Electoral Commission

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mr Mike Weir 

Aldous, Peter (Waveney) (Con) 

Blunkett, Mr David (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab) 

Brake, Tom (Deputy Leader of the House of Commons)  

Bryant, Chris (Rhondda) (Lab) 

Crouch, Tracey (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con) 

Hands, Greg (Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household)  

Hendrick, Mark (Preston) (Lab/Co-op) 

Howell, John (Henley) (Con) 

Lavery, Ian (Wansbeck) (Lab) 

Lee, Dr Phillip (Bracknell) (Con) 

Metcalfe, Stephen (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con) 

Pearce, Teresa (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab) 

Pincher, Christopher (Tamworth) (Con) 

Shannon, Jim (Strangford) (DUP) 

Stringer, Graham (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab) 

Thornton, Mike (Eastleigh) (LD) 

Turner, Karl (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab) 

Weatherley, Mike (Hove) (Con) 

Georgina Holmes-Skelton, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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Second Delegated Legislation Committee 

Monday 14 July 2014  

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair] 

Electoral Commission 

4.30 pm 

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Tom Brake):  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 re-appoint as Electoral Commissioners— 

(1) Lord Horam with effect from 1 October 2014 for the period ending on 30 September 2018; and 

(2) David Howarth with effect from 1 October 2014 for the period ending on 30 September 2018. 

The motion proposes that a Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that Her Majesty will reappoint Lord Horam and David Howarth as nominated electoral commissioners with effect from 1 October 2014 for the period ending on 30 September 2018. 

Lord Horam has served as an electoral commissioner nominated by the leader of the Conservative party since 1 March 2012. His current term of appointment ends on 30 September this year. David Howarth was appointed as the electoral commissioner nominated by the leader of the Liberal Democrats on 1 October 2010, and his term of appointment also ends on 30 September this year. 

The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has produced a report—its third report of 2014—in relation to this motion. It may help if I set out the key points for the record. Electoral commissioners are appointed under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 as amended by the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009. Under the 2000 Act, the Speaker’s Committee has a responsibility to oversee the selection of candidates for appointment to the Electoral Commission. Commissioners are appointed for a fixed term, but the Committee may recommend their reappointment where that is appropriate. 

The Speaker’s Committee is not regulated by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, but it has chosen to follow OCPA-recommended best practice in its supervision of appointments. The OCPA code of practice for appointments to public bodies, which was published in April 2012, provides that no reappointment may be made without a satisfactory performance appraisal. 

The Committee’s third report confirms that evidence of Lord Horam’s and David Howarth’s performance was submitted to the Committee by Jenny Watson, the chair of the commission. Ms Watson reported that both commissioners had made a valuable contribution to the commission board. 

The Speaker’s Committee reported that, having considered Ms Watson’s submissions, it was content to recommend these two reappointments. Statute requires that once the Speaker’s Committee has reached a decision, the Speaker consult the leaders of political parties represented at Westminster on the proposed reappointments.

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The statutory consultation provides an opportunity for the party leaders to comment, but they are not required to do so. Five leaders responded on this occasion. All were content with Lord Horam and David Howarth being put forward for reappointment. Alex Salmond for the Scottish National party, the Prime Minister for the Conservatives, the Deputy Prime Minister for the Liberal Democrats and the Leader of the Opposition responded before the Committee agreed its report, and their responses were published by the Speaker’s Committee as an appendix to its report. Leanne Wood, for Plaid Cymru, responded too late to be included in the report, and her response has been published on the Committee’s website. 

If the reappointment is made, both Lord Horam and David Howarth will continue to serve on the Electoral Commission until the autumn of 2018. I am sure that their expertise will continue to be appreciated by the commission in a period that will include the Scottish referendum, the introduction of individual electoral registration and the 2015 general election. I hope that Lord Horam and David Howarth will have the support of this Committee and of the House. 

4.33 pm 

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab):  It is a great delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, and a slight surprise, as this area is not my shadow responsibility. I suppose I am shadowing my former self, in a rather curious backward part of my life here. I am in this Committee merely because the shadow Leader of the House and her deputy are both active on matters in Scotland, you will be delighted to hear. 

It is a delight to follow the Deputy Leader of the House. I note that the original motion was in the name of “Mr Lansley”, but now we have moved to “the Leader of the House”. I am not sure whether that means that already the reshuffle is in train or, for that matter, the Eurostar is and the Leader of the House is about to become the European Commissioner or is moving on to other pastures new. However, as the Deputy Leader of the House pointed out, we have, in effect, already signed up to all this, because the leaders of all the different political parties, both in and outside the House, have signified their assent. However, looking through the declarations of interest by all the different electoral commissioners, I note that Lord Horam, who is of course a former Conservative Member of Parliament— 

The Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household (Greg Hands):  He is also a former Labour Member of Parliament. 

Chris Bryant:  I have not finished yet. The deputy Chief Whip should learn that if he is going to become Chief Whip he will have to remain silent. 

Lord Horam is now a fellow commoner of St Catharine’s college, Cambridge, and David Howarth, the former Liberal MP, is a fellow of Clare college, Cambridge. I am not an expert on the geography of Cambridge but I think the colleges are about 300 yards apart. Is it not ironic that sometimes when we have a nomination procedure for putting people on committees such as the one we are discussing we end up with two people whose business lives are all of 300 yards apart, from all the people across the whole of the United Kingdom whom we could have chosen to sit on the Electoral Commission? Somehow or other the body does not feel as if it is fully

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representative of the whole of the UK. Here are two men of very similar backgrounds, albeit slightly different political views. Will the Minister comment on whether he thinks that in the future there will be any value in reconsidering the process of appointment or election of people to the Electoral Commission so that it can be more genuinely representative? 

The Deputy Leader of the House referred to the work ahead. Why does he think it right that those two people should be reappointed? Many of us in this House know the two gentlemen concerned, but does he believe it is right that people should be reappointed just twice, or three, four or five times, or ad infinitum? Why do we have the particular length of term that is served now, when we have moved to a fixed-term Parliament of five years? Why is the term specified—would it not be right to change the length of office that people serve? 

Has the Minister had an opportunity to look at the fees charged by the members of the Electoral Commission? Does he think it is right that on significant occasions members are charging for half a day simply to go to a dinner? That comes in at £181—that is not the cost of the dinner, but the cost of attending. Does he think that is an appropriate use of taxpayer funding? 

Despite those slight cavils we approve of the two gentlemen and will not oppose the motion. 

4.37 pm 

Tom Brake:  I am very pleased that although we do not have the shadow Leader of the House or the shadow Deputy Leader of the House here today, we have an experienced ex-Minister in the hon. Member for Rhondda, who is shadowing himself. He did so exceedingly well. He raised a number of points. Some were political points, to which I will not respond as they are clearly outside the remit of what we are discussing today. 

The hon. Gentleman’s main point seemed to be that there were too many electoral commissioners from Cambridge. I have not been able to check whether the other commissioners are also from Cambridge. Although I suspect that Lord Horam and David Howarth are not quite as close as he was indicating in political terms, I am sure he would agree that, for instance, Bridget

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Prentice is not particularly close in her political views to either of them and therefore the commissioners represent a good cross-section of the population and a variety of views on the sorts of matters that they have to look into. 

As for whether these two commissioners should be reappointed, in the report an explanation was given of the very effective work they have done. Jenny Watson wrote of Lord Horam that he was “an effective, assiduous commissioner” and that 

“the Board’s deliberations benefitted from his astute sense of public and political reaction.” 

She said that David Howarth was 

“a great asset to the Board” 

and was noted for his 

“experience in local and national politics and extensive knowledge of constitutional law and parliamentary process”. 

That underlines why they were reappointed and why it is appropriate that they were. 

The hon. Gentleman raised a solid point about the number of terms served. Clearly the expectation is that commissioners are appointed for one term of office but can be reappointed if they are effective in their positions, which clearly they have been. 

The hon. Gentleman’s final point was on fees. Setting aside for a moment his question about dinners, the level of fees is appropriate for the type of activity commissioners are undertaking. I am not entirely clear whether it is the case that they charge half a day’s fees for attending a dinner, but I suspect that they were required to go to wherever the dinner was located and, as one often does, transact business over dinner—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have done that when he was a Minister and still does now, on a regular basis. I therefore do not think it is unreasonable for there to be some charge associated with that. 

I hope that those points have responded to the points raised in the debate. I commend the motion to the Committee. 

Question put and agreed to.  

4.41 pm 

Committee rose.  

Prepared 15th July 2014