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Political Parties and Elections Bill

Political Parties and Elections Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Peter Atkinson, Mr. Joe Benton,
Frank Cook, Sir Nicholas Winterton
Ainger, Nick (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab)
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor (Epping Forest) (Con)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester, Central) (Lab)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Turner, Mr. Andrew (Isle of Wight) (Con)
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew (Chichester) (Con)
Whitehead, Dr. Alan (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
Wills, Mr. Michael (Minister of State, Ministry of Justice)
Wishart, Pete (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP)
Chris Shaw, Chris Stanton, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 11 November 2008


[Frank Cook in the Chair]

Political Parties and Elections Bill

Clause 7

Political restrictions on Electoral Commissioners and staff
Question proposed [this day], That the clause stand part of the Bill.
4.30 pm
Question again proposed.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cook. I am sure that we will benefit from your guidance as we make further progress on this important Bill.
I was responding to the hon. Member for Cambridge, who had referred to the briefing note put out by the Electoral Commission on the relaxation of the political restrictions on commissioners. He was asking, in the spirit of inquiry more than anything else, why we had not followed the commission’s advice.
The Government are aware of what the commission feels about the matter, but I am afraid that our view is different. We take the view of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that continuing with the current 10-year rule for staff is not proportionate or necessary to ensure the impartiality and independence of staff employed by the commission or, more broadly, the commission itself. Obviously, there must be some restrictions. We think that 10 years is too long but five years is about right. It is a matter judgment, and that is our judgment.
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I do not wish to take up much of the Committee’s time on this matter, as we dealt with most of the principles of political involvement of commissioners when we considered amendments to the preceding clauses this morning. I simply want to put on the record that I agree with what the Minister just said. It is right that there should be restrictions, and we must make a distinction between those on the commission who are representatives of the political world and those who are not. I think that that distinction is clearly made in the clause, which we support.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): I have had a chance to remind myself of the content of clause 7—I did not get enough time to do that during the four minutes of debate on it before lunch—and I have realised that there is some substance to the clause that needs an airing and deserves attention before we move on to further clauses. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cambridge for flagging this up rather than taking the clause on the nod.
The clause is important because it creates two classes of commissioner for the first time, and we need to pause a moment to ensure that we have them right. We need to bear it in mind that the purpose of the clause is to bring some political experience into the commission, which many have argued has not shown enough political experience of the system that it is trying to regulate. This is why, after much careful thought, the Committee on Standards in Public Life decided to argue in favour of a relaxation of the 10-year bar on political involvement. Its recommendation is set out in paragraph 3.29 on page 59 of its report. My question is whether what is in clause 7 is consonant with what is in that recommendation.
I am a little concerned that we may find that nearly one half of the appointed commissioners have recent political experience, as set out in the clause; and that under this clause the other group—in the past, it would have had no ties with a political party for 10 years—might also have been MPs only five years ago, hammering things out in a Committee such as this, for example, or across the Floor of the House. In other words, we may find ourselves with a group of commissioners all of whom have a good deal of very recent political experience.
I am not entirely sure that I am happy with that, so I am not entirely sure that I am happy with the move from 10 to five years for the remaining class—that is, the original class—of commissioners. I would like the Minister to give an explanation for that reduction from 10 to five years. I have a couple more points that I would like to make while he is thinking about that one, unless he wants to intervene on me now; if not, we can wait until I have dealt with the other points.
Another point concerns the staff, whom we have not mentioned at all. Clause 7(2) proposes that the 10-year bar that applies at present be reduced to five years for the chief executive and to one year for all other staff. That is also a substantial change when taken together with the change for commissioners. I wonder whether we ought to consider—I throw this thought to the Minister—extending the five-year minimum to several other important jobs, rather than just limiting it to the chief executive of the Electoral Commission.
I have been a participant in the informal group whose job it was to try to fill the gap that the Electoral Commission realised existed when it wanted more political experience to be made available to it. That group has been functioning for many years. As a member of it, I was initially sceptical about the need for this clause at all, and wondered whether the issue could be better addressed, for example, by putting that group on a formal basis, with the authority to publish views of dissent if it disagreed with actions of the Electoral Commission, which itself would be a constraint. If a group of politicians, all from different parties, said all at once that they disagreed with something and that the commission was going down the wrong route, that might act as a restraint on the commission.
This issue was the subject of the Hayden Phillips process. I participated in that process, as the Minister knows, and I participated in all the talks about this issue. It was largely decided in the margins of the Hayden Phillips discussion to go down this route as it was probably the least bad option, recognising that there are pros and cons for whichever route one takes. I am now a convert to the idea of a reduction, and I will not divide the Committee on this point. However, I would be grateful for the Minister’s response to a number of concerns. First, when we consider the changes that we are making to staff as well as to the commissioners themselves, we are making a substantial change all in one go. Secondly, is the reduction from 10 years to five for commissioners necessarily right for the reduction for the non-political group? Thirdly, is the reduction from five years to one for all staff except for the chief executive the best way forward?
Mr. Wills: As always, the hon. Gentleman makes some valuable points and broadly speaking, they reflect the views of the Electoral Commission. Of course we are aware of those views and we have taken them into account. The hon. Gentleman said, using carefully chosen words, that he was not altogether sure that this way was the right way. Let me try to give him greater certainty, so that he can go forward into the afternoon in comfort and relaxation.
There is no difference in principle between us on the fact that there needs to be some form of sanitising period; I think that that is consensual. That is why we have maintained the existence of that sanitising period. The only question is how long that period should be. We have taken the view that to maintain the current restrictions is disproportionate and restrictive on individuals’ right to participate and perhaps to bring their interests to bear in this form of public life. There needs to be a sanitising period. Some of the recommendations have come from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the decision to reduce the restrictions on other commissioners from 10 years to five was taken by the Ministry of Justice. Therefore, by and large, we have imported the view of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, except in that one respect.
I want to offer to the hon. Gentleman an anecdotal reassurance and then a reassurance in principle about the approach that we have taken. The anecdotal experience is that, by and large, being politically active is an addiction and an obsession. We all know how all-consuming political activity can be. By and large, when people decide, for whatever reason, to detoxify and leave the pursuit of politics, they tend to stay clean. After a break of five years or one, they do not tend to decide to seek election and parliamentary office. They have either had their fill of it and they move on, or they have never had their fill of it and never move on. Therefore, if people take a break, they move on from that partisan participation. That is the anecdotal reassurance.
Much more importantly, we must not lose sight of the fact—we come back to this point over and over again—that everyone we are talking about will be selected on merit. Those selecting them, whoever they may be, will clearly be conscious of the need to avoid any perceived or actual conflicts of interest. That is fundamental. All the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed are fundamentally important, but all the commissioners will be selected on grounds of merit, and with that will come the fundamental objective of avoiding any conflicts of interest, real or perceived. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some reassurance about the approach that we have taken. It is a matter of judgment. This is the judgment that we have made and we think it adequate.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 1

Compliance with controls imposed by the 2000 Acts etc
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 79, in clause 1, page 1, line 7, after ‘the’, insert ‘sole’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment
No. 38, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end add—
‘(4) In the 2000 Act section 13 (which makes provision about the promotion of the electoral and democratic system by the Electoral Commission) is repealed.’.
Mr. Djanogly: We move to clause 1, which deals with the functions of the Electoral Commission. In fact, we are moving back to clause 1. There is always something about moving backwards in Bills. I should like to put it on record that we have found it difficult to prepare comprehensively for these clauses. They are the most technical clauses in the Bill, and it would have been helpful to have had more time. As a result, amendments have been rushed with little or no time for consultation. That includes the Government amendments that we received on Friday. Although it is good to have seen the amendments—and I thank the Minister for having put some of them through—we have not been able to consult on them for obvious reasons. Frankly, that is not the best way to make law. I hope that lessons will be learned from the experience that we have had in this Committee, although that is unlikely to be the case.
Mr. Tyrie: I am particularly perturbed that we have not had time to prepare for this Bill. The language has always been consensual. We will do this by working together. I cannot understand the mad rush. We are talking about not just legislation, but constitutional legislation at that. I wonder whether my hon. Friend wants to comment on that.
Mr. Djanogly: Given that, one way or another, whether here or in the other place, the Bill is invariably going to stretch into the next Session, I agree with my hon. Friend about the rush. However, that is the situation that we face.
4.45 pm
Let me move on to amendments Nos. 79 and 38. We generally support the aim of clause 1 and believe that it should be a tool for change. There is a need to refocus the commission on its core duties as a regulator. That is generally recognised by pretty much everyone, not least by the commission itself. The question is, how are we going to do that? Given the known weakness of the commission in its various functions, does the Bill go far enough in redefining those functions? The Bill gives the commission lots of new investigatory powers, for instance, but will it actually use them in the exercise of its functions, given the limited redefinition in the Bill? Do the functions need further focus than has been provided?
Let us examine the redefinition. Clause 1 will delete the original wording of section 145(1) of PPERA, which states:
“The Commission shall have the general function of monitoring compliance”
and replace it with the slightly more proactive wording:
“shall have the function of monitoring, and taking such steps as they consider appropriate with a view to securing, compliance”.
That emphasis on the proactive role of the commission is to be encouraged, as the bulk of the reports to date have recommended a need for it to act more courageously and to shrug off what some have seen as a passive attitude. In essence, clause 1 provides that in addition to its existing function of monitoring compliance with the various requirements, the commission shall also have the function of taking such steps as it considers appropriate to secure compliance with those requirements.
The aim of amendment No. 79 is to tighten the wording of the clause, to insert the word “sole” before describing the function of the Electoral Commission. The aim is that first, we will not be back here again in six years, with all the associated costs, to review the scope of the commission’s duties because it has been able to take the path of least difficulty and resume a passive role and, secondly, to aid the commission and give it a clearer indication of what Parliament thinks its role should be. It may take time for the commission to readjust to its new role, so I propose a clear statutory signposting so that it can have the courage of its convictions to fulfil its mentoring and enforcement role, without the need to consider the wider issues for the electoral system. I hope that the commission and the Government see this is an enabling remit for the commission, rather than a restricting one.
Amendment No. 38 seeks to clarify the position. Given that the Bill seeks to refocus the commission’s core duties on to its role as a regulatory body, we need to do away with a particular section in PPERA as it will, in effect, become all but redundant. To leave it on the statute books will serve no function other than to confuse the commission and those studying the legislation.
Section 13 of PPERA places a duty on the commission to promote awareness of the electoral and democratic systems. As my hon. Friend for Chichester so rightly pointed out in his submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life review, this is not a matter for the commission; rather it is a matter for political parties. The amendment is designed to tie up the loose ends so that there is no room for future confusion.
Last night the Electoral Commission commented on this issue, and it is worth putting its position on the record. It said:
“The Commission does not support amendment 38 which would remove our duty to promote public awareness of electoral systems and related matters. There is a strong case for ensuring that people get clear and reliable information about how to register to vote, and how to take part in elections, and for this information to be provided by the independent Electoral Commission.
Although the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), in its eleventh report, recommended that the Commission should no longer retain a wider statutory duty to encourage participation in the democratic process, it also recommended that the Commission should ‘retain a clearly defined statutory duty for the provision of public information on the mechanics of the electoral process including electoral registration procedures, how to vote and explaining any changes to the electoral system.’
The Commission no longer encourages participation in the broader sense discussed by the CSPL. We agree with the Government’s response to the CSPL on the point that ‘informing the public on the mechanics of the electoral system, including the registration process, is key to maintaining a strong democracy and we agree that the Electoral Commission should continue to fulfil this role.’”
While I can understand the Electoral Commission’s position, it leads to a wider issue, namely: where is the line going to be drawn on what constitutes strict provision of public information, and how much of its time should be spent on undertaking that? Given the well recorded poor record of the Electoral Commission on that aspect, the Bill should be more specific. That is why I head back towards the measures contained in my amendments.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I have some sympathy with the overall aim of the amendments, although rather less sympathy with the precise terms in which they are drafted. The overall aim will be recognised by anyone who has had much to do with the Electoral Commission over the past few years, and is that of producing a commission that is more focused on its core tasks—the monitoring and regulation of political parties and the administration of elections. It has not been all that successful at its more general role of promoting democracy and participation and, on the whole, that has drawn attention and resources away from its core tasks.
The problem with the amendments is what they would do, and that is a separate question which we should consider in detail. As the hon. Member for Huntingdon explained, amendment No. 79 would insert the word “sole” into the legislation. However, he seems to have forgotten what it would insert that word into—section 145 of PPERA. After the words in clause 1, that section refers immediately to
“the restrictions and other requirements imposed by or by virtue of Parts III to VII.”
In other words, it misses out the requirements in parts I and II of PPERA, which unfortunately are rather important. The hon. Gentleman’s amendment would rule out a role for the commission in those two areas. Part I includes provisions on a supervised role regarding boundaries in England, and part II is about the registration of political parties. The hon. Gentleman’s amendment would leave us without any body responsible for the registration of political parties; I cannot support it.
There is more to amendment No. 38 than there is to amendment No. 79, but there is a difficulty. In its response, the commission said that it still wants to have the power to give information about how the electoral system works. That is the proper function of the commission and is part of the administration of elections. When there are different electoral systems—the European Parliament system, for example—the commission has a role in ensuring that the explanation for the system offered to voters is not only clear but fair, and that it is not biased in the direction of a particular party or group of parties. I agree that that role should remain, but that does not mean that the commission should also retain its broader position, which has had the effect of taking away focus from its core role.
As it now stands, section 13(1)(a) of PPERA details the commission’s role in explaining the electoral system, and is worthy of retention. However, according to section 13(1)(b), the commission is supposed to promote awareness of
“current systems of local government and national government in the United Kingdom and any pending such systems”,
while section 13(1)(c) states that the commission should promote public awareness of
“the institutions of the European Union”.
It seems to me surprising that the commission should have such a role.
Although I am sympathetic to the overall aim of the hon. Gentleman’s amendment and support its effect in those parts, overall it goes slightly too far. Nevertheless, I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to the issues I have raised.
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