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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. We have been round the houses on this issue. I challenged her on that point in Committee, and I challenge her again, because this is the key choice for all the political parties in the House. If it does not matter whether or not it is a Conservative Member who is nominating these political commissioners, I am sure that she will bypass her opportunity to nominate. I am
sure that Labour Members will say, If its just a bit of experience they want, well not bother nominating anybody, and the Liberals will do the same. I offered them that opportunity in Committee, andsurprise, surprisethey were not prepared to take up my generous offer, because they know, as I do, that we are talking about party political representatives on the Electoral Commission. They will all have one; we will not. That is the key to this issue. It is about fairness and ensuring that all the political parties get their right to nominate a political commissioner.
What is being proposedI note the amendment also tabled by the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers)is that all the major political parties, Labour, Conservative and Liberal, will be allowed to nominate two candidates for political commissioners, who will all have, as is right, a place on the new commission. There is a fourth place reserved for all of the minority parties. How on earth the Social Democratic and Labour party and the SNPPlaid Cymru and the Democratic Unionists cannot be with us tonightcan decide about how we should nominate one commissioner for the Electoral Commission is beyond me.
I would not know how to organise and delegate for one commissioner from all those four very diverse political parties from different legislatures throughout the United Kingdom. Thankfully, however, it will not be left to me but to the hon. Member for Gosport, and I have no idea how on earth he intends to do it. According to the Bill, each of these four political partiesany party with more than two Members is constituted as a political party within the Housewill be allowed to nominate two potential commissioners and then pass those nominations to the hon. Gentlemans Committeethe Speakers Committeeto decide who that one commissioner will be. I have no idea what the criteria will be, or how that commissioner will be determined. I am interested to see how that matter will be resolved.
Pete Wishart: We have absolutely no problem whatsoever about working with the other minority parties in this House. In fact, we work together very effectively on a number of issues, but when it comes to the regulation of elections in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, how on earth can a political commissioner from Northern Ireland have the knowledge, background and experience to look after elections in Scotland? It is just not possible.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP):
Is it not the case that the electoral systems may be different? I am not sure whether the electoral law is identical, but the
level of knowledge that would be required to cover at least three, possibly four, different legislatures would be extraordinary.
Pete Wishart: My hon. Friend is right. Northern Ireland has a very different political system of proportional representation from Scotland, and any political commissioner representing all the minority parties would have trouble ensuring that the different systems were represented effectively.
I come back to the issue of how the fourth commissioner will be decided upon. I do not envy the hon. Member for Gosport in that task, and I look forward to him giving even a scintilla of a hint of how the matter will be determined. If a former Member from Northern Ireland, for example, was to be a political commissioner, what on earth would they know about the Scottish parliamentary system and Scottish politics? I would have very little knowledge of what happens in Northern Ireland if that task were ever to fall on me, so I look forward to learning how the matter will be determined. It is almost an impossible task, so we have a serious problem.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the key issue is how the matter will be perceived by the public? We know that the public hold Parliament and parliamentarians in contempt at the moment[Hon. Members: Some of them.] In general, as a collective bodynot as individuals, of course. Each of our constituents love us as MPs and trust us, but they hold the body of Parliament in contempt. They have never before held us in such low regard in my lifetime. We have to look at how this matter is perceived by people out there, because that is the issue, but, yet again, we are failing to do so.
Pete Wishart: The independents are not even recognised as a political party in this House, and that also applies to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway), whose Respect party would not qualify for the arrangement for appointing a political commissioner.
The process is nonsense and is unworkable, given that there is no clear method of determining who will be the fourth commissioner. We must address that issue as a priority, which is why I have introduced what I consider to be an elegant solution to this problem and conundrum. It takes us beyond the green Benches and the shadow of Big Ben to all the other legislatures in the United Kingdom, because that is the basis on which we should start. It takes account of the fact that there are not just parliamentarians in Westminster, but in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Electoral Commission must recognise that reality.
I have put forward what I consider to be measured and sensible amendments, even if I do say so myself, which set a threshold of 15 parliamentarians across the United Kingdom, which means that if a party has 15 parliamentarians, it should be entitled to nominate a
party political commissioner to the Electoral Commission. The number of 15 parliamentarians is not excessive, and it is fair.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I support the principle behind the hon. Gentlemans amendment, but I do not think that the solution is as elegant as he makes out. His threshold of 15 is too low because in practice it would mean four electoral commissioners for Northern Ireland, and five for the whole of Great Britain. If he wants our support on amendment 89, he would have to increase the threshold.
Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I can see that 15 may seem a bit of a low threshold, but I am a reasonable guy and I would be prepared to reconsider it. We have to establish the principle that all Parliaments and all legislatures are important, and that they should be counted when it comes to determining such important tasks and roles. It is not good enough for the Electoral Commission to be the plaything of this House, because it belongs to all the legislatures of the United Kingdom. The amendment that I intend to press to a vote would put in place a system that involved parliamentarians from all the political parties. I would be grateful for the hon. Gentlemans support for that.
Pete Wishart: I am grateful to my hon. Friend who, as usual, makes an important and powerful point. The legitimacy of the Electoral Commission is at stake, not just as a thing of Westminster, but as a proper organisation that reflects all the legislatures in the United Kingdom. That legitimacy will be put to the test by my amendments. The commission has to be seen to be serving every single Parliament and Assembly in the United Kingdom, and it is not good enough for it just to serve this House. That is why we have to vote this evening; we have to acknowledge that all the other legislatures and Parliaments are important and that they should be taken into account when the political commissioners are appointed.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): An example of that complexity is that the legislative competence of the Welsh Assembly is determined by this place, by devolving individual powers through the wonderfully named legislative competence order arrangements. If the Minister gives me a concise, 100-word explanation of the legislative competence order provision and the 27 steps thereof, I will happily support the Government if the amendment is pressed to a vote; otherwise, I shall support my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart).
We are in a difficult situation and I do not envy the position of the hon. Member for Gosport. I would, perhaps, give him one little bit of advice, if he does not
mind. The largest minority party in this House is the Democratic Unionist party, with nine Members of the House of Commons. Next, comes the Scottish National party with seven, then we have the SDLP and Plaid Cymru with three each. If I were the hon. Gentleman, my first port of call when deciding who the fourth commissioner should be would be the largest party. I know, as an SNP Member that if I were in the largest minority party and it was passed over for that role, I would be very disappointed. We would expect it to be a job for the largest party.
What is likely to happen? If the hon. Member for Gosport is approaching this matter as I know he willdiligently and with due care and attentionthat position should be given to the Democratic Unionist party. There is no other way to deal with the matter than to award the role to the largest party. But what a shoddy way to do itto award it to that party just because it is the largest. We would expect a member of the Democratic Unionist party, from another Parliament, to be our representative on the Electoral Commission. That is not good enough. It is nonsense, and an alternative must be addressed as a priority by the Minister.
At stake is the credibility of the Electoral Commission to do a job that reflects not just this House, but the reality of a multi-party, multi-legislature United Kingdom. That is the task and the test of these amendments. We will press the matter to a vote, and we encourage hon. Members who believe in fairness and who think that the whole UK should be recognised to support us. I am sure that if hon. Members consider the matter properly and carefully, we will get that support.
Dr. Strang: As the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) knows, the commission has resisted the idea of any political party making nominations to the commission. However, like the Government and others in this House, I think that the commission got that wrong. It is right in principle that we include people with experience of political parties. They do not have to have been Members of Parliament, but such people should be members of the commission. I do not accept the hon. Gentlemans point that because someone on the commission is a Labour or Liberal appointee, they will act as a Labour or Liberal party person. That is not how the system will operate in practice.
Quite frankly, if there were only two or three, it would not be earth-shattering. Having said that, I think that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire made a good case about the difficulty in appointing the fourth commissioner. There is no question about that. I must confessperhaps this is a dangerous thing to saythat I had assumed that the fourth commissioner might well be a nationalist, either Scottish or Welsh. However, it is obviously not intended that it always would be, and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire made that case very well. Obviously Northern Ireland is a very important part of the UK, and inevitably it must be represented. He has encouraged us to consider the matter, and I hope that the Government
will listen. There could be a commissioner from Northern Ireland, which is very different from the mainland in some respects.
There is a case for considering the fourth commissioner, because with due respect to the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers), who will state his position shortly, if Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberals are going to have representatives, it seems difficult to imagine how one person can represent the minority parties. An interesting case has been made about that.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend knows, I was my predecessors election agent from 1983. I was astonished by the lack of knowledge of electoral law at the Electoral Commission. Not one of its representatives had stood as a candidate, been an agent or understood the basics of local funding of political parties. Not one of them understood how returns were filled in or the need to complete them within 28 days. I saw a shambles in Bathgate on the night of the electoral count, when we had to abandon the count at 5.30 am and recommence it at 12 oclock. That was totally under the control of the Electoral Commission. Surely it is time that we got some real political knowledge and insight on the commission.
Dr. Strang: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We could go over the history of the matter, and as I said earlier, if we go back far enough it was all under the auspices of the Home Office. As has been said, we now have a hotchpotch of electoral systems in Scotland and elsewhere, with different ways of voting in different elections. There is considerable merit in being prepared to consider the matter constructively. As we know, power devolved is power retained, and this is not just about the House of Commons. As my hon. Friend says, it is about practicalities and how we conduct our democratic affairs. We do that, of course, through the parties.
Stewart Hosie: The point made by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) about the lack of real life experience in the Electoral Commission is all the more important because the election he mentioned was won by Angela Constance of the SNP. Likewise, the Scottish Parliament counterpart of the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) is Tricia Marwick of the SNP, and that of the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) is Kenny McAskill of the SNP. That is all the more reason to back up the suggestion of the hon. Member for Livingston that there should be a proper, fair distribution of experience as well as of party. The example that he gives from the May election is absolutely right and justifies what my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) said.
Dr. Strang: We had an unfortunate experience in Edinburgh, East, too. We had the highest number of spoiled papers, and various difficulties arose. I hope that we can consider the matter constructively, because it is not just about the Westminster Parliament. It is about Parliaments throughout the UK.
As I said in Committee, I have a great deal of sympathy with the position taken by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). The fundamental difficulty results from the lack of devolution of powers on electoral matters. There
is a Boundary Commission for Scotlandthat matter is devolvedbut no Scottish Electoral Commission that covers the electoral law that applies to the Scottish Parliament. The situation is similar in Wales and Northern Ireland. The long-term solution is further devolution of those matters. In the meantime, we have to agree about what to do about the various anomalies that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
Mr. MacNeil: I am listening to the hon. Gentlemans long-term hopes, goals and ambitions. As we know, in the House of Commons long term really can mean long term. In the meantime, for the practical purposes of the debate, does he not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart)? We need fairness, that is all. We do not want a system that is cooked up in Westminster; we want fairness.
David Howarth: I do agree that that is necessary, and that the Electoral Commissions credibility in carrying out its task, which covers elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, depends on its having a spread of people with intimate knowledge of what is going on in those elections. Not only fairness but effectiveness is needed.
The point about electoral systems has been well made. The systems used in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland are entirely different from those used for this Housemores the pity, in the case of the Northern Ireland system. That shows the variety of problems that the commission faces. More than that, we are dealing with different political cultures. It is not just how people are elected that is different in this House from the Scottish Parliament, Wales or Northern Ireland. The multi-party nature of those assemblies makes politics different. We cannot understand a places electoral politics unless we understand the culture of its politics. That point is fundamental.
We must therefore consider how to deal with the current situation, which I hope is temporary. The principle suggested by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire is right: the law must recognise the existence of the other parliamentary assemblies. We in this House are not the only relevant people. I am absolutely with him on that, and I am glad that he wishes to press to a Division the amendment that makes precisely that point, but I am afraid that I am with my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) on the exact mechanism and numbers that the hon. Gentleman has chosen. If we were to require an unweighted number of 15 parliamentarians for a party to be represented, we would end up with nine political commissioners, four of whom would represent Northern Irish parties. One of those would be Sinn Fein, and it would be interesting to see whether it took up its position.
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