Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mr. Turner: I do not remember exactly what was said, but why would it be wrong for the Democratic Unionists to look after Scottish National party affairs, but right for the Scottish Nationalists to look after Democratic Unionist party affairs?
Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will explain clearly why there is a difficulty for the Scottish National party. No other party in the House of Commons would be less appropriate to look after the Scottish National party than the DUP. We are a party of independence. We are a nationalist party. We want our nation to become a normal, independent nation like any other in the world. The Democratic Unionist party is probably the most Unionist party in the House, yet it would sit on the Electoral Commission looking after the interests of the most nationalist party.
Several hon. Members rose
The Chairman: Order. One at a time.
Mrs. Laing: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Can he clarify whether he believes that the democratic process itself, which is what the Electoral Commission and its commissioners is there to protect and enhance, is different for a nationalist party, a right-wing party, a left-wing party or a middle-of-the road, sitting-on-the-fence party? The democratic process is the democratic process. It really does not matter which part of the political spectrum someone belongs to. What matters is that democracy works and it is therefore totally irrelevant for these purposes which political party a person belongs to.
Pete Wishart: Here is my challenge to the hon. Lady. How about the Conservative party giving up its place on the Electoral Commission and giving it to the Labour party. Would she be happy with that? I suggest not, yet she expects the Scottish National party to have no representation on the commission and to be looked after by a political party that operates contrary to its political interests. Would the hon. Lady give up her seat to the Labour party?
Mrs. Laing: I am certainly not saying that we would wish to do such a thing in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. However, if four very senior and well respected people were nominated as commissioners, and if none were a member of the Conservative party, the commission would not work any the worse. We are looking for political commissioners with experience of the democratic and electoral process, not particular party views. Political experience matters far more. I hold some people in the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and even the Scottish National party in greater respect than I do some people in the Conservative party.
Hon. Members: Names.
Pete Wishart: I, too, would be very interested to hear names.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention—or should I say speech?—and I noted that her colleagues looked with wry interest when she said that she would be prepared to give up the Conservative nomination to the Electoral Commission to somebody from another party. In light of that kind suggestion, we could suggest somebody from the Scottish National party to fill her party’s nomination.
I am glad, however, that the hon. Lady has opened up this debate. If the four commissioners are to be truly non-political and non-partisan, I would be happy, but given some of the noes that I am hearing from Conservative colleagues, that might not be the case. I suggest that nominations for the party political commissioners will be truly and wholly party political.
My amendments would deal with that matter fairly and squarely by ensuring that any registered political party with more than two Members in this House would have a political commissioner on the commission. In one blow, that would deal with all the outstanding issues. Every significant party in all United Kingdom legislatures would be represented on the commission. The Scottish National party, the SDLP and the Democratic Unionist party would, therefore, have a say on the commission about electoral regulation within their own legislatures and Parliaments. Surely that is fair and transparent.
The Minister will tell me that that would mean a majority of political commissioners on the Electoral Commission, which I accept. However, I would prefer that to excluding certain parties. If that solution is not accepted by the Committee, I would suggest that we have no political commissioners at all, which again would be preferable to excluding some parties, which would mean that some legislatures are demoted and would lose an interest in the commission.
Two options are on the table: to ensure that all political parties with a significant political presence in all United Kingdom legislatures are properly represented on the Electoral Commission or none at all. The suggestion in the Bill is the worst of all worlds. Regardless of what the hon. Lady might say about the nomination process, the three big parties have their nominated appointee on the commission, and one will remain for all the minority parties. I have no idea how that will be decided. It will be left to the Speaker’s Committee, but I do not even know who is on that Committee and I have no idea how it will decide who that fourth commissioner will go to. I suspect that it will automatically select the largest minority party—the DUP—which would be unacceptable to the SNP, just as an SNP commissioner would presumably be unacceptable to the DUP.
No process is in place for sorting that out. It is a total mess. I ask the Minister to consider sincerely my genuine plea to resolve this problem. I want him to recognise that we are in a multi-legislature United Kingdom. How will he address this problem? Is it acceptable that the Governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and perhaps a coalition in Wales, do not have a place at the top table of the Electoral Commission? I look forward to the Minister’s remarks.
Mrs. Laing: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has tabled the amendments because it allows us to discuss this important issue. There are three reasons why we on the Conservative Benches oppose his amendments. First, it is totally impractical to have the number of commissioners that would be required if his amendment became part of the Bill. An important principle about the commissioners with political experience is that they should be in a minority on the Commission.
In an interesting evidence session we had last week, Sir Hayden Phillips responded to the hon. Gentleman by describing the characteristics of a successful regulator. He also said:
“I think that this will help the Electoral Commission, and will help political parties to feel more comfortable with the Electoral Commission. Those four people will be in a minority, and will never be a majority.”——[Official Report, Political Parties and Elections Public Bill Committee, 4 November 2008; c. 34, Q83.]
The Committee accepted that it is an important principle that the four politically appointed commissioners are in a minority on the Commission. If that number is changed to accommodate all parties with some representation in the House, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, the number of political commissioners would rise to perhaps eight or, sometimes, nine. If there were to be a minority on the Commission, there would have to be 20 or more commissioners, which we all know would not work. A committee that is too large becomes unwieldy and cannot do the work that it sets out to do. Therefore, on practical grounds, the number four is right and we support the Government on that point. It is simply impractical to say that that number should be increased.
The hon. Gentleman forgets two important points. The first is that commissioners with direct political experience are to be appointed in order to bring their wisdom and experience of democracy, elections and the political process to the Commission. The commissioners are not there to represent the views of particular political parties and it is therefore quite wrong to say that, in being appointed, their political allegiance would be their most important characteristic. I challenge the vocabulary used by the hon. Gentleman when he says that a certain person might be appointed who would be
“looking after the interests of the Scottish National party”.
A commissioner should not be there to look after the interests of a particular party or group; the role of the commissioner is to oversee the democratic process itself. The idea behind having four commissioners from different areas of the political spectrum is simply to balance that out and it is quite right to do so. To suggest that a particular person, who would have been appointed for his or her seniority, wisdom or experience, would represent the interests of any political party is quite wrong.
There should, of course, be someone who has experience of government, someone who has experience of opposition and someone who has had experience of neither for over a century. There should also be someone who has experience of a minority party. The experience of a minority party is as a minority party, rather than of a particular party with a particular political ethos or principle. That is really important, so I vehemently oppose what the hon. Gentleman is proposing in the amendments.
Finally, and almost more important than anything else, the hon. Gentleman forgets that the devolved legislatures in the United Kingdom derive their power and authority from Parliament—the Westminster Parliament. Therefore, his argument that the provisions are Westminster-centric is wrong and not at all well founded. The fact that the devolved legislatures derive their power from Parliament means that it is Parliament that should make decisions such as today’s. It is absolutely correct for this Parliament and this Committee, representing Parliament, to decide on four, well balanced electoral commissioners with political experience.
11.45 am
David Howarth: The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire has brought up a serious difficulty in the Bill. We need to take it seriously and think what the solutions might be. His solution is not the right one, and his list of possible solutions is not exhaustive, but the problem is a real one. This country now has multiple legislatures. Parliament is still sovereign and supreme, but in reality we are seeing the development of different political systems in Scotland and Wales, and there has always—for a long time—been a different political system in Northern Ireland. We need to take into account those developments in deciding what to do about electoral law. Not only is the party system in Scotland different, but the electoral systems are different as well, not just for the Scottish Parliament, but also for Scottish local government—the same system as is generally used in Northern Ireland, but not in England, although it should be.
The problem with what the hon. Gentleman put forward as his solution to this new situation is that it is too United Kingdom-centric. He is trying to solve the problem within the scope of United Kingdom institutions. I do not think that that can be done, at least in the way that he has proposed. The hon. Member for Epping Forest is quite right that what the hon. Gentleman is putting forward is a system—he pointed this out himself, in his speech—that would lead to a majority of political commissioners. For all the reasons that the hon. Lady and the Electoral Commission itself mentioned, that is an unacceptable solution.
If we look at the detail of what the hon. Gentleman put forward, he is removing the choice of commissioners from any other body—the parties would directly nominate one person, and that person would then become a commissioner. The hon. Lady is right that that is not the view of a commissioner that the Bill proposes. The Bill’s view is of the commissioner as a person who, to use the European jargon, knows a particular political party best but nevertheless acts as a commissioner in the interests of the commission as a whole, and who is not there as a representative of a particular party. The hon. Gentleman’s amendments would change that and make the commissioners the representatives of parties.
Pete Wishart: May I ask the hon. Gentleman the same question that I put to the hon. Member for Epping Forest? If the political nominations to the commission are apolitical, would the hon. Gentleman be happy for the Liberals to waive their right to nominate a political commissioner and give it to another party in the House?
David Howarth: I do not think that it is a matter of being political or apolitical—by definition, they are political commissioners—but they are not there to act as delegates of the party or at the party’s insistence. They are there in a similar way to European Commissioners, who are selected on the basis that they know a particularly country best and that their experience reflects where they come from. They are not there to vote for the interests of a particular party or country.
The question that arises is what to do about the problem, given that the solution that has been put forward is not acceptable. The solution of not having political commissioners would not be acceptable either, because at the heart of the clause is the importance of having a good dose of practical political experience on the commission and ensuring that it does not act in an ivory-tower way. That seems to exhaust the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions—either his solution or no political commissioners, and that is it. I do not think that that is it. He has raised an issue of greater importance: the degree to which we devolve electoral law.
Party funding is a UK-level question, because as we heard in an evidence session, parties are constantly campaigning and raising money for a range of different elections, from local elections to devolved Parliament elections, UK elections and European elections. It is not really possible to separate the money being raised for those different campaigns and elections, because the same money is raised for the entire range of elections. The regulation of donations and party funding is therefore a UK-level matter, but that is not the case with electoral administration. It is different in the different parts of the UK, precisely because the electoral systems are so different. We should seriously consider further devolution in that area.
There is already devolution on boundaries. There is a separate Boundary Commission for the Scottish Parliament and for local government in Scotland. Although it would be complicated and difficult to introduce into this part of the Bill properly devolved institutions for electoral administration, that is where the solution to the problem lies.
Mrs. Laing: Is it not the case that the Electoral Commission conducted a thorough and well respected inquiry into the conduct of the last Scottish parliamentary elections and that, as it is presently constituted, it was perfectly competent in doing so and produced an excellent report?
David Howarth: I would not demur from the hon. Lady’s view of the report’s content, but I am talking about how to solve the institutional political problem that the hon. Gentleman has rightly brought to our attention. We have to solve it at the level of institutions, not by altering the detail of the Electoral Commission appointments provisions in the Bill.
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