Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mr. Wills: We are getting slightly confused about the provenance of the amendments. It is our contention that the Bill is extremely clear. All members of the Committee have had access to the Bill and have, no doubt, read it with great care. Indeed, some of the amendments show how carefully Opposition Members have read it, so I am surprised that they have been deflected by a stray comment from the Electoral Commission’s evidence, which seems to have overturned their own careful reading of the Bill. Until then, they were completely satisfied by the clause, but now they suddenly think that something might be wrong. With all respect to hon. Members who have mentioned the shortness of the time that they had to draft something, they have had plenty of time. The Bill was there and the measure was clear. Everybody was clear about what the clause meant until the Electoral Commission made that stray comment.
The Chairman: I allowed a fairly lengthy intervention there so that the Minister could clarify the Government’s position.
Mrs. Laing: With all due respect, the Minister forgets that the whole purpose of the new procedure of taking evidence from outside people is to assist Public Bill Committees at this stage of proceedings in examining what is before them.
Mr. Wills: To guide us.
Mrs. Laing: Indeed. Not every member of this Committee is a good enough academic lawyer and parliamentary draftsman to pick up every possible defect in the Bill from their own reading of it. My goodness, I would have got a first in law if I could do that, but I did not. In any case, it is so long since I studied law that I have forgotten an awful lot of what I learned about parliamentary draftsmanship. The very purpose of having those learned people before us in the Committee last week was so that we might benefit from their wisdom and experience and therefore table amendments for discussion at this stage. That is exactly what the hon. Member for Cambridge and I have sought to do. I beg to ask leave to withdraw my amendment, and I hope that amendment No. 108 will be considered instead.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment proposed: No. 108, in page 4, line 15, at end insert—
‘(4A) If a nominating party as mentioned in subsection (3) fails to put forward two persons to be considered for appointment as a nominated commissioner when requested to do so, the next largest party at the time shall be treated for the purpose of the particular appointment, and for the purposes of this subsection, as one of the three largest nominating parties.’.—[David Howarth.]
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 9.
Division No. 1]
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Duddridge, James
Howarth, David
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor
Reid, Mr. Alan
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew
Wishart, Pete
Ainger, Nick
Grogan, Mr. John
Hesford, Stephen
Kidney, Mr. David
Lloyd, Tony
Lucas, Ian
Sharma, Mr. Virendra
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Wills, rh Mr. Michael
Question accordingly negatived.
The Chairman: I thought for a moment that I was going to have to use my casting vote. You have deprived me of that magnificent opportunity.
Pete Wishart: I beg to move amendment No. 111, in clause 5, page 4, line 21, at end insert—
‘(6A) A nominated Commissioner may not participate, deliberate or adjudicate in any enforcement action or procedure involving, whether directly or otherwise, the party whose registered leader put forward the Commissioner’s appointment.’.
I am grateful for the opportunity to debate amendment No. 111, which would restrict nominated commissioners’ ability to participate in certain proceedings of the Electoral Commission. It is important to recognise and kick around the notion of what political commissioners add to the work of the commission and what they could and should have the responsibility to participate in.
It looks likely, after our earlier proceedings, that my party would have a political commissioner. It is therefore incumbent on me to question what the political commissioners might get up to in terms of the Electoral Commission. My party and I will know because we will be there, but we want to ensure that we can trust those people to do the right thing with their contribution to the Electoral Commission.
I would like a few safeguards to be put in place. We should ask the political commissioners to exclude themselves from some of the commission’s workings, particularly when it comes to sanctions against other political parties, for example. I do not think that that would be right and appropriate. People in political placements, commissioners or whatever they are called, may be good people who look after the interests of the Electoral Commission and ensure that our electoral system is robust, but is it right that they should take decisions about other political parties and propose sanctions? That is why I have tabled the amendment.
We must be careful and conscious about the role of political commissioners. I would have liked to have gone further and debated amendments about their role. There is a debate to be had about how much they should participate in the work of the commission and what role they should have, particularly when it comes to sanctioning other political parties and ensuring that they are subject to inquiries. I would like to hear the Minister’s view on what safeguards or limits there should be on the involvement and participation of political commissioners in the general work of the commission.
Mrs. Laing: I do not consider amendment No. 111 necessary, but I do consider its principle absolutely correct. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire introduced it so that we can discuss it. One would hope that the deliberations of the Committee might possibly be taken into consideration by those who run the Electoral Commission or the Speaker’s Committee and anyone else concerned with the consequences of the Bill. The principle that he has espoused is correct. I hope that the Minister will say that we do not need to incorporate the amendment, but that its intent and principle are correct.
David Howarth: I support the amendment. This is not about the other things that the commission does, but, when enforcement proceedings are before the commission, it seems correct to say, clearly and openly, that the people nominated by political parties should take no part in consideration of sanctions against the party that nominated them. That is not to cast aspersions on the fairness or competence of those people, but to deal with the essential point that justice must be seen to be done—the appearance and the perceptions. It is absolutely right for that to be put in the Bill.
Mr. Wills: Of course we understand and are sympathetic to the intention behind the amendment. No one wants any suggestion of partiality, partisanship or bias to taint the work of the Electoral Commission. However, we believe that the amendment could be counter-productive. Any suggestion that those nominated commissioners would act in any way other than wholly impartially will damage public confidence in the Electoral Commission. If we create a two-tier commission by saying that nominated commissioners can deal with this, but not with that, we are, in essence, conceding the case that they may act in a partisan and biased way.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Are they not just different, by being politically elected? The Minister is putting all the commissioners into the same box but that simply does not reflect real life.
Mr. Wills: Of course they are different, in that they have wide political experience, which need not be elected experience, although they may have that. The hon. Gentleman is right, but that is not my point. Once they are members of the commission, they will be expected to act in an impartial, non-partisan way and we have every expectation that they will. To exclude them from certain areas, such as enforcement, is to concede the case, implicitly at least, that in such circumstances they may act so that their partisan bias overrides their belief in the integrity of the electoral system. We simply do not believe that to be the case. For all the reasons I set out earlier in Committee, we think that party leaders will nominate people who will act in the interests of the integrity of the system as a whole, not in the interests of the particular political party that they served in the past. All experience tells us that there are numerous people with political experience who will act in precisely that way. After the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, I shall come on to the question of the appearance.
David Howarth: In a way it is a question of the appearance, but it is also a question of what the courts will make of this. Is the Minister absolutely confident that, in a judicial review of a decision of the Electoral Commission on enforcement—about a particular party, where someone nominated by that party took part—that the commission would be immune from having its decision overturned? I cannot see how he can be.
12.45 pm
David Howarth: The point that the Minister is not taking into account—although he said he might address it in a minute—is that appearance is essential in all of that. A fundamental principle in the Sussex Justices case is that justice should not only be done, but be seen to be done, and that is the problem that the commissioner will face on judicial review if the Minister insists on his present line of argument.
Mr. Wills: With all respect to the hon. Gentleman, I thought that he was asking me how the courts would decide in a particular case, and I thought that we agreed that the courts decide on the facts, rather than on the appearance of the facts—[Interruption.] Well, it is a fundamental principle that justice should be seen to be done, and of course that is right. In questions of judicial review, however, what matters is whether or not the commissioners have acted with bias. We are confident that they will not. If they do, they of course will be vulnerable to judicial review.
Mrs. Laing: Does the Minister agree that, if a matter of narrow party political interest arose that would significantly affect a party and was being considered by the Electoral Commission, it would not be sufficient to prevent the one commissioner nominated by that political party from taking part in proceedings and that, if bias is to be assumed, all the commissioners nominated by political parties would have to be prevented from taking part? If bias is to be assumed, and that is a logical conclusion, there is no point in having those commissioners. I would argue that there is a point in having the commissioners and that we have to assume that there will not be bias because that is the nature of the type of person who we, as a legislature, envisage will take the role of commissioner having been nominated by a political party.
Mr. Wills: When the hon. Lady began her intervention I thought that she was about to disagree with me, but I think that by the time she had finished she was agreeing with the point I was trying to make. I will come exactly to the point about appearance. The hon. Member for Cambridge is of course right: not only must we expect the Electoral Commission to act without bias, but it must be seen to do so. The whole point of the amendment is to create the impression that the nominated commissioners cannot be trusted to act without bias, and that must be counter-productive.
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