Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mr. Wills: We have had a fascinating debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire for raising the matter. I shall start by saying straight away that of course I recognise that we are in a multi-party, multi-legislature UK. This Government brought in devolution, and we are extremely proud of it. It has made for a much more vibrant and healthy democracy within the context of a United Kingdom. I am sure that he finds that final phrase unpalatable, but there it is. We are proud of devolution, and he is absolutely right that his party plays an important part in the new, vibrant democracy. I thank him for recognising that only the Labour party can now speak for the whole UK. That is generous of him, and we acknowledge it.
We have had an interesting debate. I have to say, I agree with almost every single word that the hon. Member for Epping Forest said. At the heart of this issue lies an important debate about the future of the United Kingdom, although I am sure you will forbid me from straying too far into that territory, Sir Nicholas. I am sure that there will be many occasions on which we shall return to that subject, but we shall not discuss it at length today.
I want to stress a couple of things before I address the detail of the amendment. First, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest said quite clearly, at the heart of the proposition made by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire is the idea that somehow the so-called political commissioners—we prefer the term nominated commissioners—will act as partisans on behalf of their party.
Pete Wishart: It is the same question that I have put to all the political parties here: if the Minister is satisfied that that is the case, will the Labour party therefore waive its right to have a political commissioner, and perhaps open it up to other parties in the House?
Mr. Wills: The hon. Gentleman is an eloquent and skilled debater. I had anticipated him asking me that question, and I shall answer it in a moment if he will bear with me. It is a good question, but there is a good answer too. The short answer is no, however I will provide a more detailed explanation in just a moment, if I may.
The point that I was making is that underlying the hon. Gentleman’s amendment is the proposition that nominated commissioners will act in a politically partisan way, and therefore it is unfair that they should be excluded. That is absolutely not the case. I see him shaking his head.
Pete Wishart: I did not say that at all.
Mr. Wills: That seems to be the underlying assumption, and that therefore it is fair that the hon. Gentleman’s party and other parties that are in a minority at Westminster should have due representation on the commission. However, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest said extremely clearly, nominated commissioners should be selected on the basis of their experience. That is the basis on which they will be selected and on which we expect them to discharge their duties—not in a politically partisan way.
On the point about why the parties that have the largest representation at Westminster should have the position that they have in the Bill, the answer follows on from the point that I just made. That is precisely why we would not be prepared to relinquish our particular position to other parties. The three largest parties at Westminster have—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree, because it is a matter of fact not opinion—the widest pool of political experience throughout the United Kingdom on which to draw, including experience of all the different electoral systems, as the hon. Member for Cambridge said.
The answer is not what the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire is suggesting, which is to segment and fracture the overall view, so that there are specialists in this particular area and this particular electoral system. I may be caricaturing what he was trying to suggest, but that would be the logical consequence of his contribution to the debate. What is important is that we have a wide pool of experience upon which to draw. The three largest parties at Westminster pre-eminently have that wide experience of all the regions of the United Kingdom and all the different electoral systems. They can bring that collective experience to bear on all the issues that the Electoral Commission has to address.
There is a fundamental difference of view on this issue. It is not that the provision is Westminster-centric and the wrong perspective to adopt; it is the only proper position to adopt in a United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Epping Forest set this out well: the source and foundation of power and authority in this country remains in the Westminster Parliament, because that is the Parliament for the entire United Kingdom. Of course, the devolved Administrations and legislatures have an important part to play. They have brought great vibrancy to our democracy and we are proud of what we have done to make that happen, but the power is still devolved from Westminster and so the Bill is in the form that it is.
12 noon
There has been little discussion of the detail of the amendment, so I want to address that. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire will not be surprised by what I am about to say, but, if he will forgive me, I will say it anyway for the record.
Amendments Nos. 112 and 113 would remove the requirement to have a maximum of four political commissioners and, in our view, thwart the purpose of the clause, which is to enhance the credibility and effectiveness of the commission, both to those it regulates and to the general public.
Although clause 6 places the minimum and maximum number of commissioners at five and 10 respectively, by not limiting the number of nominated commissioners permitted it could, in theory, lead to those nominated commissioners being in a majority on the board. I think that all members of the Committee would agree that that would seriously undermine the independence of the commission—both its actual and its perceived independence.
Limiting the number of nominated commissioners to four means that they will always be in the minority, although they will still be able to bring to the commission the political experience it needs—the events of the last few years show that that experience is needed—to create greater confidence among those it regulates.
Amendment No. 114 would compel parties to make nominations to the Speaker’s Committee. Under the Bill as drafted, parties will be free to make nominations to the Speaker’s Committee if they choose to do so. The amendment would mean qualifying parties being obliged to put forward to the commission a person to be considered for appointment. We think that that is unreasonable and therefore cannot support it.
Amendments Nos. 115, 116 and 117 would remove the need for three of the commissioners to be from the largest parties in the United Kingdom Parliament and the means for calculating parties’ relative size for that purpose. As I have said, we believe that it is the right balance to have commissioners from those parties in order to command the widest range of political experience. That is a difficult judgment. We must make a judgment about how to do it, and this is the judgment that we have made, for the reasons that we have said. I accept that the hon. Gentleman has a perfectly logical position, from his perspective, in suggesting alternative arrangements; it is just that we do not agree with them.
We believe that, to get that pool of political experience, it is right that three of the commissioners should come from the three largest parties and that the fourth commissioner should come from another qualified party. The recruitment and selection process for all commissioners will remain a matter for the Speaker’s Committee. Again, I am sure that it will look at the contributions made to the debate on these amendments and take into account what the hon. Gentleman has said, and indeed what the hon. Member for Cambridge has said.
These are important questions and they will be a subject for legitimate debate in the future. Constitutional arrangements are never set in stone. They evolve and develop, and this process is part of their evolution and development. I am sure that we will continue to return to these issues. In the meantime, however, I hope that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire will agree, in the light of all the circumstances, to withdraw the amendment.
Pete Wishart: I appreciate all Members taking part in what has been an interesting and illuminating debate on the issues involved in how we start to deal with the multiplicity of legislatures that we have throughout the United Kingdom. I also appreciate the Minister’s attempt to look at those issues a little more clearly and perhaps to come back with solutions. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Cambridge, who has again spoken about the need perhaps to devolve further the powers of the Electoral Commission, which is a realistic way forward that we might address in the future.
However, the suggestion that nominations for political commissioners will somehow exist almost in a vacuum—without the parties that nominate those people—is preposterous and ridiculous. That is why, other than the hon. Member for Epping Forest, who, much to the chagrin of her colleagues, has been the only member of the Committee to say that we need to be prepared to put the political nomination aside—
Mrs. Laing: I really must clarify this point, or I might not remain on the Committee much longer. [Laughter.] I will probably be forcibly removed. I did not say that the Conservative party ought not to put forward someone or that the place ought to be given up. I was merely illustrating, for the purposes of our argument, the fact that a person’s wisdom and experience do not depend on his or her party allegiance.
Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for clarifying that. She sought to say that she would be happy to waive the right to a Conservative nomination, but she now brings that into line with the thoughts of everybody else in Committee, which I suspected anyway. I always presumed that no political party would be prepared to give up its right to nominate political commissioners, which confirms my strong suspicions that party political interests are at play here. To pretend otherwise is like living in cloud cuckoo land. Of course party political interests are at play, otherwise there would not be party political commissioners.
Mr. Wills: I am slightly surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s cynicism. Given the passionate idealism that he normally brings to the exposition of his cause, this really is a very cynical view. If he reflects on a wide range of analogous bodies in our public life, on which people with wide political experience serve, he will see that those politicians from all political parties serve the party interest without party bias, and have done so for many years and will continue to do so. I hope that he withdraws his remarks.
Pete Wishart: Call me an old cynic, Sir Nicholas. I accept what the Minister says. I know that people who are nominated from political parties do a fantastic job in a number of bodies throughout the United Kingdom, but it is na├»ve to suggest that there is not a small element of party political interest—there must be. No political party would be prepared to give up its right to nominate a political commissioner. We still do not have a solution for what we do with minority parties. We still have not addressed how the Electoral Commission will turn its attention to dealing with the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments across the United Kingdom.
Amendment No. 111 would clarify and support what the Minister says. It proposes to limit the rights of political commissioners to become involved in some of the work of the Commission.
The Chairman: Order. We will consider amendment No. 111 at a later stage, so it is not appropriate to raise the matter now.
Pete Wishart: Thank you, Sir Nicholas.
Mr. Wills: I hesitate to return to this point, but it is so fundamentally important. The hon. Gentleman is proceeding on a completely wrong assumption. The Electoral Commission regulates the electoral system itself. It is in the interests of every single democratic political party in this country that the integrity of that electoral system is paramount. That is the self-interest of every nominated commissioner on the board, nothing else. It does not matter what values we espouse, what policies we want to put into effect or whether we are in Scotland or in the United Kingdom Parliament, the integrity of the electoral system is of fundamental importance to every single one of us. Every single one of us shares the same self-interest in the transparency, incorruptibility and integrity of that system. I hope the hon. Gentleman will shift the base of his argument away from how he has been proceeding until now.
Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the Minister for his intervention and I agree with practically every word he says, but may I say to him, in all candidness, that there will be a whiff of suspicion about the work of the Electoral Commission when it comes to the Scottish elections? On the Electoral Commission, there will be nominated political commissioners from the Conservative, Liberal and Labour parties for the regulation of electoral law in elections to the Scottish Parliament, but there will be no representative from the largest political party in Scotland, which forms the Scottish Government.
The Minister may go on and on about the fine group of people who have our best interests at heart, but, for ever and a day, there will be a whiff of suspicion that something is not quite right. All the other political parties will get to nominate a political commissioner, but the party of government in Scotland will not. That cannot be right. I cannot accept that that is the way forward for Scotland.
We are coming to amendment No. 111, which will, I hope, clarify the role of political commissioners. That is the opportunity for people to say what the political commissioners can do. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mrs. Laing: I beg to move amendment No. 105, in clause 5, page 4, line 8, at end insert
‘and the registered heads of the three largest nominating parties at that time shall be required to make such a nomination.’.
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Prepared 12 November 2008