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We have to bear in mind the notion of public service when we consider the remuneration of the individual. In the public sector, there should of course be remuneration,
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so that people in the public sector who have a sense of public service can contribute and still pay their mortgage, eat and so on, and so that we get people with certain qualities, but there should not be direct comparison with what an individual with a given set of skills could earn in the private sector.

Looking around the House, I see quite a number of right hon. and hon. Members, including myself, who took pay cuts to come here because of a notion of public service. There is, I am convinced, an even larger number of right hon. and hon. Members who could earn more than they do as Members of Parliament on leaving this place. The reason why they do not leave, and the reason why they are prepared to take a pay cut when they come here, is the notion of public service. The job of chair of the Electoral Commission should involve the notion of public service.

I pay tribute to Jenny Watson for what appears to be her notion of public service. She put her name forward, as I understand it, for a package of £150,000 for three days a week. It was then suggested to her, as the hon. Member for Gosport pointed out, that that may not get through the House of Commons, and she was asked to reconsider the job at £100,000 for three days a week. She said yes—or the motion would not be before us. That is someone who has knocked off a third of the pay for the role that they thought they were going to get, and she clearly seems to have a notion of public service—unless she could not get another job, although we know that she has one, which is another three days a week or so. However, I am so uneasy about the way that the situation has come about and the remuneration for a chair of £167,000 pro rata that I will be driven to vote against both motions, even though I have no dispute whatever with the candidate.

5.51 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Chairman. I feel a little like Scrooge—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The term “Deputy Chairman” has crept in now for the third time. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not correct.

Bob Spink: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I feel a little like Scrooge and a little embarrassed that we are even debating an individual and her salary. It seems somewhat below what we should be doing in the Chamber, but we have to do it. It is our duty, so we must approach that task diligently, no matter how embarrassing.

I start by thanking the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) for all that he has done, his courtesy and his help in the matter. He has done a sterling job and his words earlier were very helpful, so I thank him most sincerely.

Let me give the House a little of the history. There was a motion on the Order Paper some three weeks ago for a salary of £150,000. I looked at that and thought it was excessive. It was equivalent to a full-time salary of £250,000 a year for a chairmanship. I immediately banged down an amendment to reduce that salary to the level of salary of a Member of Parliament. I thought that that was a reasonable level of pay for a public servant. Excellent arguments have been made about
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public service, which is a large factor. With the pension and other benefits that go with it, a salary of £250,000 a year is a very big deal.

Now, Mr. Chairman—sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I think it is because we are debating the subject of the chairman of the commission that I keep making the mistake. When my amendment was tabled, the motion was withdrawn and immediately replaced with a motion for a salary not of £150,000, but of £100,000. That equates to £167,000 a year, with pension and other benefits, which is still quite a substantial salary for such a chairmanship position. It is about the same salary as the Prime Minister gets. I thought it appropriate to table an amendment reducing the £100,000 to the level of salary of a Member of Parliament. That amendment was not selected so we will not debate it tonight.

That change from £150,000 to £100,00 a year in salary has saved the public purse £250,000 over the next four years, along with the pension and benefits. That is quite a substantial sum, so this is not an insubstantial debate. There was a nice round figure of £150,000, and now there is a nice round figure of £100,000, and I wondered where it came from. Let me tell hon. Members where it came from. It was plucked out of thin air. There is no analysis, no job evaluation, no Hay-MSL comparison of salaries. All those tools are available.

There may have been recruitment consultants who were consulted and gave the answer that was sought, and I wonder how much they were paid. Were they paid a percentage of the salary? I suspect that they were, in which case they would want to see the salary higher— [Interruption.] Higher or lower? Higher. That is what recruitment consultants do. I know that extremely well, and the House knows that. Was there a formal analysis? Was Hay-MSL used? Was there any job evaluation? If there was, why has that evidence not been presented to the House? It seems to me that the £100,000 was plucked out of thin air.

I come now to the real debate that I wanted and why I challenged the salary in the first place. When pay is being decided—that is what we are doing tonight—it is absolutely right that performance should be considered. What we are considering represents an increase of about 8 per cent. on the current incumbent’s salary and we would all agree that performance in the job is an essential consideration.

The Electoral Commission has been warmly praised; the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said that it was important, and I agree. It is crucial. The hon. Gentleman said that it was available, courteous and accommodating and that its representatives were nice people; we have all said such things. We know that Sam Younger is a great guy.

Simon Hughes: And robust.

Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman says “robust”; I would challenge him on that.

Having said all that, I ask what those representatives have done in the job. What has happened during the period of the Electoral Commission’s existence? If we look at the facts, we see that it has been a conspicuous failure. The most obvious measure of the health of our democracy and of how well the Electoral Commission is working is what has happened to turnout at elections. That has been falling. When I was first elected in 1992, I
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was voted in on an 82 per cent. turnout; last time, I think it was below 60 per cent. That indicates a conspicuous failure indeed.

There has been no indication tonight about what this candidate will do to put that failure right. What skills will she bring to the job which will enable her to bring in the innovative, flexible and safe voting options that will enable us to drive turnout at elections back up and improve the health of our democracy as we surely should? While I am on the subject, I should say that the safety of elections is also spiralling out of control. Electoral fraud—particularly postal vote fraud—has been getting more and more common during the Electoral Commission’s term of office.

We also see electoral abuses such as the fact that the Conservative party continues to be allowed to fund, with £30,000 or £40,000, the campaigning for a candidate in marginal constituencies before the election is called. That is totally against any public perception of fair play and the spirit of our democracy. What has the Electoral Commission done to stop that? Nothing—it is still going on.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman has a perfectly reasonable set of complaints about our political process, but none of them is fairly directed at the Electoral Commission. It cannot decide what percentage of people vote. It cannot write new laws; we do that. If the Tory party gives such huge sums in funds for campaigning for seats, that is because we have allowed it to do that and Parliament has not changed the law. The hon. Gentleman should please not blame the Electoral Commission for things that are the fault of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Bob Spink: I accept the hon. Gentleman’s complaint in part, but the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) made another point more eloquently than I could: if the Electoral Commission wanted to, it could have taken the nuclear option on any of those issues and forced the hand of the Government and Parliament to make changes that would have improved the health of our electoral system and democracy.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: I should say to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that Alistair Graham, the former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, was publicly very critical of the Electoral Commission. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) is absolutely right.

Bob Spink: I am grateful for that support from the opposite Benches; I am getting more and more support from them these days.

There has been another failure of the Electoral Commission, and it relates to the commission’s direct responsibility: its failure to deal with the transgressions of electoral returning officers.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that this is not a debate about the past performance of the Electoral Commission. That is not within the terms of the motions. A slight reference to that might be acceptable, but we cannot have the sort of debate that the hon. Gentleman appears to be conducting.

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Bob Spink: I accept that. I realise that Christmas is coming fast, and I wish you, and all who work in this House in any capacity a very happy Christmas, by the way—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is now way out of order, however agreeable his sentiments may be.

Bob Spink: I will come straight back into order. We would have liked to have heard about how this particular candidate will address these shortcomings, but I take your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): We heard earlier lots of analogies from the private sector. In the private sector, incentives and performance-related pay may be used. The hon. Gentleman listed some of the objectives of the commission. Would he support a system whereby, during the period of office, performance-related pay would apply if certain key criteria laid down by Parliament were met?

Bob Spink: That is an excellent idea. The hon. Gentleman can achieve that by voting against the proposal, so that those behind it can do their homework, as the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) suggested, and come back to the House with a better scheme.

David Taylor: I think that this point is in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A performance indicator for the Electoral Commission might assist in future remuneration discussions, but we should certainly not choose electoral turnout. It was 87 per cent. in North-West Leicestershire in 1992—the highest in the country. The responsibility for turnout, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, lies in this place. We should go for something like the level of electoral registration. There may be some sense in that.

Bob Spink: We are now spoilt for choice with excellent ideas and innovations. I hope that the House will divide tonight. I hope that we will reject the measure, so that a more well-thought-out set of proposals will be put before the House which will enable us to pick the right candidate, who will address the issues raised while being paid the right level of salary.

My final point is a swipe at quangos. The public perceive that it is a matter of jobs for the boys, and that we are prepared to pay them public money; we can throw it around. We are not going to throw it at teachers, policemen or firemen when they come, cap in hand, for their pay increases. They will be told, “Sorry, there is nothing in the cupboard for you.” But here we are, throwing public money at our friends. That is how the public perceive the situation, and we must change it. This debate is embarrassing, and we really should not be having it in this Chamber.

6.2 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): If we do reject these motions tonight, the public will not say that it is about jobs for the boys, but that the boys have decided that there should not be a job. If we put
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ourselves in that position, we will send a worrying and damaging message about the real debate on the Electoral Commission. Unlike other regulators, the commission is not a quango regulator; instead it directly, and often intimately, affects the activities and lives of every Member of this House.

It is important that we get the right person to be the new chair of the Electoral Commission. Whatever we may think about the detail of the procedures governing the proposals on the appointment and final salary, the debate should not swing around whether we appoint someone or not. Discussions about procedures may be carried on by other means. We have heard the proposed salary compared with that of the Prime Minister, but it is lower than the salary of a local authority chief executive. It is not much higher than the salary of a senior electoral registration officer, whose role is to increase voter turnout, and who has a fairly intimate relationship— [ Interruption. ] I said a little higher.

Rob Marris: Double.

Dr. Whitehead: Perhaps we should look at that.

Simon Hughes: I challenge the hon. Gentleman to find any electoral registration officer in any local authority—[Hon. Members: “Returning officer.”] Returning officers are the chief executives, but the people who deal with elections on a day-to-day basis are paid £20,000, £30,000 or £40,000, not £140,000.

Dr. Whitehead: As far as public sector pay is concerned, I do not think that the suggested salary is completely out of line with the sort of salaries that are paid to those in public service work such as local authority chief executives. I accept that it is quite a bit more than what local electoral registration officers are paid—although that varies in different local authorities—but the suggested salary is not comparable with, say, the quite obscene private sector salaries that are paid for what appears to be very little work on boards, for non-executive directorships and so on, which the House should quite properly continue to be concerned about.

What I want to emphasise about the appointment—how we think about it and how we vote on it this evening—is not just the message that may be sent out if it is believed that we are having a proxy debate about the Electoral Commission, rather than a real debate about appointing someone to head it. If that is believed to be case, the message that we will send out by rejecting the motion this evening will have a wholly destructive effect on the necessary future relationship between this House and the Electoral Commission.

It is essential that the Electoral Commission should be independent and robust, that it should speak up when it needs to, that it should be heard when it speaks up and that it should be seen to be holding the ring properly and impartially in electoral matters and on a range of issues that relate to them. Indeed, the Political Parties and Elections Bill, which is shortly to return to this House on Report, will be seen almost as a new beginning for the Electoral Commission and a number of the things that it does, in terms of who is a commissioner, the proposed changes in the appointment of commissioners, which the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) mentioned, the Electoral
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Commission’s powers—perhaps amendments tabled on Report will eventually find their way into the Bill—trigger mechanisms for electoral spending and possibly even registration.

All those matters will centrally involve the Electoral Commission. At that new phase in its life, it is vital that the Electoral Commission should have a chairman, be fully functioning and work properly, robustly and independently, in the way that has been described. If we in this House say tonight, “Let’s not make an appointment. Let’s consider everything for a little while and come back later,” but then introduce that new stage, the Electoral Commission will appear to be without leadership—rudderless and without a way forward. At that point, it may be said that that result arose because the House deliberately connived at it, and not for any other reason. If that is thought to be the case, it will be a sorry outcome.

I am sure that the discussions that hon. Members have had this evening have not intentionally aimed at that outcome. I am sure, too, not only that a proper discussion of the Electoral Commission’s role can take place when we debate the Bill on Report and at other stages, but that there ought to be an ongoing examination of whether some of the things that the Electoral Commission has done in the past or will do in the future are completely right. Those matters, however, are not matters for debate this evening. It is important not only that we make the appointment and ensure that the Electoral Commission should have access to the powers and constraints under the legislation that is currently passing through the House to do its job, but that it is headed in a way that makes that possible, that a public announcement is made that that is the way forward that we all want to take and, above all, that we support the independence and future work of the Electoral Commission.

6.10 pm

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): This debate is perhaps more important than we imagine. I wonder whether other Members share my view that the rise of the quangocracy has coincided exactly with the fall in the respect in which this House is held. The more we have given away to so-called independents, the less respect we have had, because we have become less and less powerful, and less and less able to represent our constituents. We talk about independence as though it is some kind of formula but, in truth, no one is independent. Everyone brings their baggage with them. If they have no baggage, it is almost certain that they have very little judgment. So we are starting off in a difficult set of circumstances. The rise and rise of the quangocracy will be supported if the motions are agreed tonight.

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