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17 Dec 2008 : Column 1174

I need hardly remind Members tonight of the importance of the work of the Electoral Commission to all of us, to our parties and to our constituents. The Committee on Standards in Public Life emphasised this and stressed how important it is for the Electoral Commission to have strong direction and leadership. Accordingly, the post was offered and accepted, with the consent of the Treasury, on the basis of £150,000 a year for a part-time appointment.

However, events have moved on. It became clear to the Speaker’s Committee that the House was unlikely to support the remuneration proposal. We therefore had to reopen the whole question and, in essence, to invite the candidate, Jenny Watson, to accept a pay cut. I recognise that this could hardly be described as best practice, but it reflected the situation we were in. We were very fortunate indeed that Jenny Watson was prepared to go along with this; she could so easily have walked away from it, and the fact that she did not do so is a testament to her commitment to public service and the job. The revised salary of £100,000 a year is very close, pro rata, to the salary of the incumbent, which now stands at £155,000 a year and which would have been uprated next year in line with a previous resolution of the House. It is also well within the range of salaries for non-executive roles of this kind in public service.

Bob Spink: I do not wish to cast any aspersions on the candidate; I have never met her and I was not party to the interviews. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us whether she holds any other posts, and whether she will be doing any other paid work in the other two days or at any other time?

Sir Peter Viggers: In the Speaker’s Committee’s first report of 2008, what other appointments Jenny Watson has are spelled out, and it is made clear that she will resign from all those posts with the exception of the Audit Commission, although she has also undertaken to review her position there, should it seem—which is not the advice that has been given to her by various bodies—that there is a conflict of interests. Therefore, she will remain a member of the Audit Commission.

Andrew Mackinlay: How many days a week, or a month, is the Audit Commission post for?

Sir Peter Viggers: I cannot answer that question as I stand here now, but I will inquire. My understanding is that it is not very demanding in time terms.

I now turn to the candidate herself, who, in the opinion of the panel, the Speaker’s Committee, Mr. Speaker himself and the leaders of all the main political parties, is the right person for this job. Jenny Watson has a breadth of experience few others could match. She has chaired a large public sector organisation—the Equal Opportunities Commission—with distinction and flair. No less important, she has experience as a regulator. Most crucially in the context of the role it is now proposed she be appointed to perform, she has demonstrated that she can lead an organisation through change, enabling it to develop and evolve without losing its focus, self-confidence or drive. She knows her way around Westminster and local government, and she has an acute understanding of diversity issues. As I can confirm, at interview Jenny Watson’s analysis of the Electoral Commission as an organisation, and of the policy environment in which it works and the complex
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challenges it faces and will face in the coming years, was comprehensive and penetrating. She was the unanimous choice of the panel, she has been endorsed by the Speaker’s Committee, she has been approved by all the party leaders, and I therefore have no hesitation in inviting the House to support both motions.

5.9 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers), and I am pleased that we are taking both these motions together because the two issues are indivisible. Obviously I do not know this particular candidate, but I am sure she has the highest of motives and sense of public service.

We are charged with considering this afternoon whether this matter has been handled well. The hon. Gentleman was candid enough with the House to indicate that some of these things had not been thought through, and that does not increase my confidence that the decision we are going to make this afternoon is the correct one. To put it simply, we should send the homework back. Wider consultation should be carried out within the various party groups about what is required of this post.

Originally the salary was going to be £150,000 for three days a week, and I believe the hon. Gentleman said it was felt that that could not get past the House of Commons—hon. Members may check that in the official record, if necessary. How right he was. Just because the amount is reduced like this, in an unsophisticated way, that does not mean that a salary of £100,000 for this post is acceptable—it is not acceptable to me, because I think it a disproportionate amount. The hon. Gentleman then prayed in aid recruitment consultants who thought this figure was okay—well they would, wouldn’t they? If ever there were an abuse and waste of public money, it is recruitment consultants. It is time this House of Commons baulked at this sort of thing, because many people are qualified to do this job, could do it to the satisfaction of all the political groups in this House and throughout the United Kingdom, and would do it for a much reduced salary.

I am favourably disposed towards the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), which proposes that the salary should be comparable to the pay of a Member of Parliament. That would be a reasonable compromise. One of the reasons why I shall invite the House to reject both these motions—I think that we will probably have to divide the House on the first one—is because I want us to send the homework back. If we reject the appointment, this good lady can still be considered, but that will be following further consultation and reflection by the hon. Member for Gosport and his colleagues, and following discussions within the party groups.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD) rose—

Rob Marris rose—

Andrew Mackinlay: I will give way to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and then to my hon. Friend.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman gives way to other hon. Members, I should advise him that amendment (a), which stands in the name of the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and to which he just referred, has not been selected.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am grateful for that clarification, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In a sense, it buttresses my point that the Division must come on the first motion.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I just wanted to make the position clear. I call Simon Hughes.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and I were both present for a debate about a fortnight ago on the salary of the Information Commissioner. Does he take the view that jobs such as that one and this—public sector jobs on which Parliament has to make the decision, of which there are a few—should have comparable salaries? Should the Information Commissioner’s job be valued at the same worth—per week, per month or per year—as that of the chair of the Electoral Commission?

Andrew Mackinlay: The jobs should probably be in the same band, but there is a danger of our comparing an apple with an orange. The hon. Member for Gosport prayed in aid this candidate’s work on regulatory bodies. Special qualities are probably required for jobs on some of the regulatory bodies and even for the job of Information Commissioner; indeed, people would look for candidates in a different reservoir. I do not think we are comparing like with like.

I recognise how imperative this role is, but my knowledge of public life means I am aware that many people could undertake this job with enthusiasm and to the satisfaction of the body politic of the United Kingdom, and could do so on a much lower salary. The hon. Member for Gosport did not say that this is so, but I imagine these “wretched” consultants—I used that adjective deliberately, out of despair—would do the initial selection. How kind of them! Even if there had been an open advertisement, the considerations I mention would not have reached the people making the recommended appointment.

Rob Marris: My understanding—and I was here for the previous debate—is that the Information Commissioner is an executive position. This debate is about the chair of a body, which is somewhat different. The Information Commissioner will be on £140,000 a year for a five-day week. The individual we are discussing—I do not know whether she is suitable for the job or not, and I make no comment—will be on the equivalent of nearly £167,000 a year, which is quite a bit more than the incumbent who is on £155,000.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am grateful for both those interventions because they buttress my case. The latter intervention makes the point that we are compounding the perversity of such appointments. All the indications are—and the hon. Member for Gosport was frank about this—that it has been handled very clumsily. We need a period of reflection.

The hon. Gentleman also told the House that, if appointed, the good lady will resign from all her other appointments except that of board member of the
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Audit Commission. But I suspect that there is a handsome salary for that; perhaps we could be told if that is so, and how many days a week it requires. If it is three days, basic arithmetic tells us that that person would be overworked, and that would be distressing. We have far too many examples of quango man and quango woman, and I am not prepared to put up with it any longer.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that all quango appointments of this kind—many are similar, but some are quite different—should be subject to scrutiny by the House, not necessarily in a debate on the Floor of the House as we are having now, but by the appropriate Select Committee? That would be a way forward for the consideration of remuneration of individuals in relation to the jobs they perform. [ Interruption. ]

Andrew Mackinlay: The hon. Gentleman will have heard the echo from behind me. Many of us think there should be some scrutiny of appointments, the ground rules, the terms and conditions of services and the pay and rations by the appropriate Select Committee before we embark on the advertisement and the selection of a shortlist. If we reject this proposal, perhaps it will signal a change from the sloppy appointments to which, by our silence, we have acquiesced for too long.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): As so often, my hon. Friend speaks for the House of Commons in the wider sense. I do not want to see the Mace put down a notch to turn this into a remuneration Committee of the whole House on every public appointment. That would be a nightmare, but the symptoms betray deep concern with the Electoral Commission itself. That is why I would be very happy to vote with my hon. Friend. I have much respect and affection for the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers), who works very hard, but the Electoral Commission is profoundly flawed, and we need a deeper debate on that, rather than having this displacement discussion about the salary of this poor woman.

Andrew Mackinlay: I do not want to labour the point, but I got the Library to give me the job description for the post in question. Frankly, if that job description is to be fulfilled, three days a week is wholly inadequate. I realise that this is not a packed House, but we may have the opportunity later to persuade some people to be prudent and reject this motion so that the body politic—the political parties and Members—can reflect on the situation. We could have a better appointment, either with the same candidate or with a wider trawl, and dispense with the so-called recruitment consultants. We could have a new beginning, with appointments compared with one another. We could consider the pool for likely candidates and reflect the marketplace. As important as this job is, the marketplace is probably much wider than has been reflected so far. I hope that the House will reject the motion, as that would do a great deal for the Electoral Commission and for the House of Commons.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Following the intervention by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), does my hon.
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Friend not agree that it is rather important to ensure right now that we have a chair of the Electoral Commission? The debate about the commission’s future, which is important, needs to be held. The House is halfway through consideration of the Political Parties and Elections Bill, which will have substantial implications for the work of the Electoral Commission in the future. Does my hon. Friend not agree that in principle it would be a very good idea if we made sure that the Electoral Commission had a new chair, who could take the issues forward? Is he sure in his own mind that using the debate this evening as a substitute for the proper debate on the future of the Electoral Commission that ought to be held is a path that should not be pursued?

Andrew Mackinlay: My hon. Friend rightly raises the critical stage we have reached both for the legislation before this House and for the work of the Electoral Commission. Of course, it is a sensitive time. I would not choose to make the changes at this stage. It is not for the House of Commons to micro-manage the situation, but my point is still valid. For instance, was it impossible to ask the existing chairman to stay on for a period? In a sense, my hon. Friend’s point supports the notion that that chairman should see things through and should provide continuity. Presumably, there is a vice-chairman, who is no doubt on a substantial salary. He or she could act up. The timing is not ideal, but if we let things go, we will have abdicated our responsibility to our constituents, who, if they saw this debate or noticed any reports of it, would see it as a disproportionate expenditure and an offence at this time of constraints. That is my case.

5.22 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am afraid I shall have to disappoint the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) by saying that I support the motions, the remuneration and the appointment in general.

As the Speaker’s Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) made clear, Ms Jenny Watson has an excellent CV that demonstrates experience, leadership and management skills, all of which will be required to steer the Electoral Commission forward over the coming years. She has a proven track record of public service, as we have heard. For example, she was chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission as well as a member of the board of the Audit Commission. I am told on reliable authority by several people that she served with distinction in both roles and that there was no reason to reproach her in any way.

The role of the chairman of the Electoral Commission is high profile, and it is likely to become even more so, Mr. Deputy Chairman, as new legislation on the financing of political parties progresses through the House. When that legislation is finally enacted, the Electoral Commission will face different and difficult challenges to ensure that any new financing regime is properly complied with. Having seen Ms Watson’s CV and read the glowing tribute of the Speaker’s Committee that recommends her appointment, I think that she should be more than able to deal with the issues that will arise.

May I also put on record our thanks to the outgoing chairman of the Commission, Mr. Sam Younger, for the service he has given since the Commission was created in 2001? Mr. Younger’s place in political history
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is secure as the man who got the commission up and running. We thank him for all his efforts in the past few years.

As regards remuneration, Mr. Deputy Chairman, if we are to attract the right person for the job it makes sense that they should be paid a competitive salary commensurate with their experience, skills and qualifications. The role of chairman of the Electoral Commission requires many qualities, such as leadership, strategic vision, management and so on. Let us not forget the high-profile nature of the job.

Rob Marris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Vara: I am mindful that we have two debates merged into one, for which we have only one and a half hours. There have been several interventions already, and I am aware that several Members wish to speak. I trust that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not allow him to intervene, but I intend to keep my comments brief to ensure that as many hon. Members as possible have an opportunity to speak. I trust that he will bear with me.

As I said, the role of chairman requires many qualities, and it is also very high profile.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): Anyone could do it!

Mr. Vara: From a sedentary position, the hon. Gentleman says that anyone could do it, but I am minded to say that, if he felt he could do it, he should have put his name forward. I am also tempted to say that he probably would not have got the job.

We should be mindful that the salary that Ms Watson has accepted is much less than the one initially advertised. The suitability of the candidate for the post of chairman is not in doubt and, if we are to have the right candidate, we must be prepared to pay the right amount. Given all the circumstances, I am happy to rely on the judgment of those trusted with making the final selection regarding the final amount of pay for this position.

I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and his colleagues for undertaking this task. They put in a lot of hard work, and they did their job with distinction. For that, I thank them.

5.26 pm

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I am going to disappoint my friends down there by saying that I am not going to concentrate on Jenny Watson’s salary. Instead, I am going to talk about the nature of the job, and perhaps say a little bit about Jenny Watson.

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