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David Howarth: Not at all. On the basic principle proposed by the hon. Gentleman’s party, we will be with him in the Lobby. However, we must consider the practicalities of the numbers involved and the balance between the various parts of the UK. We need to find a
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practical way forward that recognises the principle of producing an Electoral Commission that is not excessively weighted in one direction or another.

As the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said, we must recognise the multi-party, multi-parliamentary nature of our country. The Government’s proposal harks back to the days before the radical policy of devolution, of which the Labour party ought to be proud. They now need to understand the consequences of that policy right across the board, including in the Bill.

Sir Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): I wish to speak about amendments 31, 32 and 33, which I tabled as the hon. Member who speaks on behalf of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. The Justice Secretary then signed them, which technically makes them Government amendments, and the Minister needs to move them formally at the end of the debate.

The purpose of the amendments is to reduce from two to one the minimum number of candidates that the leader of one of the three major UK-wide parties is required to put forward in order to nominate a commissioner with a political experience. They have been tabled on behalf of the Speaker’s Committee, which, under clause 4, will be responsible for the procedure for appointing all electoral commissioners, including the four commissioners whom the leaders of political parties nominate.

The Speaker’s Committee is of the view that it should not be required to choose between names put forward by the three main parties, for two reasons. First, a party’s leader is the person best placed to choose who should represent that party. Secondly, the choice between two candidates might prove to be a false choice, with the dice deliberately loaded in favour of one candidate. If a party leader wishes to nominate more than one person, nothing in the amendments would prevent that, but the Speaker’s Committee sees no reason for requiring multiple nominations. The Speaker’s Committee takes the view that its role should be to assess a nominee’s suitability to be an electoral commissioner and, on that basis, to approve or reject him or her.

The amendments do not affect the position on nominations made on behalf of parties other than the three main parties. In any case, it differs from the position on the main parties. It is greatly hoped that the other parties’ leaders can reach agreement between them on a single nominee. If they cannot, each one will have the right to put forward one or more names and, in circumstances in which more than one leader of a minor party chooses to exercise that right, the Speaker’s Committee will have to choose between the nominees.

Mr. MacNeil: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but from where I am sitting—I am sure that it applies to many other people, not only in Scotland but throughout the UK—the proposals look like Westminster games as usual. I am sorry to say that.

Sir Peter Viggers: All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that, knowing from my membership of the Speaker’s Committee that it represents a range of parties and that the majority is not Government controlled, I believe that it tries to work impartially and fairly.


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Mr. Devine: We should be clear about what the Electoral Commission is. It is a practical application of electoral law and it requires expertise. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Sir Peter Viggers: The Speaker’s Committee agrees. That is why it has concurred with the Government’s proposals to have electoral commissioners with political experience. It believes that the best way of appointing such people is for party leaders to nominate a person who would be approved or not by the Electoral Commission. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point and the Speaker’s Committee has shared the view for some time that the Electoral Commission would benefit from direct party political input.

Andrew Mackinlay: How does the Chairman personally envisage the Committee going about making the choice? Let us assume that all the numerically minor political parties nominate sensible, qualified people. It beggars belief that there is some fair way of choosing. Frankly, a lottery would be fairer and it would have some logic. How does the hon. Gentleman envisage approaching the matter? I am genuinely bewildered and fascinated to know how, under his stewardship, he would choose between the Democratic Unionist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and so on. How would he do it?

Sir Peter Viggers: First, the Chairman of the Speaker’s Committee is technically the Speaker. He is not always present, but he is technically the Chairman of the Committee. The Electoral Commission was created with the intention of its being independent, but it has to be responsible for pay and rations to somebody. The House decided that the “somebody” would be the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, and that it would seek to carry out its duties fairly and responsibly. To date, I have heard no criticism that the Speaker’s Committee is partial or unfair. Yes, a heavy duty is placed on the Speaker’s Committee, and it will fulfil it as fairly and properly as possible.

Andrew Mackinlay: We have every confidence in the desire of our friends and colleagues to be impartial—no one has suggested otherwise—but how do they demonstrate that? The hon. Gentleman has avoided that question. He has not said how, under his stewardship or direction, or through working with the Speaker, the Committee would embark, in the little garret room in which they meet late at night, on resolving the matter. Would members discuss the person’s qualities? Would they have a secret ballot? Would they say, “Well, it’s the DUP’s turn, and the DUP represents quite a different electoral tradition from that in Scotland, England and Wales”? That is true, incidentally—they have some strange practices over there, which are accepted by custom and practice—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has made his point and asked his question.

Sir Peter Viggers: There are two main theories to which human beings subscribe. I think that the hon. Gentleman subscribes to the conspiracy theory. I personally subscribe to a constructive theory of life. The Speaker’s
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Committee has not yet had the duty placed upon it. As and when that happens, I am confident that it will try to carry it out as fairly and impartially as possible. I am not trying to avoid answering the hon. Gentleman’s question, but it is hypothetical at this point.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): On the substantive points in the amendments, I understand that the key attribute of people that the parties nominate should be expertise, but surely there is a case—I am open minded about it—for other parties having some say over a choice. We know that there are people in all parties who, although they have expertise, may be tribalist or partisan, and that others would find it easier to work with members of other parties. Perhaps members of the Speaker’s Committee could reach a judgment about that, which would elude a party leader.

Sir Peter Viggers: Much of the legislation that deals with the Electoral Commission is not clear. Several matters have been left incomplete in specifying how exactly it and the Speaker’s Committee will operate. It has been necessary over the years for the Speaker’s Committee to be a little creative in its operation. I am sure that the Committee will listen carefully to everything that has been said in the House and will take account of it.

With those few words, I ask hon. Members to support the amendments.

Dr. Whitehead: I am concerned by the way in which we appear collectively to portray what the political commissioners will do on the Electoral Commission. I hope that no one envisages that the politically nominated electoral commissioners—not politicians on the Electoral Commission, because they cannot be that—will fervently bat for their side all the time they serve on the commission. If that were so, it would appear not only to undermine what the Electoral Commission is about, but further to undermine—if anybody wanted to do this—how members of the public perceive those who hold political office generally. As far as I understand it, the whole idea behind putting political nominees on to the Electoral Commission is to do with the nature of the democratic process and all that goes with it, which includes how the Electoral Commission responds, and the idea that that body should have serving on it a number of people with political experience in general who can relate that experience to how it works.

Stewart Hosie: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman and I am with him so far, but he mentioned the electoral process. Is not the whole point that there are in fact electoral processes? That is the fundamental point that is at stake, not the partisan nature of appointments—I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman: I do not want to see that either. However, the point is that we have a multiplicity of processes, not a single electoral process.

8.30 pm

Dr. Whitehead: If the hon. Gentleman had waited for one minute, he might have heard me address that issue. When I talk about the electoral process, I of course embrace within that term the electoral process in Westminster elections and the process in parliamentary and Assembly elections throughout the UK. They are
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all part of the process. The Electoral Commission should be concerned to ensure that those processes, as well as everything that happens between those elections, are undertaken in a fair, non-partisan, clean and transparent way. Having political nominees on the Electoral Commission adds to that process and, as far as I am concerned, it should add to it.

Pete Wishart: I actually agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have the same hope and aspiration that the political nominees will serve the commission in that way. However, does he not understand the point about people’s perception? To take the example of Scotland, the Scottish election will be determined by the Electoral Commission, on which the Labour, Liberal and Conservative parties will be represented, but there will be no Scottish National party representation. That will bring the legitimacy of the Electoral Commission into question and introduce a flavour of doubt that something is not quite right.

Dr. Whitehead: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. However, all of us, both in this House and in the Parliaments and Assemblies in the UK, are in the difficult position between, being perceived on the one hand, as perhaps acting unfairly in respect of how those people are placed on the Electoral Commission in the first place and, on the other hand, as simply pursuing party, partisan advantage, by placing people on the Electoral Commission in order to fight the corner of our parties. That is completely against what we should be trying to do, as far as political appointments to the Electoral Commission are concerned.

I would be with the hon. Gentleman more, on the basis of the logic that perhaps all the Parliaments and Assemblies of the UK should nominate a number of people to the Electoral Commission to serve as political representatives. Under those circumstances, if it so happened that the outcome was that there were no Labour representatives from among those who had been nominated, I for one would not be unhappy, because they would have been nominated by the Parliaments and Assemblies of the UK. As matters stand, it appears that we are nowhere near what I would consider to be an ideal outcome, which relates to what the job to be done should be and how it ought to be perceived as being done. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman’s formulation would overcome the problem of what it might look like to have politically partisan representatives on the Electoral Commission, rather than those who will be there for the advancement of the commission.

Andrew Mackinlay: Surely the case for representation from Northern Ireland, by way of an example, is demonstrated by the Bill itself, because as you will have noticed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it amends the system of elections to the European Parliament in Northern Ireland, which is contrary to the Electoral Commission’s proposals. Rightly or wrongly, the Government have been persuaded by Northern Ireland politicians to discard the commission’s advice. In a sense, that is a compelling case for Northern Ireland politicians to be represented on the commission, because their view prevailed. Their view was: “We deal with elections, so let’s give the advice, rather than these nitwits on the Electoral Commission who’ve never fought an election in their lives.”


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Dr. Whitehead: By referring to the word “representation”, my hon. Friend has, if anything, underlined the problem that we face of how to make the appointments. The hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers), who represents the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, drew attention to the fact that the Committee does not have a Labour party majority and the fact that not every party is represented on it. The Standards and Privileges Committee does not have majority Labour representation—it has more than Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members; it has a Welsh nationalist Member, too. But do we consider the purpose of all those people on the Standards and Privileges Committee to be to fight the corner for their party? Clearly not, as far as what they do for this House is concerned.

Mr. MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman is talking the talk of fairness, but I am afraid that he is not walking the walk. He is looking at this from a Westminster perspective. The Standards and Privileges Committee is a Westminster body, but the Electoral Commission is UK-wide: it hits Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh. We are looking for fairness. He is grasping at fairness, and I can see him struggling to find it. Will he please walk the walk as well as talking the talk?

Dr. Whitehead: I hope that the hon. Gentleman has been following closely what I was saying. As far as this House and the other Assemblies and Parliaments of the UK are concerned, we need to make it clear that the way in which we nominate people is not seen simply as people wishing to fight their party political corner in the Electoral Commission. In order to make that clear, we need to confront the question of how we can have adequate representation and fairness in the nomination process.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has made a suggestion that could, as other hon. Members have pointed out, lead to what would broadly be perceived as an unfair outcome. That seems to be the way we are going. My suggestion is that we either seek nominations from all the Parliaments and Assemblies or go with the proposal from the Speaker’s Committee to find a system whereby the fairness of the nomination can be underpinned by the way in which the nominations are made.

Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman’s hopes are laudable, and we can all follow his arguments. He is right to look for fairness, but that ain’t what we have got on the amendment paper tonight. Instead, we have a Scottish amendment that is not perfect—it is not what I would want—but that is fairer than the alternative that would pertain if we do not accept it. We should therefore support it and vote for it, and force the Government to look again at this matter. This electoral system—our democracy—does not belong to us; it belongs to the public. The important thing is how the public perceive these things. The people in Scotland, just like the people in Castle Point, are not going to see this as fair. They are going to see it as another Westminster carve-up between the three main parties.

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman makes my point precisely. How the public perceive what we do is very important, and there must be no implication that who puts whom on a Committee has anything to do with
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party political advantage, or that the people sitting on that Committee are simply there to fight their own party’s corner.

Mr. MacNeil: I am listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman, who is making some very good points. He is presenting his own personal utopia, and I do not disagree with him. However, I want to echo the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and say that we have a choice tonight between the Government’s proposal and that of the Scottish National party. Which of those options is closer to the hon. Gentleman’s personal utopia? I would wager that it was the SNP’s proposal, and I ask him again to walk the walk in regard to fairness.

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman puts forward two options. One would result in about four out of nine commissioners being from parties involved in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The alternative does not appear to go down that route, and would not necessarily involve the membership of the Electoral Commission reflecting an exact replica of the party membership of the Assemblies and Parliaments across the UK. I accept that this is a conundrum and a continuing problem. I also accept that it is not easy to resolve. My personal view is that something like what we have had before, as now, is probably the best way to proceed. My desired outcome would allow the Assemblies and Parliaments of the United Kingdom collectively to choose who the nominees would be, but that proposal is not on the table tonight. We need to choose between a proposal that looks fair and representative but whose outcome would not be, and one that does not look so fair or representative but whose outcome might be workable for the next stage of the Electoral Commission.

Mrs. Laing: Commissioners with direct political experience will enhance the work of the Electoral Commission, so Conservative Members support the Government’s intentions on this part of the Bill. As the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) and the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) both said, the commission will work better if people who have been through elections, who have been candidates, who have gone into every detail of electoral law in fighting an election and who have experienced the processes and problems that occur and the solutions that are found are actually in there either advising or as part of the Electoral Commission. They will have the experience, knowledge and wisdom that comes from fighting elections, which people who have not fought them simply will not have.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said that he would consider nominating himself to become a commissioner, and I would support such a nomination 100 per cent. [Interruption.] The Minister might not, but I would. The hon. Member for Thurrock is, of course, independent-minded, fair and very experienced, having been in this place for many years— [Interruption.] I will give way to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) later, but he really must stop shouting. I repeat that the hon. Member for Thurrock has experience and knowledge that people who have never fought elections do not have. I honestly believe—I mean this as a sincere compliment to the hon. Member for Thurrock—that he and others like him would be
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able to rise above the party political process. If he were an electoral commissioner, he would be able to act in an honest, straightforward and trustworthy fashion—regardless of the political party that he had represented for much of his life. He is not alone in that, as many others would, through their experience and their wisdom, be able to serve the Electoral Commission and thus the democratic process very well indeed.

Mr. MacNeil: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I am wondering whether the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) is going to be the Conservative nominee to the Electoral Commission. What we are witnessing here yet again is the Westminster old boys’ carve-up; the pals come together and in a few years’ time after further headlines, we will be back yet again to the same position—with more legislation necessary to hide their blushes.

Mrs. Laing: Well, I am not an old boy, and I never will be. The fact is that the hon. Member for Thurrock, in view of what he proposed this evening, could indeed be the Conservative nomination—of course he could, because we are talking about cross-party co-operation for the good of democracy.

Mr. Devine: I am disappointed that the hon. Lady has not nominated me. It is, however, a sad indictment of parties in this place that they think that the people of Britain are sitting around tonight watching this debate to find out who will be the nomination to this body of electoral administration. People are not going to be saying that we are unfair: we are giving a say to parties that represent 20-odd out of 650, which I think is fair. Does the hon. Lady agree?

Mrs. Laing: Yes, I do, and I see no reason why the hon. Gentleman, despite being a member of the Labour party, could not also be a fair-minded, trustworthy and experienced member of the Electoral Commission. Being a member of the Labour party does not necessarily make someone a partisan person who is unable to take decisions in a cross-party or reasonable way. I am beginning to think, however, from evidence over the last half an hour, that being a member of the Scottish National party does make one partisan and narrow-minded —[Interruption.] In fact, I have held that view for some time. However, that is not the point. Unfortunately, the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) are a bit of a red herring compared with what the Bill is actually about, while the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) are absolutely correct. They will bring clarity to the Bill and to the process, and we totally support them.


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