|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
I would be very happy to write to the Lord Chancellor with a specific example from two of the circuits on which I have practised in the recent past.
I would add that we have recently seen a 47 per cent. increase in the number of care applications to the family courts, and that that is putting additional pressure on the system. We need to be able to make the appointments when necessary on a regular basis, as well as to predict any rush of applications that would necessitate greater judicial input. That would ensure that we were able to remain ahead of the curve, rather than simply reacting to the situation, as is often the case in the courts system. I will be happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman on that issue.
It is important that we have judges who demonstrate diversity, high quality and, of course, independence. I therefore welcome the review of judicial appointments to ensure that we have as robust a system as possible, to give us not only the best candidates but enough candidates to keep the judicial system running as efficiently as possible.
There are small measures in the Bill with which I certainly do not disagree. They will provide a practical message in regard to what has been happening in reality and to the appointment of the judiciary through the Lord Chancellor's services, as it will now be, as opposed to through the Prime Minister. In many respects, I am more interested in the review that is now taking place to ensure that the system works as efficiently as possible.
I also want to touch on part 1 of the Bill, which for the first time will put the civil service on a statutory footing. Some might say that we have waited quite some time for this measure-since 1854, in fact. I put it to the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), that it is such a symbolic change, as well as a fundamental one, that it is surprising that it was meshed with other measures rather than put in its own, stand-alone civil service Bill. We should have had a separate Bill, but if the provisions are here in this one, they should be supported. They enshrine the core values of the civil service, and will go some way towards protecting its independence.
The provisions leave the door open on the issue of retribution towards whistleblowers in the civil service, however. That issue was touched on earlier, and I hope that we will be able to discuss it in Committee, to determine whether the right protections and independence are available to all members of the civil service, particularly when those actions are taking place. The provisions are an important part of the Bill and, although I would have liked to see a stand-alone civil service Bill, I welcome the fact that the Government have moved forward in this way.
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that most civil servants are absolutely delighted that this is finally happening? Does he not wholeheartedly welcome the fact that, although it has taken many Governments and a long time to reach this spot, we have finally reached it?
As I have said, it is an extremely important part of the Bill. The provision is long overdue, but I agree with the hon. Lady that putting the civil service on a statutory footing represents an extremely important step forward for civil servants. My point was that because of its importance it should have the status
of a stand-alone Bill, so that when we look back through the legislation, we have something to hang our hat on and say, "That was the Act that set in stone the statutory footing of the civil service." It should be enshrined in that way. We will have to make do, however, with what we have got.
The Bill is modest and could have gone so much further. Indeed, the Justice Committee itself deemed it a disappointment in not going further. We have heard from many Members this evening about the opportunities that the Bill has missed. There remains concern that it will still be hard to get all its provisions on to the statute book, but that should not stop us from trying to get some important measures through. I hope that we can develop some of these arguments further in Committee. I join the Lord Chancellor in looking forward to the untimed Report stage, which I know he has committed himself to. I hope that it will give us enough time to debate some of the wider measures discussed this evening more fully on the Floor of the House.
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I rise to cover two aspects of this subject-one included in the Bill and one not. Let me start with part 7, which deals with arrangements surrounding the Comptroller and Auditor General. I had the pleasure and privilege of serving on the Public Accounts Committee for two years, so I have some familiarity with the splendid work undertaken by the Comptroller and Auditor General and by the National Audit Office, which supports him. I believe it is appropriate for this Bill to cover some of the arrangements for the hiring and firing-if that is the right way to put it-of the Comptroller and Auditor General, so I welcome part 7.
Needless to say, the Bill appears to have missed one or two aspects, which the Lord Chancellor, who I see in his place, may be able to pick up in case I have misinterpreted the clauses that relate to my concerns. The first is the appointment itself. Clause 37 covers eight aspects of the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General and subsection (7) states that the
"person appointed holds the office for ten years."
It is entirely appropriate to have a time limit on the appointment, because, although I am not casting aspersions on previous incumbents, it became apparent that there was no time limit only when Sir John Bourn reached an age when people were starting to wonder whether there was an appropriate point for him to retire; he decided to do so when he was, I think, 74. Having a 10-year appointment is thus entirely appropriate. The question it gives rise to is: in what circumstances should an incumbent retire?
Provision is made for the incumbent to offer his own resignation, and Her Majesty, through an address from both Houses of Parliament, can also accept his removal and replacement by somebody else, but there is also a third eventuality, which the Bill does not address. That is that, if the incumbent reaches a certain age and becomes infirm, soundness of mind might become an issue-perhaps not to the incumbent, but to those who have to work with him or her. I have found no provision in the Bill for that to be taken into account with regard to a figure of such seniority within the accountability structure of the civil service and Government of this
country. If the Lord Chancellor has any inspiration while I am speaking, or perhaps later, during the wind-up speeches, he might like to address that point.
"Her Majesty may remove from office the person who is the Comptroller and Auditor General on an address of both Houses of Parliament."
Mr. Dunne: I have read that clause, and I referred to it earlier, but if the Minister is telling me that that is the form of words used for dealing with the eventuality that I identified, I take some reassurance from what he has said.
"the National Audit Office to monitor the carrying out of the Comptroller and Auditor General's functions".
Unless the Bill envisages a change in the relationship between the Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Audit Office, what the clause suggests is that the National Audit Office-of which the Comptroller and Auditor General is, in effect, the chief executive-should be the body to monitor the effectiveness of its own chief executive. That seems to me to set up a relationship that could give rise to conflict and confusion. In most organisations an entity other than the chief executive monitors the chief executive's performance, and that entity is normally the board or governors of an organisation rather than the body of which he is chief executive. Again, I may be missing something, but I invite the Minister to respond to that concern as well.
The third aspect of the relationship about which I feel some concern appears in clause 38(8)(b)(vi), whereby the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General are charged with developing a code of practice that deals with their relationship. Here we have the National Audit Office monitoring its own chief executive, and having to agree with that chief executive the code of practice according to which it would undertake its monitoring role. The provision seems to me to have been ill thought through, and I hope that either the Minister will explain what it means this evening, or an explanation can be given in Committee.
I am also concerned about omissions from the Bill that relate to British citizens living overseas. Two particular categories concern me. The first consists of those who are already disfranchised by our present arrangements for participation in general elections in this country. Those who have lived overseas for more than 15 years are disfranchised, as the Minister mentioned when he appeared to be provoked by my intervention on the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) to point out that the issue had been discussed in the Chamber before. Indeed it has, but I think that the Minister may have been a bit hasty in leaping to his feet to deny that
there were many people in that category, and to appear to deny that many other countries had more restricted arrangements than ours.
In the Minister's defence, I accept that it is hard to get a handle on the numbers. The Foreign Office will reply to parliamentary questions, as it has from time to time. I believe that it produces an annual estimate of the number of British citizens who live overseas, and it is around 13 million.
Mr. Wills: I am sorry if I have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. Is he referring to people who are not on the electoral register because they have lived overseas for a certain period-which, under the existing provisions, renders them ineligible to be on the register-or is he referring to people who have a right to be on the register because they have not been expatriates for the period concerned, but the registration process has not caught up with them for some reason, and we have not been diligent enough in some respects? Which of those is the burden of his accusation, or is it both? If he can clarify what he has said, I shall be happy to give him as much reassurance as I can when I wind up the debate.
Mr. Dunne: I am grateful to the Minister, who is being very fair in trying to get to the bottom of my concern. The short answer is that both categories exist, and in fact there is a third, with which I shall deal later. At the moment, I am focusing on those who are already disfranchised as a result of decisions made in the House.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I may be about to repeat remarks I made in the previous debate to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, but I do not accept the 13 million figure. That seems to me to be enormous, and probably includes the £10-passage people from the 1950s. The number of ex-pats registered in a typical constituency is pitifully low, and of those who are registered the number who use their vote is lower still, so what is the point of this?
Mr. Dunne: I completely agree on both counts. The number of people who participate in our elections from overseas is pitifully low, but there are reasons for that, and they are built into the system we as a House have devised for allowing such participation. I shall come on to that.
The 13 million figure includes some 3 million to 4 million of British national overseas passport holders who received their passports at the time when the Hong Kong colony was handed back to China, so they can be struck out of the 13 million. That gets us to a figure somewhere under 10 million. That figure is made up of estimates provided by each of our principal missions overseas as to how many British citizens are resident in the countries where they are based.
This is an important point, and the hon. Gentleman will know from previous exchanges and correspondence with him and other Members that the Government take it extremely seriously. Every step we have taken in terms of electoral administration has been to make sure the register is as comprehensive and accurate as possible. Registration is key to that, including the registration of British citizens, wherever in the world they are, who are eligible to vote, subject to the statutes
of this House. As that is crucial, will the hon. Gentleman be clear about these figures, because they are huge? As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) has said, they are very significant figures, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that the methodology is also very important. I would therefore be very grateful if he would let the House know exactly what question he asked of those missions and exactly what the reply was, as well as what methodology they used to reach their estimates, and whether it was the same for each mission.
Mr. Dunne: I will be very happy to provide the Minister with the specific Hansard references for the parliamentary questions that were asked, but I do not have that information to hand at present. When he looks through his files and I provide him with the answer to his question, I am sure he will find that these estimates are made by foreign missions and given on an annual basis to the Foreign Office, which supplies the figures.
These are not the numbers of people who are eligible; I completely accept that. They are the figures for the overall quantum of British citizens estimated to be resident overseas at any one time. That includes both the currently enfranchised and those who have lived overseas for more than 15 years and who are therefore by current rules disfranchised. It is of concern to me that that large category of an indeterminate number of people-I think we can all agree that many of the foreign missions do not know how many people are resident overseas, but that they estimate the figure-is currently disfranchised from participating in domestic general elections or by-elections to this place. They are also, in most cases, disfranchised from voting in the national elections where they happen to live, so they are, in effect, electorally non-existent. That seems to me to be fundamentally unfair, unjust and not in accordance with the principles of democracy that this House likes to uphold. It is a great shame that that issue has not been addressed in the Bill.
The Minister said that many other countries have restrictions similar to ours in respect of the point of enfranchisement. I accept that the current rule is that if someone spends 15 years away they lose their right to vote. However, from answers to parliamentary questions and research I have conducted, I have found that not many other countries have voting rights more restrictive than ours. Within the European Union, I believe there are three: Malta, Cyprus and Denmark-and it is questionable whether Ireland has more restrictive rights than ours. That is a very small number of countries that provide a shorter period for which their nationals can continue to vote in their home country.
Mr. Wills: The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. I wonder whether he would remind the House that it has examined this issue on several occasions. He will be aware, from his careful research, that the House decided to vary the period after which expatriates are no longer eligible for registration. Will he remind the House of the arguments used to reach the current limit? Will he give his own assessment of the arguments made at that time?
Mr. Dunne: The arguments took place before I was a Member of this House. I have, of course, read some of the debates, but I do not think it would be right for me to rehearse all those arguments, because they range over a large number of topics. I should say that one of the main arguments used was that once people have left this country, they no longer pay tax here. That is not true; a large number of expatriates continue to pay tax in this country-for example, tax on their pensions or tax on property that they may have here. A large number of these people also have family connections here; even if they themselves have severed their links with this country, their families may well be educated here.
Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): The Minister asks my hon. Friend what the arguments were when the House decided this. The Minister talks as if the House took a wholly free decision to reduce the period from 20 to 15 years. That is not how I recollect it; the Government produced a proposal and, as they had a majority in this House that was well into three figures, they drove it through. There was no suggestion that there was a free, independent and wholly uninhibited debate on the subject.
Mr. Dunne: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that comment. He has the benefit of having participated in those debates, whereas I do not. To develop my theme a little further, may I say that not only are the vast majority of EU countries much more liberal concerning the rights of their citizens to participate in their national elections-in essence, once a French citizen always a French citizen, and once a German citizen, always a German citizen, and, as such, those citizens are allowed to vote in their elections-but so, too, are other members of the OECD? The only country, aside from those that I have mentioned, to have more restrictive voting rights than this country is South Korea, and it has a particular reason for that.
Mr. Straw: Let me take the hon. Gentleman back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) raised with him. Since this arrangement for overseas voting was first introduced-in, as I recall, the Representation of the People Act 1983 -[Interruption.] Hon. Members say that that was done by consensus. I cannot remember what the final vote was, but I do recall some intense arguments in this House. This was at the high point of Baroness Thatcher's Administration and Labour Members were concerned-I make this point in a serious way-that along with the fiddling of unemployment statistics and much else besides, an effort was being made to fiddle the franchise. I shall return to the point very quickly, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the event, the surprise for Members on both sides of the House has been-this applies to those who have been resident abroad for only three or four years, let alone 15 years-how few people have bothered to use this right. The proportion is far fewer than the 65 to 70 per cent. who turn out from a UK base.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|