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("(3) An Electoral Commissioner shall cease to hold office on the occurrence of any of the following events--
(a) he consents to being nominated as a candidate at a relevant election (within the meaning of Part II) or to being included in a registered party's list of candidates at such an election;
(b) he takes up any office or employment in or with--
(i) a registered party or any accounting unit of such a party,
(ii) a recognised third party (within the meaning of Part VI), or
(iii) a permitted participant (within the meaning of Part VII);
(c) he is named as a donor in the register of donations reported under Chapter III or IV of Part IV or in any statement of donations included in a return delivered to the Commission under section 93 or 117;
(d) he becomes a member of a registered party.").

The noble Lord said: This is an important group of government amendments that relates to the role of the electoral commission and its ability to command public confidence in carrying out its many and varied functions, in particular its regulatory functions. In that respect, it must be scrupulously independent--as we have already discussed--both of the government of the day, of the political parties and of the political process.

Quite rightly, the Neill committee recognised that a number of consequences follow from that position. The first is that members of the commission should not be people who have previously been involved in any substantial way in party politics. The second consequence cited by the committee is that the UK electoral commission, unlike its American

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counterpart, should consist of independent persons and not of party representatives. We believe that that is important.

It is important that those restrictions on party political activity should be set out on the face of the Bill to avoid confusion. Government Amendments Nos. 9 to 13, 25, 26 and 52 accordingly provide that no one shall be appointed as an electoral commissioner, a deputy electoral commissioner or an assistant electoral commissioner if they have, in the past 10 years, either held a relevant elective office, been an officer of a political party or made a donation which is recordable under the provisions of Part IV of the Bill. Previous membership of a political party will not in itself be a bar on appointment, but if a successful candidate is a member of a political party, they will be required to resign their membership before the appointment is confirmed. The amendments further provide for the automatic termination of a commissioner's appointment if they subsequently become associated with a political party, either as a member, donor, candidate, office holder or simply as an employee. That follows on logically here.

Similar restrictions will apply to the members of staff of the electoral commission. Those are covered by Amendments Nos. 14 to 16. However, in their case, there will be no bar on membership of a political party. That said, as with civil servants and local government employees, the senior staff of the commission will be subject to non-statutory restrictions of the party political activities they may engage in.

I hope that, on reflection, the Official Opposition will support these government amendments. Perhaps I may say that these are changes to the Bill for which the Opposition Front Bench was pressing in another place. I know that the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, said in the debate on Second Reading that those were probing amendments. However, I did not believe him then and I would probably would not believe him if he were to repeat it today. As I said, that was the position taken by the Official Opposition in debates in another place.

It is worth recording that during discussions on Report on 13th March in another place, the honourable Member for Ribble Valley, Mr Nigel Evans, said:

    "The Neill report further recommended that the commission should include no party politicians. That is a sound recommendation ... there is nothing in the Bill to prevent past or present party politicians being members of the Electoral Commission, and we hope that the Government will reconsider its composition".--[Official Report, Commons, 13/3/00; col. 37.]

We did not need to reconsider its composition because we made it clear that we were happy with the Neill recommendations. However, there can be no clearer statement of the Official Opposition's view than that made by Mr Nigel Evans. It is a view shared by the Government and reflected in these amendments.

On Second Reading, my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton, and others, expressed doubts about the need for absolute independence on the part of the commission. She argued that commissioners must have a detailed understanding of the reality of running

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elections and political parties. However, I should like to remind the Committee that a large part of the commission's work will be regulating political parties' income and expenditure. We are not putting in place a system of self-regulation. We take the view that it would be a clear conflict of interest for individual commissioners with party affiliations to preside over such matters. After all, we do not fill the Gaming Board for Great Britain with representatives of the casino and bingo industries.

The Government accept that the commission cannot take decisions in a vacuum, sealed off from the real world of politics and elections. That would be foolish. I fully expect that, in undertaking many of its functions--for example, the review of electoral law--the commission will want to engage and consult in different ways with political parties at all levels. Having heard the evidence from the practitioners on the ground, the commissioners will then have the information they need in order to make an impartial and independent judgment on the issues at stake. By operating in this way, it is simply not the case that the commissioners need first-hand experience of running a political party or fighting elections.

I believe that I have set out the Government's position as clearly as possible and I commend the amendments to the Committee. I beg to move.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My noble friend knows that I still have considerable reservations about these amendments. However, before I address them, perhaps I may point out to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, that during the debate in Committee in the other place, the Minister did say that various efficiency gains would also be realised if the functions of the parliamentary and local government boundaries were merged in one body. Perhaps we should meet and have a conversation about that.

As regards the point we are presently discussing, I have great difficulty in believing that it is possible to form a commission of people with no basic experience of the job that they are meant to supervise or regulate. I do not accept that a regulatory body should be comprised of people who have never participated in the organisations that they are trying to regulate. Furthermore, I do not accept the argument that the commission should look to political parties for specific issues. How would they know how to define such specific issues? I believe that some kind of continuity of discussion needs to be established with political parties.

Indeed, although I take absolutely the points made by my noble friend as regards the Government's response to points that were made in another place, I find it a little strange that the Minister, in accepting many of those points, said on 14th February that,

    "There must be a willingness to have people with at least some awareness of the political process on such a commission".--[Official Report, Commons, 14/2/00; col. 642.]

He went on to argue the case by saying,

    "Striking a balance is important".--[Official Report, 14/2/00; col. 643.]

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I believe that that illustrates the issue here.

One or two strange statements have been made in the amendment. Even if one accepts it in principle, I think it goes a little too far. I am also a little confused because it states that a commissioner should not be a member of a political party, but then, in a later paragraph, it states that if one becomes a commissioner one would have to resign. I should have thought that if one cannot be a member in the first place--in particular if the rule states that one must have been out of politics for 10 years--then one could not resign. Perhaps that point could be clarified.

I do of course accept that people who are currently parliamentarians or major donors to political parties should not be appointed to the commission. However, to return to my earlier comments, I believe that there must be at least some level of expertise on the commission either by using co-optees or possibly by setting up a permanent advisory committee to which the commission could refer whenever it so needed. That may be the solution to the problem here.

In the debate on Second Reading I believe that Members from all sides of the House felt that these provisions were far too restrictive. Finally, in relation to a point that we shall reach later, I should like to refer to the Speaker's Committee. That committee has the Home Secretary, the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Minister for Local Government and the Regions. I accept that those people have been appointed to that committee because of the expertise they can offer to the subjects. I believe that exactly the same criteria should apply to the electoral commission.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I was trying to work my way through one particular aspect of this group of amendments before I had to ask my question. However, I shall probably ask it in any case because I am not entirely satisfied that I have understood all the amendments in this grouping.

The question of the membership is difficult. Certainly I am aware that my honourable friends in another place held firm views that membership should be kept as far away from politics as possible. Perhaps the motivation for that view--dare I whisper this to the Committee--was that they are rather suspicious of the present Prime Minister, who loads committees and commissions with his friends. Even if they are not members of his party, they are supporters of his party. I think that my honourable friends are probably right to be suspicious of how the Government behave as regards these issues.

The noble Baroness has made a good point about the need to find people to appoint to the commission who do know a little about the political process, even if they do not know much about the political parties. I have a suspicion that we shall see a long queue of academics forming to join this body. With the exception of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, who ruled himself out by becoming a member of a political party, many of us share the suspicion that such academics are at least political pundits who, if they are not members of a political party, then they are

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pretty keen supporters. That is especially the case if they are psephologists and saying something that we may not like to hear. We then assume that their psephology is tainted by their political colour.

Inevitably we shall be looking at people such as academics because I suspect that the people the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, mentions, such as accountants and businessmen, if they are interested in the way politics work, will be members of political parties and will therefore be disqualified. So the Government will have a difficult task finding commissioners who understand how the political system works but who are not in any way involved in the system from a party point of view.

Two amendments ago the Minister made much of professional expertise being represented on the electoral commission. Perhaps he can help us by indicating where he expects to find that professional expertise. It is not good enough to suggest accountants, businessmen and other similar people as potential members. As I say, if they are in the least interested in the political process, I suspect that they will already be members of political parties. It may be that they are not actual members and just make donations; if they do not donate more than £500 they may be all right. I suppose if they just buy raffle tickets from their next door neighbour, that will be all right. No matter how many raffle tickets they buy, they will still be on the right side of this particular provision and therefore could be electoral commissioners.

The Minister mentioned the Gaming Board, and while not all members of that board are drawn from the gambling industry, certainly some of them are. Another Bill wending its complicated way through your Lordships' Chamber--a Bill which makes this Bill look simplicity and openness itself--concerns the Financial Services Authority. That authority will include members drawn from the very bodies it will regulate. Indeed, the chairman or chief executive (I am not sure what his title is) was, until recently, the Deputy Chairman of the Bank of England. So precedent is not with the Minister, though I understand where he is coming from.

What I am puzzling over, and perhaps the Minister can help me, are the words, "member of staff". Are ordinary members of staff--not a chief executive, not somebody of great importance but, for example, the secretaries--to be barred from being members of political parties? It seemed to me that they were, and then I re-read Amendment No. 14, which says,

    "A person may not be appointed chief executive or other member of the staff of the Commission if he is a person who (by virtue of section 3(3A)(b) to (d)) may not be appointed as an Electoral Commissioner".

On examination I find that the Government have missed out the words,

    "is a member of a registered party".

So the chief executive could therefore be a member of a registered party. But I thought I heard the Minister say that he could not have been so for the past 10 years.

These provisions produce some confusion which I do not believe we will resolve this evening. We shall have to look at this provision when it appears in the

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Bill and then work our way through it. I can assure the Committee that the position gets worse when we come to some future government amendments which take up pages and pages and, quite frankly, deserve a Keeling schedule to help us wend our way through them.

I do not know whether the Minister can help with the difference between the chief executive and senior members of the commission staff and the most junior members. If in fact they are not allowed to be members of a political party, will that infringe their convention rights? I have no doubt that the Minister has said that the Bill does not breach the convention. Perhaps he should check whether saying that they cannot be members of a political party actually breaches the convention.

So there are a number of points the Minister may be able to help us with. If he cannot, then we shall have to make amendments on Report to what will be virtually a re-written Bill.

6 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth: I wish to add my support not only to my noble friend, Lord Mackay, but also to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. I have tremendous sympathy with her points.

I understand the motivation for the amendments, but the amendments in this group appear to be unduly restrictive--I have in mind Amendment No. 25 and the 10-year gap--particularly when one considers some of the practices elsewhere. After all, some people move straight from holding political office (membership of either House) to become judges, yet it is assumed that they are "scrupulously independent", to use the Minister's phrase, the moment that they make the transition. In the other place someone may move from being a practising politician to being Speaker, because his or her experience of the House is invaluable, and assumes immediately a role of independence. So I am not sure why there has to be a gap as long as the 10 years imposed by the amendment. It strikes me that any knowledge one had prior to that time would not be relevant in this context. There may be a case for a gap, but the amendments as they stand are unduly restrictive and there is a case for redrafting them.

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