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8.45 pm

That makes my point to Scottish National party Members: the amendments to which I have just given wholehearted support were tabled by none other than the Lord Chancellor himself, and they have my 100 per cent. support because they are right and right for democracy. I will not stand here and say that, because they were tabled by a member of the Government, I must oppose them. That would be absurd. That is the whole point of
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our parliamentary process, which SNP Members are misinterpreting and rather warping in their remarks tonight.

What the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire has said is not relevant because the people who will be appointed to the Electoral Commission under this system will not be acting in party political interest. It is not a question of their knowing in detail the particular precise workings relating to any particular part of the UK, any particular area of the democratic process or any particular electoral system. The point is that the whole spectrum of experience is what matters.

Mr. Alan Reid: The hon. Lady is right about the whole spectrum of experience, but does she not accept that fighting elections under proportional representation is a different experience from fighting elections under first past the post? Amendment 91, which I support, defines a parliamentarian as somebody from any of the devolved Assemblies, as well as from here. Surely, to get that wide spectrum of experience, she should be supporting that amendment.

Mrs. Laing: There is a better way to ensure fairness, which is to get rid of elections under any system other than first past the post. That is the fair and straightforward way.

Let me make three quick points, because this argument has dragged on for rather too long. The point is that the political appointees to the Electoral Commission will always be a minority. If I may, I shall quote Sir Hayden Phillips, who gave evidence to the Public Bill Committee on 4 November 2008:

They will never have power on the Committee; they will have only influence. That is the whole point.

Dr. Strang: The hon. Lady is making a constructive speech and clearly we support her on the role that these commissioners are to play. However, while I am not suggesting that one support the SNP amendment, is there not a problem in that three of those commissioners will essentially have been put forward by the leader of a political party whereas the fourth commissioner will be something rather different?

Mrs. Laing: That is the whole point of the spectrum of experience. It is likely that one of these four people will have more experience of government than of opposition and another will have more experience of opposition than of government and that one will be from one part of the country and one from another part. It is very possible that— [Interruption.] The Scottish National party, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Hon Members have had more than enough opportunities to put their points and make interventions; the very least that they should do now is hear others make their points.

Bob Spink: It is rubbish.


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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. People’s opinions of what is rubbish vary.

Mrs. Laing: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am very pleased that I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman about what is rubbish, and I am very pleased that he disagrees with me.

The point about the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire is that it is elegant, it is arithmetically clever, and it would make the commission far too big. It would make it unwieldy and unworkable. Furthermore, as I have said, it is wrong to consider this whole matter along party political lines. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar has nothing whatever to say. He is just laughing. That makes me realise that my earlier remarks about the Scottish National party are sadly becoming all the more true.

The point is that no member of the Electoral Commission would be acting in the interests of any political party. That would be entirely wrong.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Laing: No, I cannot give way again. We really must make progress.

The basis of the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire is completely unfounded and irrelevant. No one will be acting for any political party. No one will be representing a political party. We will have a broad spectrum of people who can enhance the democratic process.

There is one final point which the Scottish National party, of course, ignores. This Parliament is the Parliament of the United Kingdom. We are talking about the Electoral Commission, which deals with the whole of the United Kingdom. Although the Scottish National party would have it otherwise, it is still the case that this Parliament makes rules for the United Kingdom, and it is from the authority of this Parliament that all devolved legislatures take their own power and authority. The Scottish Parliament would have no authority had it not been given it by this Parliament. It is absolutely right that this law should be made tonight in this Parliament—not for any particular sector and not for any particular party, but for the whole of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Wills: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) and the Speaker’s Committee for all the work that they do. We will, of course, accept the amendments tabled by the hon. Gentleman.

We have had a long discussion and I do not want to detain the House for longer than necessary, but I want to make one point. As the hon. Gentleman said, the question of how the so-called minority parties would have their commissioner selected is a matter for consideration by the Speaker’s Committee if and when the House decides that the amendments should be incorporated in the Bill, but we should all be clear about the fact that we ought to have the utmost confidence in the Committee. It is constituted as part of the House, and it is answerable to the House. If my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has concerns about that, he will have plenty of opportunities to scrutinise the Committee and the way in which it makes
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its selection. I have every confidence that it will do so in accordance with due process, and that the selection will be conducted fairly, effectively and in a way that is completely compatible with the great traditions of this House.

As for the other amendments, let me say first how grateful I am to the Members who sought to educate the Government on the consequences of their own legislation. That is much appreciated. We are proud of the legislation, we passed it for specific purposes and we think it is working extremely well, but there are limits to it.

Let us not beat about the bush any longer. What underlies amendments 86 to 93 is a fundamental and profound dissatisfaction with the current constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom. I think we can agree on that, and on that basis we will resist all the amendments. Not only are they wrongly founded in principle, but as the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) explained so cogently, this is the United Kingdom and it remains the United Kingdom. We do not have a federal structure of governance; we have a devolved structure, whereby authority and power flow from this House. All hon. Members are adornments, but the House of Commons is the fount of power in this country—this United Kingdom.

Of course hon. Members are fully entitled to disagree with that and campaign democratically to change the arrangements, and I am sure they will continue to do so. In the meantime, however, this must be the starting point for measures that we take. It is appropriate for this Parliament, the Westminster Parliament, to be the basis on which nominations are put forward for commissioners with political experience.

Mr. MacNeil: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wills: I want to make a few more points. After that I shall be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, although I suspect that I have already heard what he wishes to say.

In trying to right what they see as this fundamental wrong in our constitutional arrangements, Scottish National party Members are opening the door to unwelcome consequences. Unfortunately, their amendments are predicated on premises that feed public cynicism about politicians. It is profoundly wrong to base our legislation on the premise that political parties are incapable of nominating people with political experience who will not then act in the public interest.

Mr. Weir rose—

Mr. MacNeil rose—

Mr. Wills: I give way to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), who wanted to intervene on me earlier.

Mr. MacNeil: Unfortunately, the right hon. Gentleman’s words will be construed as high-handed in many other places. That is disappointing. When we are developing rules, we should aim ultimately to uphold the principle of fairness, rather than allow the seeking of party political advantage or carve-ups, with the necessity of returning to this matter in a few years’ time. I ask him to
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remove the party labels and have in mind the principle of fairness. In fact, might it not be better to remove the three main parties so that we have the breadth of knowledge of the minority parties represented on the Electoral Commission, as that might prevent any more carve-ups?

Mr. Wills: I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s views on fairness many times in this short debate, and I point out to him that it is very interesting how the definition of fairness varies according to who is speaking about it. There are different perspectives on it; it is not an absolute value, and there are differences of perception. It is not to his advantage to pray it in aid; there are powerful arguments in other directions using precisely the same abstract nouns. When we strip away the abstract nouns and get down to the practicalities, however, we find that they are unwieldy, as has been pointed out.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) described his own solution as elegant, and it may well be, but it is also unwieldy and impractical. These commissioners are appointed on the basis that they will bring their expertise and experience to the conduct of the Electoral Commission, not on the basis that they will bring their party loyalties or tribal partisanship. That would be quite wrong, and I have every confidence that they will not be selected on that basis.

We have spent a long time discussing these issues. I fear there will be no meeting—

Mr. Weir: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wills: I am sorry; of course I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Weir: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has not addressed the important point that there are different electoral systems. In the last few minutes, both the Justice Secretary from a sedentary position and the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) have decried proportional representation, but that system is in operation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—and even, I believe, in London—so it is an important part of the electoral system in the UK. However, that is being dismissed in the carve-up, at least between the two main parties. It is important that, as things stand, no one on the commission will be representing these important systems.

Mr. Wills: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because it was this Government who brought in that pluralism in our electoral arrangements. If he has not already read it, I commend to the hon. Gentleman the review of voting systems published by this Department under the able stewardship of my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary, which sets out a detailed examination of how these different electoral systems operate. We think that pluralism is desirable; that is why we introduced it. The fact is that the three largest parties in the Westminster Parliament have the largest collective pool of experience to draw upon in bringing knowledge of all these different electoral systems to bear on the work of the Electoral Commission. That is precisely the point. Far from dismissing this pluralism, we brought it in and we intend to draw on it to the best effect in the Electoral Commission.


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Mr. Weir: But does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that proportional representation has delivered different forms of government? The SNP is in government in Edinburgh; Plaid Cymru is in coalition in Wales; and the Democratic Unionist party is in government in Northern Ireland. Should not those Governments of three of the nations of the United Kingdom have an input into the Electoral Commission, because of the differences in the nations of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Wills: With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, I must inform him that it is not those Governments who will be represented, any more than this Government will be, in the work of the Electoral Commission.

Mrs. Laing: Can the Minister answer this simple question: is there anything to prevent the leader of any of the political parties from nominating a Member of the Scottish Parliament, the London assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly? There is nothing to stop that, is there?

Mr. Wills: Of course not; the hon. Lady is right. What lies behind her comments is a point that has been made over and again, and which the hon. Members who tabled the amendments seem incapable of understanding: politicians serving on public bodies are capable of operating in the public interest, rather than merely in their own narrow, tribal, party political interests. I am sorry that the tablers of the amendments seem incapable of believing that, but all practical experience tells us that it is so. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to agree on this issue, and we will resist the amendments.

Pete Wishart: This has been a good and interesting debate, containing some valuable contributions—until we reached those from the Government and Opposition Front Benchers, when it started to get disappointing. We have a situation in which the largest party in Scotland, by votes and seats awarded, will have no input on electoral regulations for elections in Scotland, and that is totally unacceptable to our party.

9 pm

Mr. Wills: Does the hon. Gentleman understand that that is not necessarily the case? That is not the way in which the amendments proposed by the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) operate.

Pete Wishart: To be fair to the Minister, I should say that that is not how it seems from our Benches. This arrangement is all right for him, because he has his political commissioner and he will be able to nominate somebody to serve on the Electoral Commission, and it is all right for the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and for the Liberals, because they will be able to nominate somebody to serve on it. The provisions are not all right and acceptable for us, because we will not be able to nominate someone to serve on the Electoral Commission to run and regulate elections in our nation. That is the heart of the matter; this is about fairness, democracy and ensuring that people are properly represented in this House.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers), who is in an impossible situation. To be fair to him, there is no way that he could begin to
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come close to defining the criteria on which this fourth commissioner will be determined, because he does not know what they will be—he has no clue as to how this will be determined. I, too, have no idea, and neither does the Minister or the hon. Member for Epping Forest. What will be the arrangements for the fourth commissioner? How will the decision be made? The Minister does not seem to know. If he does know, will he please get up and tell me?

Mr. Wills: I genuinely suggest that the hon. Gentleman examines the proposals before he starts getting emotional and wrought up when there is no need to be.

Pete Wishart: The Minister will know that that was not an answer and that he does not know how the fourth commissioner will be determined—nobody knows. This is a total mess, but I propose a solution. I get the sense from the rest of the House that a threshold of 15 parliamentarians will not be acceptable, so I shall ask leave to withdraw the amendment containing that proposal. However, I hope that other hon. Members will support the principle that the other legislatures in the United Kingdom are important and must be taken into account. That is a challenge to hon. Members here this evening. I know about the support of the Liberals, who believe that the other Parliaments are important, that we live in a multi-party democracy and that we are now in a different type of United Kingdom. The challenge is for other hon. Members: do they recognise that or do they not? Are we to have the stable, closed-door Westminster wheelings and dealings? Is it all about the green Benches here or is it all about the new reality of the United Kingdom?

Mr. MacNeil: Does my hon. Friend agree that this process is beginning to throw into question the legitimacy of the Electoral Commission?

Pete Wishart: My hon. Friend is entirely right in what he says, because he describes the challenge; the Electoral Commission will be questioned in the nations of the United Kingdom if we do not get our proposal through. It is in place to serve all the legislatures, but unless our proposal is passed this evening it will fail in that task and its very legitimacy will be brought into question. That is what is at stake.

I know that there is a desire to get on to the next set of amendments, but this is an important principle. I wish to press amendment No. 91 to a Division, and I urge hon. Members to support me. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: 31, page 4, line 15, leave out ‘two’ and insert ‘one’.

Amendment 32, page 4, line 17, leave out ‘persons one of whom’ and insert ‘a person who’.— (Steve McCabe.)

Amendment proposed: 91, page 4, line 19, at end insert—

‘( ) In subsection (2) a “parliamentarian” means a Member of the European Parliament, a Member of the House of Commons, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, a Member of the Welsh Assembly or a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.’.— (Pete Wishart.)


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