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The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has done us a great assistance in bringing this back to the House so that at least the Minister can examine this issue. What worries me more than the particular case that he refers to—12 months versus 36 months—is the division between new paragraph 11A and new paragraph 11B. I remind the House that, under new paragraph 11B, a number of less important posts can be subject to the discretion of the chief executive of the commission. Might the Minister, in responding to this brief debate, look again at where the dividing line between the paragraph 11A categories and the paragraph 11B categories comes? That is important, as perhaps it is in that area that we need to be more clear about what considerations will be taken into account, what can be left to the discretion of the chief executive and what needs to be on the face of the Bill and eventually in statute.

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Lord Henley: My Lords, my Amendment 25, which is grouped with Amendment 24, relates purely to the new paragraph 11B case, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. In Grand Committee, I asked the Minister to give some examples of when he thought the chief executive might wish to make use of the power in new paragraph 11B. I said that I had some ideas of my own but that I would be grateful for the Government to give their views as to when they thought it likely that the chief executive might exercise those powers.

We had no response from the Minister that I can find or that I can remember at the time. It might be that the examples are in the famous letter that my noble friend Lord Bates received last night, which I got only when I arrived here. That is my own fault for not arriving until 1 pm, but I have not been able to go through that letter in enough detail to see whether the Government can give such examples. I hope that the Minister, when he comes to respond, will deal with that question and give some examples of when the chief executive might make use of those powers to vary times under paragraph 11B, which I have suggested through our amendment should be deleted, although that is merely by way of probing.

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I thank noble Lords for these amendments. I believe that what I am about to say will cover the individual inquiries of each of the noble Lords. Amendment 23 would amend Clause 6, which sets out the number of electoral commissioners. Currently, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 provides that there should be,

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Clause 6 of the Bill seeks to increase the minimum number from five to nine, and the maximum from nine to 10.

It may be helpful if I explain the rationale behind the number of electoral commissioners in Clause 6. The increase in the minimum number of commissioners is intended to ensure that commissioners with political backgrounds—nominated commissioners—will always be in a minority on the commission as a whole. That is four out of nine. The increase in the maximum number to 10 is to ensure sufficient room to appoint a full complement of four nominated commissioners in the event of there being six electoral commissioners, as is currently the case.

This amendment seeks to alter Clause 6, to require that the commission have exactly nine commissioners at all times. I must resist the amendment as it is unnecessarily restrictive and could hamper our policy intent, which is to ensure, in line with the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, that there should be four commissioners with recent political experience drawn from across the political spectrum. Moreover, given that there are currently six electoral commissioners, this amendment would prevent the appointment of four commissioners with recent political experience.

If the current number of other electoral commissioners fell to five, enabling the appointment of four nominated commissioners, we feel that there would be an increased likelihood of these nominated commissioners achieving parity with others on the board. So, if, for example, the post of one of the other electoral commissioners became vacant, reducing the total number of electoral commissioners to eight, there would be the same number of nominated commissioners as other electoral commissioners.

We have always made it clear that we believe that it is important to seek to ensure that nominated commissioners are in a minority on the commission at all times. This is also in line with the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Our intention is that these nominated commissioners bring their political experience to bear in the commission’s work, and so help it to become a more effective and credible regulator. However, ensuring that they are always in a minority is intended to prevent any perception of politicisation of the commission.

Further, this amendment would remove any flexibility by always requiring the commission to have exactly nine commissioners. Potentially, it would take just the departure, for whatever reason, of one commissioner for the commission to fall short of the statutory requirement of nine commissioners. While we note that Schedule 1 to the PPER Act 2000 provides that the validity of any proceedings of the commission shall not be affected by any vacancy among members of the commission, we see no advantage in setting an inflexible number of nine commissioners. The Electoral Commission has also commented in its briefing note on the Bill that such an amendment is undesirable.

For the reasons I have given, we believe that a requirement for nine or 10 electoral commissioners achieves a reasonable balance, ensuring enough room to appoint the full complement of four nominated

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commissioners, who are within a minority, and allowing for the appointment of five or six other electoral commissioners. The noble Lord has already indicated that he is not going to press this amendment. However, I hope that I have given him the background that he seeks and that I have placed it on the record.

I turn now to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. This seeks to amend Clause 7, which sets out the political restrictions on electoral commissioners and staff. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 currently imposes a 10-year restriction on previous political activity for all Electoral Commission staff. Clause 7 of this Bill reduces the restriction period from 10 years to five years for the commission’s chief executive, and to 12 months for all other staff. The amendment would increase the 12-month restriction period on previous political activity for all of the commission, apart from the chief executive, to 36 months.

The noble Lord tabled an identical amendment in Grand Committee. I gathered from the informative debate that we had on the issue at the time—and perhaps my response was out of exhaustion more than any intent to be less than polite—that his concern is that a one-year minimum political restriction period is too short for any member of the staff at the commission, and so should be increased to three years.

I share the noble Lord’s concern to the extent that I acknowledge that there may be a small number of posts in the commission, other than the chief executive, that merit a requirement for a longer restriction from political activity than one year. However, I do not agree that we should impose a blanket minimum restriction period of three years on all staff. For the majority of commission posts, I firmly believe that a one-year restriction will be appropriate. It is important to note that the Electoral Commission, which has a better knowledge of what the duties of posts at the commission involve than anyone, shares this view. For posts deemed suitable by the chief executive, he will be able to designate them as being subject to a longer restriction period of up to five years, taking into account the seniority of the post, and—crucially—the likelihood of the person dealing with politically sensitive matters.

I note the noble Lord’s comments during Grand Committee that, although a person may not be in a politically sensitive role all the time—for example, staff at a more junior level—they could dip in and out of politically sensitive activities and so be in a position to gain access to sensitive information. Therefore, they may not be subject to a designation even if they merit it. In the light of that, he believes that a basic threshold of three years, instead of one year, for all staff is preferable to a longer restriction period for senior staff only.

While I appreciate the reasoning behind the noble Lord’s argument, I emphasise that the chief executive’s power to designate is not restricted to a particular level of posts. The chief executive will be best placed to determine whether a person’s access to sensitive material is such that the post should merit a longer restriction. Overall, the proposal to reduce the restriction on past political experience for commission staff has been welcomed during the passage of the Bill to date. This warm welcome is in recognition of the overly

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restrictive rules that apply at present, and the fact that the recommendations of the CSPL and others for equipping the commission better to understand the field it regulates resonate with many people.

In its briefing note ahead of today’s debate, the commission recognises that the formulation in the Bill is appropriate and workable. A blanket provision requiring a 36-month period is unduly inflexible and imposes an unnecessarily long restriction on the majority of staff of the commission. I hope that the noble Lord will now feel able not to move his amendment.

On Amendment 25, and recognising its purpose of teasing out the posts to which this might apply, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 currently imposes a 10-year restriction on previous political activity for all Electoral Commission staff. Clause 7 of this Bill reduces the restriction period from 10 to five years for the commission's chief executive, and to one year for all other staff.

Noble Lords will recall that government amendments in Grand Committee sought to provide the chief executive of the commission with the power to designate certain other commission posts as being subject to longer restricted periods of between two and five years. Before he decides to designate a post, the chief executive must reasonably believe that it is necessary to do so in order to maintain public confidence in the effectiveness of the commission in carrying out its functions. In addition, when determining the length of the proposed designation, the chief executive must take into account the seniority of the post and, crucially, the likelihood that the person holding the post will have to deal with politically sensitive matters. Once these decisions have been made, the chief executive would be required to consult the Speaker's Committee on the posts that he intends to designate and take heed of its views.

These government amendments were intended to address the concerns raised by the commission and my noble friend Lady Gould that the five-year restriction should be capable of being extended to other senior posts in the commission, or those dealing with politically sensitive responsibilities. They made the valid point that a one-size-fits-all policy might not be appropriate here.

Amendment 25 seeks to remove the chief executive's power to designate posts, and thereby prevent the chief executive of the commission from increasing the one-year restriction period on previous political activity for other commission posts. We are bound to resist this amendment, as it removes the flexibility for the chief executive of the commission to determine the appropriate restricted period for its staff within the parameters that the Bill sets. Having heard representations on the subject, we appreciate that there may be a small number of posts in the commission, other than the chief executive, which merit a requirement for a longer restriction on recent political activity than one year.

I emphasise that the underlying theme of the reduced political restrictions in Clause 7 is to enable the commission to recruit staff with relevant experience of the environment that they regulate. A power for the chief executive to designate posts is not intended to detract from this

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underlying theme. It is right that we strike an appropriate balance between ensuring that the commission is able to employ those who have the necessary skills to enable it to be more effective and creating any perception of politicising the commission.

For these reasons, a power for the chief executive to designate certain posts as subject to a longer restricted period is justified. The commission has emphasised that the power is important, and will enable its chief executive to designate longer restrictions from previous political activity to a handful of posts dealing directly with regulatory activities, policy or boundary decisions, which may include matters of significant sensitivity. The chief executive will also take into account the extent to which recent party-political activity may be perceived by others to compromise the impartiality of the post. Examples of posts that the commission has indicated that the chief executive may designate include, among others, the deputy chief executive, director of party and election finance, the director of electoral administration and boundaries, and the heads of the commission’s Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland offices.

Listing those posts does not detract from the chief executive’s responsibility to consider other posts where there is particular political sensitivity. The chief executive of the commission would designate these posts on the basis of deputising for the chief executive, or the political sensitivities of the posts. The chief executive of the commission will be best placed to decide which posts merit a longer restriction period, and what that period should be. That is why the Bill does not impose a blanket longer restriction on all senior posts. Some senior posts may merit a longer restriction period, while others will not. Likewise, some relatively junior posts may merit designation.

Having said that, we appreciate the valid concerns that the power should not provide the chief executive with an unfettered discretion to designate posts for a longer restriction period. It is for this reason that the power sets out specific tests that the chief executive must believe have been met, and factors which he must take into account before he designates a post; for example, the seniority of the post, and how likely it is that any holder of the post will be required to deal with politically sensitive matters.

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These criteria show that we are mindful that the chief executive should use this power responsibly. The power also includes a further check on the discretion provided here through the inclusion of a requirement for the chief executive to consult the Speaker's Committee on the posts that he intends to designate. A duty to consult will mean that any view put forward by the committee in relation to a proposed designation will have to be taken into account, and taken seriously, by the chief executive.

I reiterate that the commission does not envisage that this designation would apply to more than a handful of posts within the staff body, and in each case the commission would consider the merits of the case for designation. Additionally, the commission will publish information regarding the designation of

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posts on an annual basis. With the steps that we have taken to ensure that the power to designate is used appropriately, I hope that we have reassured the noble Lord and that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, in line with the intimation of my opening speech, I found the Minister’s explanation just as satisfactory when uttered in the Chamber as I had when it was on the written page. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 23 withdrawn.

Clause 7 : Political restrictions on Electoral Commissioners and staff

Amendments 24 and 25 not moved.

Amendment 26

Moved by Lord Tunnicliffe

26: After Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—

“Education about systems of government and EU institutions

In section 13 of the 2000 Act (education about electoral and democratic systems), paragraphs (b) and (c) of subsection (1) (Commission’s duty to promote public awareness of systems of government and EU institutions) are omitted.”

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I will speak also to government Amendment 123 and it will be useful for me to speak in anticipation of Amendment 27.

Section 13 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 sets out the Electoral Commission’s function to educate people about electoral and democratic systems, systems of local and national government, and institutions of the European Union. Government Amendment 26 would restrict the Electoral Commission's public awareness role by removing the commission's duty in relation to current systems of local and national government in the United Kingdom and the European Union. The commission's duty to educate people about current electoral systems in the United Kingdom under Section 13(1)(a) is not affected by the amendment.

The purpose of the amendment is to clarify that the commission's function under Section 13 is to promote public awareness of current or pending electoral systems in the United Kingdom and any matters which it considers are connected to these systems. I should emphasise that the wording of Section 13(1)(a)—

will still allow the commission to provide information about systems of local and national government and the European Union, but only in so far as it is needed in the context of the commission carrying out its function of educating people about current and pending electoral systems. So, for example, to help promote understanding about existing and pending electoral systems, the commission will be able to provide information about how Parliament, or the EU or local government, actually works.

In practice, the commission's function will be, as it is now, to provide information on the mechanics of the electoral process, including electoral registration

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procedures, how to vote and explaining any changes to the electoral system and connected matters. We believe that it is appropriate that the commission focus on this area of its expertise. The amendment is in response to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, in Grand Committee, which sought to restrict the commission's duty in Section 13 along these lines. At the time, we were concerned that the noble Lord’s amendment would prevent the commission commenting about systems of local and national government or the institutions of the European Union, which is important in the context of educating people about electoral systems. However, we are now satisfied that the scope of Section 13(1)(a) will enable the commission effectively to discharge its duty to educate about existing and pending electoral systems.

The commission has similarly confirmed that it is not concerned by the amendment. Government Amendment 123 makes the necessary consequential repeals to Section 13 by deleting references to systems of local and national government throughout the section. These amendments are in line with our acceptance of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recommendation that the commission should retain a statutory duty to educate people on the mechanics of the electoral process but should no longer have a wider statutory duty to encourage participation in the democratic process.

That is not to say that the wider democratic engagement is not important. It is vital to a healthy democratic system that people who are eligible to vote are encouraged to do so and participate. The Government are in the process of taking provisions through Parliament that will place local authorities under a duty to promote democracy. The duties to promote democracy are set out in Clauses 1 to 9 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill which has recently passed from this House to another place. These provisions are intended to work alongside the duty of local electoral officers to encourage participation which is set out in the Electoral Administration Act 2006. I hope that noble Lords will be assured that in limiting the commission’s powers to exclude a wider democratic engagement role, these important functions will be carried out by local authorities.

Amendment 27 seeks to require the Secretary of State to provide a written response to reports issued by the Electoral Commission under Section 6 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 within six months of publication. In Committee we agreed to consider an identical amendment tabled by the noble Lord. There was significant support for the amendment among the Committee Members and from the commission itself. We have given it careful consideration. I fully appreciate the concerns behind the amendment, which are that the Electoral Commission reports are important and should be given timely consideration. An early response ensures that the commission’s recommendations are appropriately addressed and taken account of. It is right and appropriate that the Government should aim to respond promptly to the commission’s report on issues under Section 6. There is no doubt the Electoral Commission has built up considerable expert knowledge in these areas. Therefore, I am willing to make a commitment that the Government

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will endeavour to respond to the Electoral Commission’s report issued under Section 6 within six months. Where we are not in a position to do so, we will provide the commission with reasons why that is the case within the six month timeframe.

I hope the noble Lord will be satisfied with such a commitment which, while having the same effect as his amendment seeks, is unlikely to have the potential adverse consequence that placing a requirement in statute might have. As the noble Lord pointed out during Grand Committee debates on the issue, there are other examples where the Government have made a commitment to respond to certain reports within a specific timescale, but without a statutory requirement to do so. For example, the Government seek to respond to Select Committee reports within two months of publication. This requirement is a convention and is not statutory. Our commitment would provide a clear expectation that the Government would respond to reports within six months, in effect achieving the noble Lord’s objective. The Electoral Commission has indicated in discussions with officials that its key interest is in ensuring a timely response to these reports and it is not especially wedded to doing so via a statutory commitment. On that basis I hope the noble Lord will agree not to press his amendment. I beg to move the government amendment.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, can the noble Lord confirm that Clause 6 of the existing Bill would prevent the recent fiasco of ballot papers in many constituencies being printed in such a way that the name of my party, the UK Independence Party, which comes at the end of the alphabet, was in some cases printed over the back of the front page of the ballot paper and in some cases was almost sealed down? Is that the sort of matter on which the Government would expect the Electoral Commission to report? If so, will it do so? I have tabled a specific amendment on this for the next stage of proceedings but it is a timely moment to ask that question.

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, it may be appropriate if I respond to the Minister’s speech in moving the amendment. I very much welcome Amendment 26 tabled by the Minister and to which I have added my name. The amendment has the support of the Electoral Commission. The amendment meets the points I raised in Committee. It helps contribute to what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, referred to in Committee as the clarity of purpose of the Electoral Commission. As it stands, the 2000 Act imposes a duty on the commission to promote awareness of systems of government and of the institutions of the EU. The amendment removes these duties, enabling the commission to focus on raising public awareness of electoral systems and, as the Minister stressed, matters connected.

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