Political Parties and Elections Bill
Mr. Djanogly: This is an important point. A month ago the new provisions of the Companies Act 2006 dealing with conflicts of interest for directors came into force. The Minister may wish to look at them, because conceptually, in corporate governance terms, until then it was a matter for the board to make up its own mind, as he is saying. Company law has now changed that attitude, and a procedure is now laid down for dealing with conflicts, which is based on a mixture of shareholders, the board and the articles. In corporate law, we have moved away from the position that the Minister is advocating in the Bill. He may want to look at how corporate life has moved on, because it has implications for the Bill. We may not end up with exactly the provisions that have been suggested, but there are procedures that should be put in place.
Mr. Wills: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his constructive and helpful suggestion and, of course, we must always be prepared to learn from other experience, but, with all due respect, this is a different area of public life. We cannot, as a Government or a Committee, seek to micromanage the judgments of the commission on often very complicated, difficult and important issues, and we do not want to. Setting out a process for doing that, particularly in relation to the amendment excluding commissioners, trying to decide whether we have the whole commission for this or only part of it for that and creating a two-tier structure would be counter-productive for the reasons that I have stated. I hope that the Committee will resist the amendment if it is pressed.
Pete Wishart: The Minister has been pretty convincing this morning, but he is on less steady ground in response to this amendment, and I say that with great respect. We have to have it out there and accept that there are two classes of commissioner: the standard commissioners of the Electoral Commission and politically appointed commissioners. We cannot get away from itthere are two different types and two different standards. To pretend otherwise is naive on the Ministers behalf. The commission itself raised doubts about that.
We always have to remember that when something is reported on and when conclusions are made, it is passed to the police. Those cases and circumstances may become police investigations, so the charge of political bias will be open to legal challenge. I am a former musician, not a lawyer like some of the distinguished people here, but anything that could be open to a legal challenge on that basis cannot be a good thing and has to be dealt with. The Ministers response has not convinced me. In very difficult situations and circumstances, political commissioners taking a view on enforcement issues with other political colleagues is not the way forward. I have great concerns and I shall press the amendment.
Mr. Wills: To be clear about the position, theoretically it is, of course, possible that those nominated commissioners may have to recuse themselves. I am not ruling it out or saying that they have to be present at all points in all discussions on sensitive issues. That is not the case. There may be such eventualitiesI cannot speculate on what they might be nowbut it would be wrong to rule out the theoretical possibility that they may all have to recuse themselves for the sort of reasons that the hon. Gentleman advanced. However, do we want to constrain the operation of the commission in the way that he suggests, given that that may have precisely the opposite effect to what the Committee, as a whole, wants to achieve with the Bill with the inclusion of the nominated commissioners?
Pete Wishart: That is a helpful intervention, but I would prefer something that gives that protection and guarantee in the Bill. I shall press the amendment to the vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made:
The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 9.
Division No. 2]
Question accordingly negatived.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:
The Committee divided: Ayes 16, Noes 1.
Division No. 3]
Question accordingly agreed to.
Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Political restrictions on Electoral Commissioners and staff
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
David Howarth: The Electoral Commission has raised a point on clause 7 that members of the Committee have not really been in a position to put forward in an amendment, but on which I would like the Government to put their position on the record. Is it a good idea to reduce from 10 years to five years the period of restrictions on political activities for non-political commissioners? The Electoral Commissions view seems to be that, although it is not particularly in favour of political commissioners, if there are to be political commissioners, there must be a very clear distinction between the political and non-political ones. I would like the Government to put on record their reply to the Electoral Commissions point.
Mr. Wills: I beg the Committees pardon. I am afraid that I was leafing through my folder while the hon. Gentleman was making his point. Will he be very patient with me and repeat it?
David Howarth: It is simply the Electoral Commissions point about clause 7(1). Political activities for the non-political commissioners are currently defined as being activities
within the last ten years,
which the clause would change to
within the last five years.
The commission has expressed some doubt about that. As I understand it, it wishes to make a clear distinction between the non-political and political commissioners, as long as political commissioners are to take part in its work.
Mr. Wills: The changes that we are making are in line with the views of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the current 10-year
The Chairman: Order. I advise Members that they can leave their papers in the Committee room with total safety, as it will be locked until we come back at 4.30 pm, when, I have to confess, my co-Chairman will be in the Chair. The Minister will have time to consider the question put, and I know that the hon. Member for Epping Forest will catch the Chairmans eye.
It being One oclock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at half-past Four oclock.
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