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Lord Rennard: I hope the Minister will listen to the powerful and persuasive points made about the need for people to be involved in the commission who have day-to-day knowledge of how political parties work.
A couple of months ago we hit a slight problem when organising the London elections. Highly talented civil servants were, for the first time, thrust into the responsibility of organising an election campaign. From a position of understandable ignorance, given their normal jobs, of how an election should be organised, problems arose that otherwise might not have arisen.
The United States Federal Electoral Commission has six members, three of whom are nominated by the Republicans and three by the Democrats. As soon as they are nominated they cease to have any political role. But there is no suggestion in the United States that because they were previously active as Democrats or Republicans, that they are not able to do their job. Indeed, I feel that they are able to do their job more effectively because they understand the way in which the parties work.
So there is a case, to some extent, for suggesting that commissioners may be poachers turned gamekeepers in pursuing the parties and holding them more properly to account than perhaps the wider-ranging panel of judges, lawyers and academics, many of whom are just as partisan as those of us who are party activists. Perhaps the advisory committee may be a way forward of involving party practitioners and advising the commission. But a huge amount of work is involved and, for it to work effectively, the advisory committee would have to be an almost full-time standing committee. It would be far better to involve, in a minority, some active party practitioners in the work of the commission to make it successful.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I am sorry to rise again, but the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, reminded me of instances when even as active and participant politicians we have been able to be impartial and independent. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and I first met when we were in Moscow on behalf of the Foreign Office acting as independents giving our expertise to the people, to all parties who were taking part in an election. We did not wear our party hats to do that and we worked closely together. That is a good example--it happens frequently where new democracies arise--of how one can use one's expertise and yet be impartial.
Perhaps I can make two points I should have made earlier. My noble friend said that the suggestion of independent persons rather than party representatives being appointed was a suggestion in the Neill report. Those with political experience who are appointed are not necessarily party representatives. So there has been a misinterpretation of that phrase.
Finally--and I am sorry to ask this question because my noble friend may not have an immediate answer--what happens to a member of a trade union who, as such, pays his political levy in the main probably to the Labour Party? Will he also be excluded from being a commissioner?
I should like to give noble Lords one analogy. The Minister referred to the Gaming Board and made the point that it would be quite possible to have representatives of the casino industry on it. But he is quite right to say that they do not serve on it. There is no analogy as regards the Gaming Board, the casino industry and the body about which we are talking. Perhaps I may give one example of where ignorance is exceptionally difficult and damaging. I refer to the appointment of the Sheehy Committee by the previous government to look into the organisation of the police service. The then Home Secretary, Mr Clarke, decided that the only people who should be appointed to the committee were those who had had no involvement with the police service. The result was probably one of the most disastrous documents that has ever been produced. Colleagues of mine who were here at the time will remember the debate on Clause 1 of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, which followed directly from the report of the Sheehy Committee.
I urge the Government to consider this matter most carefully between now and the Report stage. I do not believe that involvement with a political party should serve as a disqualification. I very much hope that the Minister will at least be open-minded this evening.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I have enjoyed our short debate. Indeed, I found it most helpful and quite interesting. I fully understand some of the reservations that have been expressed from various corners of the Chamber, but we have made our position pretty clear on the matter. It was very much in response to a requirement for clarification made very volubly in another place. However, there is some merit in the argument that we should not end up with a politically neutered body--that is, one that is completely remote from the world of politics. That would be foolish and it is not our intention. As I said earlier, the commission will not be able to operate in a vacuum.
My noble friend Lady Gould referred to the comments of my right honourable friend in another place about the need to have people with some "awareness" on the commission. That must be right; they must have an awareness of politics. It would be foolish to think that commissioners could work without having that awareness. When I think of the sort of people we might want to see coming forward as commissioners, I am sure that such awareness will be there. For example, I served for a long time in local government; indeed, for over 20 years or more in different guises. During that time, I certainly came across plenty of chief executives. I believe that chief executives may well be that class of person from which we will draw expertise, to name but one. I did not meet
Frankly, if those chief executives had not had that awareness, they would not have remained in the job for very long. I am sure that that is absolutely true of the Civil Service and of people from the world of business. After all, this Chamber is full of former businessmen who bring their business experience--if you like, their political experience of their board--into this House and who function to the highest level in the world of politics--
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend. However, while I accept that people like chief executives, and so on, have political experience--even electoral experience--I must point out that they do not have political party experience. This Bill is concerned with regulating political parties. That is the real problem.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I entirely accept my noble friend's point. However, as my noble friend concedes, the commission will be concerned with regulation. That is where we need expertise. The possession of knowledge and awareness, or perhaps some such involvement at an earlier time in his life, will help whoever is selected to be on the commission to exercise those regulatory functions. That much is clear.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said that this was in a way a plea for an academics' field day. I do not accept that view. Of course, people in the world of academia may well prove to be very good commissioners, but I do not see why the commission should be loaded with academics. I do not accept that at all, although I am sure that many academics will have the sort of experience that we shall require.
One or two further specific points were made and perhaps I may clarify one issue that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, raised about restrictions on staff. I thought that I made it clear earlier, but I shall repeat the position so that it is clear. There will be no bar for members of the commission's staff continuing to be members of a political party. Having said that, civil servants, local government employees and the senior staff of the commission will be subject to non-statutory restrictions on the party political activities in which they may engage. I hope that I have clarified that point. My understanding is that staff at all levels within the organisation, including the chief executive, may be members of political parties. So they will not, if you like, have their human right to be a member of a political party infringed in any way, shape or form.
Perhaps I may pick up a similar point made by my noble friend Lady Gould about membership of political parties and being a commissioner. Amendment No. 25 provides that no one may be appointed if he is a member of a political party. That does not prevent someone who is a member of a party applying for a post. But if that person were selected, he
These amendments are important. They fulfil a commitment that we gave in another place. I am not closed in mind to some of the arguments that Members of the Committee have put forward. I was rather drawn towards the observation made by my noble friend Lady Gould about the possibility of there being a need for an advisory committee. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made a case for such a committee being established on a permanent basis because of the constant need to take advice from those involved in the political process. I shall be happy to give further consideration to those points before we reach the Report stage. If noble Lords who are interested in this aspect of the functioning of the commission and its relationship with the political parties wish to meet to discuss those points with me, I shall, as I said earlier, be in listening mode and have an open door in that respect. Having said that, I commend--
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