Session 2010-11
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General Committee Debates
Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Electoral Commission

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Miss Anne Begg 

Dodds, Mr Nigel (Belfast North) (DUP) 

Dunne, Mr Philip (Ludlow) (Con) 

Heath, Mr David (Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons)  

Howell, John (Henley) (Con) 

Kaufman, Sir Gerald (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab) 

Keeley, Barbara (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab) 

Lumley, Karen (Redditch) (Con) 

McPartland, Stephen (Stevenage) (Con) 

McCartney, Jason (Colne Valley) (Con) 

McCartney, Karl (Lincoln) (Con) 

McVey, Esther (Wirral West) (Con) 

Reynolds, Emma (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab) 

Singh, Mr Marsha (Bradford West) (Lab) 

Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab) 

Truss, Elizabeth (South West Norfolk) (Con) 

Twigg, Derek (Halton) (Lab) 

Watson, Mr Tom (West Bromwich East) (Lab) 

Williams, Mr Mark (Ceredigion) (LD) 

Elizabeth Hunt, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):

Jenkin, Mr Bernard (Harwich and North Essex) (Con) 

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Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee 

Tuesday 14 September 2010  

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair] 

Electoral Commission 

10.30 am 

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath):  I beg to move, 

That the Committee has considered the motion, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint as Electoral Commissioners— 

(1) Angela Frances, Baroness Browning, with effect from 1 October 2010 for the period ending on 30 September 2014; 

(2) David Ross Howarth, with effect from 1 October 2010 for the period ending on 30 September 2014; 

(3) Roy Francis, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, with effect from 1 October 2010 for the period ending on 30 September 2014; and 

(4) Rt. Hon. George Newlands Reid with effect from 1 October 2010 for the period ending on 30 September 2012. 

I am delighted to welcome you to the Chair, Miss Begg. These are new posts, which are created by section 5 of the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, following recommendations from the Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, supported by the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. The original structure of the Electoral Commission was strictly impartial, but those Committees found that the exclusion of anyone with recent political experience made the commission less effective. Accordingly, they recommended that political experience should be available to the commission. These new posts will allow four individuals with insight into our political parties to enhance the commission’s understanding of the environment in which it operates, while at the same time protecting its impartiality. The statute provides that the nominated commissioners will be a minority on the commission’s board, and that they may not be the chair of the commission. 

The details of the statute and of the selection procedure to identify the candidates are set out in the first report of the Speaker’s Committee, which I arranged to be circulated to Members and which I commend to the Committee. I shall summarise the key points of the procedure: first, the Speaker sought and obtained from the parties the names of the individuals that they wished to nominate for these posts; secondly, an independent panel appointed by the Speaker at the request of the Speaker’s Committee identified a shortlist of four candidates to fill the four posts; and finally, the Speaker formally consulted the leaders of the nominating parties on the candidates going forward, before the motion was placed on the Order Paper. The shortlisting panel was chaired by Dame Denise Platt, a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The panel found that all the political party’s nominees met the minimum requirements for the role. 

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The four candidates identified by the panel were recommended in accordance with the requirements of the 2009 Act, which I shall explain. The Speaker’s Committee also required that the panel bear in mind the need for the Electoral Commission to reflect, so far as it is possible, the diversity of the UK and its regions. The statute provides that one nominated commissioner post should go to each of the three largest qualifying political parties. The fourth post is set aside for the smaller parties to ensure that they can play an active role in the commission. 

After the selection panel had reported, one of its recommended candidates—Baroness Gale—withdrew from the process. That left a vacancy, which under the statute was to be filled by a Labour party nominee. The Speaker's Committee therefore put forward to the statutory consultation stage another nominee of the Labour Party, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, whom the independent panel had previously determined also met the requirements of the post. The candidates put forward to the statutory consultation stage are the candidates listed on the motion. All of them were accepted by the parties, with the exception of certain reservations expressed by the Scottish National party about Lord Kennedy—the letter is printed on page 16 of the Speaker's Committee report. 

The statutory consultation period formally ended on 7 April 2010. Three of the proposed candidates are put forward to serve terms of four years, while one is put forward for two years. The three candidates named for four-year terms are those nominated by the three largest qualifying parties. The fourth candidate, George Reid, was nominated by the SNP with the support of the SDLP and Plaid Cymru. The selection panel proposed that his term should be shorter, so that the smaller parties would have more frequent opportunities to nominate different candidates, if they wish to do so. 

In the immediate future, the Electoral Commission has the challenges of the referendum in Wales and, in 2011, elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly. Additionally, it has a major role in the preparations for a UK-wide referendum, if the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is brought into law. Baroness Browning, David Howarth, Lord Kennedy and George Reid will make important contributions to the Electoral Commission over the next two to four years, assuming that the appointments are approved, and I hope that the Committee will support them. I commend the motion to the Committee. 

10.35 am 

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab):  It may assist the Committee if I describe the procedure adopted by the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, of which I am a member. Mr Speaker created a sub-committee of the Speaker’s Committee to interview the applicants nominated by the various political parties. Page 4 of the report states that, in addition to the members drawn from the Speaker’s Committee, the sub-committee also included Dame Denise Platt, who is a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and Jenny Watson, who is chairman of the Electoral Commission. 

Each political party nominated several candidates for the one post that was available to each party. The sub-committee interviewed each applicant in one of the

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most exhaustive, and indeed exhausting, procedures that I have been involved with during my membership of the House—it took eight hours to interview them all. The sub-committee had agreed that it would be unanimous in its decision and, at the end of that rather long day, it had selected its nominees, all of whom it believed were eminently suitable for the duties assigned to members of the Electoral Commission. 

Baroness Gale subsequently withdrew, so another Labour party nominee was required to replace her. On that occasion the sub-committee was not convened, so the Speaker’s Committee, on which all the major political parties of the House are represented, met to consider the other Labour party candidates and was unanimous in nominating Lord Kennedy. 

Mr Speaker adopted an open and complex procedure on behalf of his Committee to ensure that the nominations submitted to the House were of the highest quality and were acceptable to all the members of the Speaker’s Committee. That procedure was followed, so I support the motion. 

10.38 am 

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con):  I apologise in advance to the Committee, because I shall have to leave to Chair a Select Committee at 11.30. I am not a voting a member of this Committee, so I hope that I may be excused for other duties if the Committee’s considerations run on. I want to make a few remarks—I shall be brief, because I appreciate that I am testing the Committee’s patience—to address the controversy that has arisen over the Electoral Commission’s conduct in issuing its advice to the Government on the date of a possible referendum next year on the alternative voting system. 

It is no secret—I have advertised the fact on many occasions—that I have argued that the Electoral Commission, when it was less supine and more robust in its attitude to the Government, made it clear that it was unacceptable to have a major constitutional referendum on the same day as elections. On previous occasions, I have quoted from statements made by the Electoral Commission. I have since made a freedom of information request to find out why the Electoral Commission reached that view in 2002 and what arguments and issues it considered. I have also tried to ascertain what has brought the present Electoral Commission to a different view. Ultimately, this comes down to the governance of the Electoral Commission, and whether the commissioners are of sufficient standing and independence to ensure that the commission has both the courage of its convictions and the competent management required to arrive at logical and principled conclusions and advice to the Government. I regret that that is not the case at the moment. 

I tabled an amendment calling for an additional commissioner to be appointed under this process, but I fully understand that it was probably not selectable, because the candidate I suggested had not been through the process to which the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton has just adverted. I have no objection to any of the names in the motion and I have absolute faith in the integrity of the appointment process. In addition, these effectively party political nominations to the Electoral Commission are meant simply to improve co-ordination

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between the political parties and the commission about fairly obvious and humdrum things that parties know much about, but of which quangos may not have direct experience. I hope that the additional commissioners will provide greater independence and strength of purpose for the commission. In particular, I note that one of the nominees is a former Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, George Newlands Reid. He is an eminent and respected Scottish politician, who is likely to take a robust view on the question of combining the AV referendum and the Scottish parliamentary elections on the same date. 

It is ironic that the Government now state that it might be questionable to have a general election on the same day as the Scottish parliamentary elections, when both a referendum and a general election are party political events. What distinguishes a referendum on a constitutional issue from an election for office is that political parties play no direct role in the referendum. For the clarity and transparency of a referendum debate, it is vital that it should be conducted—if this does not sound too precious—above and independently of party politics. 

I will allude briefly to the arguments made by the Electoral Commission in 2002, following an inquiry provoked by Nigel Smith—I had his name in an amendment as a pretext for raising such matters. He has something about him; he is an engineer and ran an engineering business in Glasgow, and he is a highly respected Scottish political figure. He chaired the yes campaign in the Scottish referendum very effectively, and chaired the no campaign in preparation for the expected referendum on the euro. The pretext for the objections that he raised with the Electoral Commission in 2002 was the prospect of the then Prime Minister calling a referendum at the same time as the Scottish and Welsh elections in 2003. 

The Chair:  Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point. He is getting very wide of the motion, which is not about the referendum. He should move on and keep to the motion in front of us. 

Mr Jenkin:  I hope that the candidates who have been proposed—for whom I have respect and have no reason to criticise at all—will be able to bring the kind of analysis and transparency that Nigel Smith would have brought to the role. 

I will just give one example and will then sit down. The Electoral Commission has said that it has drawn extensively on experiences in Finland and Australia in concluding that it is perfectly acceptable to combine polls. I think that it has missed the point, which Nigel Smith has pointed out to me, that the turnout for polls in Australia, when combined with referendums, reflects the fact that Australia has compulsory voting. I hope that that point will not be missed by the candidates for appointment to the commission. 

Nigel Smith, who is a widely respected academic on the subject of direct democracy, also raised the point that Finland is a curious example to choose. We differ in that he will probably vote for AV in the referendum, but I have absolute respect for him on this point. He contacted the Finnish institute— 

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The Chair:  Order. The hon. Gentleman is getting very wide of the actual motion. This is not a debate on whether we should have a referendum on the same day as a general election; this is actually about the political appointees to the Electoral Commission. I will be grateful if the hon. Gentleman sticks to the motion and does not go into a debate on the referendum, which is clearly wide of what we are here today to discuss. 

Mr Jenkin:  I will finish in three sentences. I hope that the candidates will have access to advice such as that of Maija Setälä—an academy research fellow in Finland—who points out that Finland has had only two referendums since 1931, and that it is hardly an exemplar of good practice for this Administration. We need commissioners with independence who will enforce good process in the Electoral Commission, which is sadly lacking at the moment. If we do not appoint such commissioners, it begs the question why have an Electoral Commission at all if it is simply going to do what the Government want? 

10.47 am 

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab):  I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton for helping the Committee by describing the interview process. 

Her Majesty’s Opposition are content with the motion. It would be surprising if we were not, given that the process started under the Labour Government. The political experience of the four nominees will be welcome in the Electoral Commission. I felt that it was not right to establish such a commission without people of political experience, and that will help with its governance. 

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10.48 am 

Mr Heath:  I join the shadow Deputy Leader of the House in expressing gratitude to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton and his colleagues on the sub-committee, who worked hard to ensure that the process was taken through properly and with a great deal of rigour. I am also grateful to the hon. Lady for her other remarks. 

The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex used the opportunity to raise issues that he will no doubt expand on in the context of the legislation that the House is currently considering. I am not sure how pertinent those issues were to the nominations that are before us, but I will content myself in saying that the Electoral Commission is an independent and rigorous body, which has shown its value. The House committed an error when it passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which has come to light in what has happened since. The debarring of those with direct political experience meant that some of the nuts and bolts experience was not available within the Electoral Commission. That would have been helpful in understanding how political parties function and it might even have helped the Electoral Commission to understand some of the abuses that can happen in political parties. It should be aware of those and try to prevent them. The 2009 Act has put that right by adding members who have gone through a process that is unimpeachable in its objectivity. Those names are before us, and I hope that the Committee will agree to them. 

Question put and agreed to.  

10.50 am 

Committee rose.