subsection (7).
Pete Wishart: It is a pleasure, Sir Nicholas, to serve under your chairmanship in this august Committee, and I look forward to the rest of the sittings that we will share together. The amendments are pretty straightforward and self-explanatory. I seek proper recognition from the Bill and the Electoral Commission that we are now in a multi-legislature, multi-party democracy throughout the United Kingdom. The amendment is about more than just this Parliament. We now have four legislatures in the United Kingdom and five parties in power. We have the majority Government in the House of Commons, the minority Scottish Nationalist party Government in Scotland, and coalitions in Wales and Northern Ireland. All of them have to be served by the Electoral Commission and all of them have to be properly recognised by this Bill. However, the Bill does not do that. It is Westminster-centric as usual and that has been recognised by the written submissions from electoral commissioners among others. If the Bill was just about this House, it would be absolutely fine. We have seven Members out of a total of 659. All the minority parties put together number some 28 Members of this House. To get one commissioner out of that number is very fair and generous; it is a very good deal. However, we are not in that situation.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Are there not 646 Members of the House of Commons?
Pete Wishart: The hon. Gentleman is probably right. I apologise for my ignorance. Numbers have never been my strong point, as hon. Members will probably recognise in the course of these proceedings. Nevertheless, the point is still the same. We would be very fortunate to get one commissioner for this one House of Commons, but this is about more than that. It is about all the legislatures throughout the United Kingdom, in which case, it is totally unsatisfactory.
Let us look at the situation in Scotland. The Electoral Commission has a responsibility for Scotland. In Scotland, the SNP is not a minority party. We are the largest party in Scotland by votes and by seats, and we are the Government in Scotland. To have the Government in Scotland effectively excluded from electoral regulations for Scottish elections is absurd and bizarre and clearly not fair. How can that be right? It would be like saying to this House, “We can have an Electoral Commission and a proper regulation of elections, but let us exclude the Labour party.” That would be totally unacceptable, just as it is for the Scottish National party to be excluded from electoral regulation for the Scottish Parliament.
11.30 am
Let us look at what is happening in Scotland just now. Over the past few months, there has been a polarisation of support between the Labour party and the Scottish National party. Those are the two largest parties in Scotland. Two smaller parties make a significant political representation to the Scottish Parliament—the Liberals and the Conservatives. The Liberals lost their deposit in the last two by-elections and secured less than 3 per cent. of the vote. The Conservatives held on to one of their deposits by the skin of their teeth. They are no longer becoming small parties in Scotland, they are becoming fringe parties. However, those two fringe parties will have a seat on the Electoral Commission and will make regulations concerning elections to the Scottish Parliament, when the party of government will not. How can that be fair and right? That point must be addressed, and I am looking forward to the Minister’s response on how it will be achieved.
How will the fourth commissioner be decided? All registered parties in this House with two or more Members are seemingly to nominate two representatives each. They will go to the Speaker’s Committee, which will decide. The hon. Member for Chichester asked whether the public know who is on the Speaker’s Committee. As a Member of Parliament, I have no idea who is on it. I know who the Speaker is and that he will look after Back-Bench Members of political parties in the House, but I have no idea who is on the Committee other than Mr. Speaker himself. I presume that there will not be a minority party Member on the Speaker’s Committee—I would put any amount of money on it—so what will it know about those parties when it makes a decision?
I suggest that the Speaker’s Committee will look at the largest minority party and decide to give it the job. The largest minority party in the House is the Democratic Unionist party, which has nine Members. Second largest is the Scottish National party with seven Members, the Social Democratic and Labour party has three and Plaid Cymru has three. If the Speaker’s Committee decides to give the job to the largest minority party, we would have the ridiculous situation of the Democratic Unionist party in the Electoral Commission looking after the interests of the Scottish National party.
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Prepared 12 November 2008