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I support her appointment. She is a former chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, and is a continuing member of the Audit Commission. In no sense is that a full-time job, and it is probably not even a part-time one: I do not know how often the commission meets, but it cannot be very often. Previously, she worked for Liberty, Charter88 and the Human Rights Act research unit at King’s college, London. She is a published author, and an independent director of the Banking Code Standards Board. She is also a deputy chair of the UK’s Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, and of the advisory board of the British Institute of
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Human Rights. So she has had experience in a very large number of fields, but what kind of qualities should we expect from the chair of the Electoral Commission?

I say that we need someone of robust independence, who is willing to speak out and to challenge—and, if necessary, face down—the Government of the day. Governments come and Governments go, but the Electoral Commission, as part of our constitutional framework, is there to police the electoral system and keep our politics clean. Of all the ethical and regulatory watchdogs, the Electoral Commission may be the most important.

The Electoral Commission has barked in the past, and the Government have ignored it. It barked in 2003, when it made a call for individual voter registration. The Government said that they would not go down that road, or include it in the Bill that became the Electoral Administration Act 2006.

Astonishingly, the Electoral Commission went public, and said—in public—that it disagreed with the Government’s position and that it wanted individual voter registration. That was picked up by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the ethical watchdog that presides over all the others. The hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) referred to it earlier, and it was also in favour of individual voter registration.

I am not telling tales out of school, but I remember having a conversation with Sam Younger and asking him, “If you and the rest of the Electoral Commission thought that the way in which our electoral system was being compromised was so important that it required you to speak out publicly, you should have resigned. That would have forced the Government to think again.”

I am very much in favour of individual voter registration. I have a constituent who is one of 27 adults living in a house of 44 people, and I do not know who the head of household is.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): The hon. Gentleman may have noticed during the passage of the Political Parties and Elections Bill that the electoral commissioner, instead of resigning and running away from the issue, persisted with individual voter registration, as did the Opposition. I tabled an amendment to the Bill, which of course the hon. Gentleman’s Government voted down, but those of us who believe in individual voter registration still persist, with the backing of the Electoral Commission, quite properly and democratically.

Mr. Prentice: The point is that resignation is the nuclear option. I like Sam Younger and I have no problems with him as an individual, but if the Electoral Commission really believes that our electoral system is being compromised by household registration, its chair should have resigned. That is my view, so we differ.

As I was saying, my constituent shares a house with 27 members of his huge extended family. Someone would have signed the electoral registration form as the designated head of household, and when I wrote to the chief executive of my local council—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am reluctant to stop the hon. Gentleman, but this is not a general debate about the electoral system. It is about two specific motions, so perhaps he could direct his remarks to them.

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Mr. Prentice: I am trying hard to stay in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I want to draw the attention of the House to the importance of the Electoral Commission, which may have a bearing on salary, remuneration and all those other matters.

Our electoral practices need constant running repairs. There have been allegations of fraud in Birmingham, Slough and Peterborough. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has floated the suggestion that electoral practices should be monitored in the United Kingdom, which is absolutely astonishing. Whoever chairs the Electoral Commission has an extremely important job to do and I am happy to endorse Jenny Watson as the new chair.

5.32 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I want to start where the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) left off. I support the Electoral Commission as a body. We need it to be strong and robust and I wish it to be stronger and more robust in future than it has been until now.

I am glad that the proposal that the commission has some political appointees has been accepted. People with political experience will help it to be more robust; they will be a minority, not a majority, and will make it do its job better. We should change our procedures so that when the Electoral Commission makes a recommendation, such as the one about individual voter registration, which has been the most controversial one recently and was referred to by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), it is automatically laid before the House. There has to be some mechanism—it might be proposed by the representative of the Speaker’s Committee—but there should be a motion before the House so that if the Government want to change it they have to table an amendment. We would thus be able to see what the Electoral Commission—the independent body set up by Parliament—is proposing. Such a motion should also be laid within, say, 21 days of the commission making its recommendation. At present, when the commission makes a report, the Government can sit on it—they can deliberate, form a view, stall, delay and disagree, and in the end they can use their payroll vote and their majority to block things.

I hope we have a robust Electoral Commission. In the debates on the Political Parties and Elections Bill and elsewhere, I shall be looking to ensure that we strengthen the commission in that respect. In that context, I too pay tribute to Sam Younger. I have always found him courteous, proactive, consistent, accommodating and assiduous, but clearly independent. Through him, I thank his staff, who have been extremely helpful and made it their business to be available to MPs, both on a party and individual basis. They attend our conferences to make sure that our parties understand the score and they do their job well and publicly, so I hope we can recognise that the Electoral Commission under its first chair has done a good job.

Where do we go now? We clearly need a new chair. I do not know Jennifer Watson well, although I have met her. In my view, she is clearly eminently qualified to do the job. The hon. Member for Pendle read out parts of her work history. It is set out in the helpful report that the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has given us as its first report of 2008 on this subject.
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Not least because of her recent job as the chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, in which role I have seen her work, she comes with great credibility and great authority. Hers is a very good appointment. As the hon. Gentleman said in his introduction, it is surprising in a way that her name is still in the frame, given that, putting it crudely, she got messed around in the process. She applied; she was asked to do the job at one salary, but in the end, people said, “We’d like you to do the job, but we’re cutting the salary by a third.”

Mr. Purchase: About £50,000.

Simon Hughes: I will come to the salary in a moment, but Jennifer Watson will do the job admirably well.

Of course, there is a difference between this decision and the one that we made a couple weeks ago with the Information Commissioner: this one involves the appointment of the commissioners, whereas last time, as was rightly said, we were appointing a chief executive. This is a different role. Of course, the Electoral Commission will have a chief executive as well. Question: what is the right salary? I am always uncomfortable once we get into six-figure sums for salaries for part-time jobs, but I am persuaded that, given where we are, we probably cannot get someone of the quality of the proposed new chair to do the job for less than that sort of money.

Mr. Purchase: But £25,000, plus expenses, is more than enough.

Simon Hughes: No, no; I am afraid that that is a ridiculous and nonsensical proposal.

Mr. Purchase: Go and tell that to the dole queue.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman may not like the Electoral Commission. I have heard mutterings that he does not like it as a body, but it is an important, robust body, and we need it. If we are to give it authority, it needs a chair who will have authority, speak with authority, be independent and robust and speak in the public domain, and Jennifer Watson will do that in my view. It is also good that the chair will be a woman, but that is a separate but not irrelevant issue, given that one of the deficiencies of the House is the continuing relatively small number of women who are Members of Parliament.

The salary is appropriate, given where we are, for the job at this time. We should be grateful to Jennifer Watson for accepting the revised terms, which are much less than she had accepted. It is clear from the proposal that it will be a three-day-a-week job. She will do it full-time for three days a week. She may do more than 24 hours over the three days. I have not heard the result of the vote in the European Parliament on the European working time directive. Personally, I support the UK’s continuing opt-out, and I hope that the European Parliament has voted for that. I imagine that she might do more than 24 hours a week, which would be three eight-hour days.

Mr. Purchase: It is only a desk job.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman’s job is in large part a desk job, and he is paid £60,000-odd for his job. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) proposes
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that the salary should be the same as that of MPs. We have debated MPs’ salaries. We have come to the view that they should be about 60 grand. Our constituents probably think that that is about right on balance. Some of them think that it is too much; some think that it is too little. However, I want to make the wider point, although we cannot debate it now, that there is a debate to be had about the level of top salaries in the public and the private sectors. For me, the issue is that, when some of the private sector has grossly and excessively paid people ridiculous and silly salaries and failed—we have now seen the result of that ridiculous overstretching—it is not surprising that the public sector has had to offer higher salaries to be in the same market for good people.

Rob Marris: And that should not be so.

Simon Hughes: I will come to that in a moment, but the reality is that people have a choice—whether to go to a private or a public sector job—and often, with this sort of salary, they may choose a public sector job, as Jennifer Watson did, but without such a salary, they may go off to the private sector.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right that the time is now ripe for a re-evaluation of top salaries in the public sector. However, does he acknowledge that the salaries attached to jobs such as this emerge from cosy, self-seeking, incestuous cabals in the recruitment agencies who promote that level of pay with little reference to other areas of the public sector? This matter has a strong resemblance to the so-called independent remuneration committees that are so evident and ubiquitous in the private sector. We have to start to reverse the spiral somewhere.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) himself said that this was not the time or place for a debate about the wider issue, but he has succeeded in igniting one. May I suggest that we go back to the specific terms of the motions that we are discussing?

Simon Hughes: As I saw you move towards the front of your Chair earlier, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was careful to ensure that I kept close to the motion. I am aware of the danger. However, before I finish I want—if it is in order, of course—to make sure that I link this with the fact that we are asked to appoint somebody at a specific salary. There is a relativity point, which I hope you will accept, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is properly in order.

Mr. Prentice: I think that it would help the House if Members knew that the Public Administration Committee is about to embark on an inquiry into public sector salaries early next year.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That has successfully doused the debate.

Simon Hughes: It will certainly allow the fire to be brought under control much more quickly—I agree with that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not know about the inquiry, so the hon. Gentleman’s intervention is very helpful.

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I support the measure and I recommend that my colleagues support the two motions on the Order Paper. I hope that Jennifer Watson takes up her post in the new year, and does so robustly. However, I hope that before similar proposals are put before us on other appointments that are in our gift, we have completed the exercise of comparability—across not only the public sector but the private sector. One of the scandals of Britain in 2008 is that the gap between the well-off and less well-off has widened, and far too many people are paid ridiculously high salaries when many of our constituents have very little indeed. Unless we redress that, every debate on such matters will be provocative and a lot of people will be regarded as far too well paid relative to most of the people whom they seek to serve.

5.42 pm

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): First, I thank the House of Commons Commission for its helpful report, on which a lot of work has been done, led by the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers). I also thank the hon. Gentleman for his earlier remarks, which illuminated my own thoughts on this matter.

On the first motion, I have never met Jenny Watson, as I said in an intervention, and I have no idea about her other than what has been said in this debate and what is in the report. From what has been said in the debate, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), she sounds like an excellent candidate for the role. However, the direction of my remarks will be to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). The two motions—one to appoint a specific individual and the other dealing with the remuneration of whoever the chair of the Electoral Commission might be—will be taken together. That means that because I have severe reservations about the remuneration, which I will come to in a moment when I speak to the second motion, I will be driven to reject this candidate at this stage under the first motion.

The hon. Member for Gosport helpfully pointed out that the initial decision, as I understand it—he will correct me if I misunderstood—was to appoint this candidate on pay of £150,000 for a three-day week. There was then, I suspect, a debate among his Committee, and perhaps others, to the effect that that might not find favour in the House of Commons and that it should rethink the approach and the remuneration. I suspect strongly, although I have no direct evidence, that he and his colleagues were right about that, and that a proposal for £150,000 for a three-day week would not have succeeded before this Chamber.

Although one can talk about the excellent qualities that the candidate referred to in the first motion seems to have, and the fact that there may well be a limited number of people who could do such a job as effectively as she could, there are conversely a limited number of positions in connection with such work available for people who have those sorts of qualifications. That must come into the equation when one is appointing a person to any job.

Before I entered this place, I was one of the leading experts in the legal profession in the west midlands on vibration white finger, although the field was small. I say that to illuminate my point. However, if I had sought a job at a firm other than the one in which I was
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a partner, I would have found it difficult, because there are not a lot of jobs around for legal experts on vibration white finger. [Interruption.] I had to become an MP, of course, as the Deputy Leader of the House says from a sedentary position. The issue is not only the qualities and abilities of the candidate—in this case Jennifer Watson. There are a limited number of people who could do such jobs, but there are also a limited number of those jobs available; that has to be fed into our considerations.

The second motion mentions £100,000 for a three-day week. In round terms, pro rata, that is £167,000 a year for a five-day week. The current incumbent is on £155,000 for a five-day week. That is not a vast pay increase—it is in the order of 8 per cent., off the top of my head—but it is a pay increase. That causes me concern, given that we are discussing the chair of a body, as I said in an intervention—the point was picked up by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes)—and not the chief executive. From memory, the Information Commissioner, whose remuneration we debated a couple of weeks ago, receives £140,000 a year as chief executive of an organisation that has something like 286,000 employees.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): It has 286 employees.

Rob Marris: Yes, and a budget of something like £13 million. It is an executive position. Tonight, we are talking about a chair who will be on something like 15 per cent. more per year, pro rata, than the Information Commissioner, who has an executive position. The Information Commissioner is also an important public role that touches the lives of all our constituents, in terms of data protection, freedom of information requests and so on.

David Taylor: We were told, in an effort to pacify, reassure and convince us, that the salary is competitive, as though the job were being passed around a small number of candidates with lots of other jobs, and as though the salary had to be upped to the point at which someone would take it. Surely it is the other way around: surely there are substantial numbers of people out there who could do the job—I am sure that the candidate is a fine person—and who would do it for rather less than the figure that we are talking about.

Rob Marris: I agree with my hon. Friend, to the extent that I agree that there is a substantial number of people out there—thousands in my constituency—who would do the job for £100,000 for three days a week, but with all due respect to my constituents, there are not thousands of them who could do that difficult job. I am not sure that there are vast numbers of people who could do the job and who would wish to put their name forward—that is, who do not like their current job, are unemployed or have three days a week spare. However, as I was saying earlier, there are a limited number of such positions for people who have those skills.

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