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A colleague has suggested that we should think, review and reflect once more about this post. Let us imagine for a moment what our purpose in life is. It is to make a difference through the decisions that we make here in the House, but we have contracted them out, privatised them and given them to quangos. The person who wants to do this job is not the person who should get it. As Groucho Marx once said, I dont care to be a member of any club that would have me as a member. More seriously, I shall give the House the example of a friend of mine who was a police officer. He was recruiting marksmen, and he told me that he never once accepted
a volunteer. He always preferred to recruit them in a different way, because it was dangerous for volunteers to be police marksmen.
As other hon. Members have said, the establishment of the Electoral Commission has not led to more people voting, or to young people getting more excited about politics. Nor has it led to any greater respect for people in this House. Things have got worse, not better. Is there a correlation? Well, no, because the Electoral Commission is pretty unimportant as a body. It has done nothing worth talking about, barring getting into the headlines from time to time to drag hon. Members over the coals for failing to report something on time. Those are peccadillos as far as the general public are concerned.
When I mentioned to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that anyone could do the job, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) said that not everyone in his constituency could do it. I have to tell him, however, that a good many could. It is a non-job; it is not terribly important to anybody outside this place, and we are navel-gazing again if we think that it is. As for the idea that we should pay someone £167,000 a year to do the jobwhat an affront! It is an affront at a time when people are losing their jobs hand over fist, often through no fault of their own. However, we could trace the blame for this to the people who are paid that kind of money, and more, and who have made an awful mess of the companies that they are supposed to be running. We are getting into a similar mess with this job. It is simply not worth it.
Mr. Gordon Prentice: I simply disagree with my friend. This is a crucial part of a proper, functioning democracy. We need an Electoral Commission to police the system. I am sorry to have to say this to him, but he is completely wrong.
Mr. Purchase: My hon. Friend and I have a fundamental philosophical disagreement about this job. I am in favour of a democracy that functions properly and has proper elections in which people are voted in and voted out. It does not need policing, other than by this place. This is where these things should be decided.
I can almost trace the beginning of this nonsense of putting everything out to the private sector and to quangos. It was when two Conservative MPs took money for asking questions and the then Prime Minister did not appear to have the courage to say to his Whips, Deal with them. We set up an inquiry and ever since we have had all these quangos and nothing is ever done in a proper way as the Whips would want [Interruption.]
Simon Hughes: So the hon. Gentleman thinks that we do not need any legislation or any regulation to deal with how much money can be given in donations and what funding is permissible. Is he saying that nobody is needed to police those matters, that the majority party will always get its way and that we can trust democracy to a majority party? He must be living on another planet.
Well, isnt that a giveaway: We can trust democracy. Not he said. Oh no, we cannot trust democracy. Of course we can [Interruption.] Look, if the great Winston Churchill decided that out of all the
systems, democracy was the least worst, I am prepared to go along with it. What I am not prepared to do is continually undermine the power and strength of this House by giving it away to unelected people in quangoland who, if they had any respect for this place, really should not be doing these jobs at all. It seems to me that we have to be proper, right and judicial in this House in setting down the rules. If that fails, then we have the police. If it is felt that people have acted unlawfully, refer it to the police; do not go through this nonsense where these people spend 12 months testing out a decent Member of this House only to decide that there is no case to answer. We should do it in the right way to begin with. I shall support the amendment this evening and I sincerely hope that we reflect on all this business of quangoland before we make any further appointments.
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): This is the vote before Christmas, so I shall not seek to delay the House too long. The Government support the motion, ably moved by the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers), speaking on behalf of the Speakers Committee. We are grateful to all those who have taken part in this decision.
I would like to pay my personal tribute to Sam Younger. I used to work with him at the BBC; I have known him for several years and know him to be an honourable and upright man who has performed his tasks with a great deal of probity. There were many occasions on which I profoundly disagreed with what he and the commission had said and done, but I none the less think that there are times when having such an element of grit in the political democratic system is important, especially if we are to maintain brightly the pearl of democracy.
From what I have read in the report presented in July, I believe that Jenny Watson is an able person who has the kind of track record that would recommend her for this post. She was chosen unanimously by a panel nominated by Mr. Speaker, chaired by Baroness Fritchie of Gloucester and including a representative of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Although there has been some criticism of the process of appointment, I would not want to echo it, although I will come to the issue of remuneration in a few moments.
Jenny Watson is the former chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission and a non-executive board member of the Audit Commission. It is good that she has shown a degree of commitment to public service, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) mentioned earlier, and it will enable her to enhance the role of the Electoral Commission. As is required, the leaders of all the political parties in the House were consulted and none raised any objection to the appointment, so I think that it is a good one.
Several hon. Members raised the issue of remuneration for the chair of the Electoral Commission. It would have been wrong for us to propose voting on £150,000 this evening and I pay tribute to Jenny Watson for taking the very significant pay cut that was proposed to her some time after she was offered the job.
Bob Spink: Surely the Minister is not telling the House that if I had not tabled an amendment to reduce the remuneration from £150,000 to £100,000, the House would not simply have allowed it go through on the nod. If he is telling that to the House, he is being disingenuous.
Chris Bryant: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will one day do the sensible thing and swap sides of the House. He has many miraculous powers, but making the Government change their mind is not normally one of them.
I think it right that a more sensible proposition is before us tonight. For my part, I would have found it very difficult to recommend to my constituents a dramatic increasewhich this would have representedfrom the pay that Sam Younger currently receives to that which Jenny Watson would have received had it been £150,000 for three days a week. I therefore feel that we should pay tribute to her, not least because if we voted against her appointment or her remuneration tonight it would show a degree of lack of grace on the Houses partgiven that a Committee of the House produced the recommendation and made her an offer which she acceptedto choose to turn down the recommendation of a report presented to us 22 weeks later. I think that that would be unfair to the lady concerned.
Chris Bryant: I think that the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) will be able to enlighten my hon. Friend. I shall merely say that I feel that it would be ungracious of us, at this point, to turn down the nomination.
Let me finally express the hope that, in the job that I hope she will be taking on, Jenny Watson will examine one issue that particularly affects hon. Members: the fact that at present we must report donations, gifts, travel and hospitality to both the Electoral Commission and the Register of Members Interests. A one-stop shop is long overdue, and I hope that the commission will not be as recalcitrant and difficult in that regard as I have found it to be of late.
In response to the last comment made by the Deputy Leader of the House, I should point out that it was the House that created the regulations that annoy us all so much, and that it would be for the House to change them if the Electoral Commission were put in a position in which it did not have to require duplicate registration.
There have been some calls for a broader discussion about the Electoral Commission, and I for one would welcome that. The only full discussion we have had on the subject was one that that I instituted by asking for a debate on the Consolidated Fund. I have been asking Ministers for Government time for such a debate, because there are indeed many issues to be discussed.
The main purpose behind the creation of the commission was to promote participation and confidence in the electoral process, and we know what has happened over the past 10 years. It may well be that acceptance of the
commissions proposal for individual voter registration would help to put right some of the things that have gone wrong in the past 10 years, so we need a more general debate. I would welcome a more general debate on appointments and salaries for similar reasons. However, we are not here this evening to talk about that. We are talking about the appointment of a chair of the Electoral Commission, and the remuneration that that chair should receive. The Electoral Commission does exist, and until the House abolishes it, there it is. It needs a chair; it needs to be properly led. That is what we are discussing.
As for the appointment process itself, I absolutely reject the criticism that the selection process was not properly conducted or considered. It was rigorous, it was scrupulous, and it was properly conducted in every detail. I am proud to be associated with it.
The remuneration was also carefully considered. Our starting point was the 11th report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We did not start by asking, How much should we give Jenny Watson? We started by listening to the Committee, reading its 11th report, and noting its call for a refocusing on the part of the Electoral Commission and its demand for leadership and direction from the commission. On that basis we consulted, discussed and asked about the terms and conditions that we would need to offer in order to recruit the very best candidates. We managed to reduce 37 candidates to five and then to four, we interviewed them all, and I am confident that we chose the best. We went into the process with our eyes wide open, knowing exactly what we were seeking to do. It was on that basis that we decided that the right salary was £150,000 a year for a three-day week.
We are, of course, talking about March 2008. The world has changed since March 2008, but when the proposal was made, it was to meet the wish of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I draw the Houses attention to the fact that the motion proposing a salary of £150,000 a year for a three-day week carried the words Queens recommendation signified, meaning that it was acceptable to the Treasury.
Sir Peter Viggers: I am unsure whether the hon. Gentleman was present earlier in the debate. All the detail is in the first report of the Speakers Committee; we pointed out there just how wide that consultation was. I was a participant in all stages of the process and it was, indeed, wide.
Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman has done an excellent job. Can he just tell us why it has taken so long from the time his Committee came to a view and made a proposal for there to be this debate in the House?
Sir Peter Viggers: My reply is that the hon. Gentleman should ask the Government. It is the Leader of the House who tables motions. We considered it to be very important that we reach our conclusion on the appointment in June of this year and it has taken until now; the responsibility for that lies squarely with the Leader of the House.
The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) claimed credit for reducing the proposed salary from £150,000 to £100,000. Having been engaged in this process, I have to tell him that although we noted his contribution on the Order Paper, he cannot claim credit for that. It was a matter decided by discussion and consultation.
I am not a natural friend of quangos, but the fact is that the House created the Electoral Commission, and it is important that it should be properly led and directed. I am confident that the appointment of Jenny Watson is the right one, as is the salary proposed for her. Her preparedness to accept a lower salary than the one for which she applied is a noble indication of her public service. I commend the order to the House.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Many of us who would like to support the appointment of a chair of the Electoral Commission but who do not want to support the salary would very much like to have a separate vote.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Jennifer Watson to the office of chairman of the Electoral Commission with effect from 1 January 2009 for the period ending on 31 December 2012.
That the following provision shall be made with respect to the remuneration and expenses of the Chairman of the Electoral Commission (the chairman):
(1) In respect of remuneration for service between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2009, the chairman shall be paid £100,000.
(2) In respect of the year starting with 1 January 2010 and in respect of any subsequent year starting on the anniversary of her appointment, the chairman shall be paid as remuneration for that year the sum payable during the immediately preceding year increased by the same percentage of that sum as the percentage (if any) or total of the percentages (if more than one) used to 10 increase the salary of a High Court Judge during that immediately preceding year.
(3) Where during any of the years referred to above the chairman ceases to hold that office, the sum to be paid to her in respect of the part of the year for which she held office shall be such proportion of the sum which would have been due had she completed that year in office as reflects the portion of that period during which she held the office of chairman.
(4) The chairman shall be reimbursed for any expenses she incurs in connection with the discharge of her duties as chairman on travel, accommodation and subsistence.
(5) The pension of the chairman shall be calculated broadly by analogy with the pension scheme of the staff of the Commission, thereby delivering a pension based on the Principal Civil Service Pension Scheme. (Sir Peter Viggers.)
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