[Relevant documents: Oral and Written evidence, taken by the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, on Electoral Administration, HC 640-i and 640-ii.]
This Estimate is to be considered in so far as it relates to the Electoral Commission (Resolution of 27 June).
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31st March 2007, for expenditure by The Electoral Commission—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £15,334,000, be authorised for use as set out in HC 1039,
(2) a further sum, not exceeding £15,777,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs as so set out, and
(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid. —[Mr. Watts.]
This is the first occasion on which the House has ever had a general debate on the work of the Electoral Commission. As the House will know, the commission is entirely independent of Government, so the opportunities for private Members to initiate debate about its work are limited. I am therefore particularly grateful to the Liaison Committee for agreeing to provide time for this debate. I know that the Electoral Commission prizes the fact that it is directly accountable to Parliament through the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, for which I answer in the House, and has very much welcomed this first general debate on its work.
The House will see from the Order Paper that the Constitutional Affairs Committee has drawn attention to the evidence it took on electoral administration, which is one of the many facets of the work of the Electoral Commission. I shall say more later in my speech about how the various strands of parliamentary scrutiny of the Electoral Commission fit together, but I would like to make it clear at this stage that it is not the intention that the debate be restricted solely to the commission’s work on electoral administration, important though that issue is.
The debate is particularly timely because, five years into the Electoral Commission’s life, it is a good time to take stock of its record and to consider where its priorities should lie for the future. The Committee on Standards in Public Life recently began hearing evidence in its inquiry focusing on the Electoral Commission’s mandate, governance and accountability. I know that a number of Members on both sides of the House have already given evidence to it. I know, too, that the electoral commissioners themselves are taking this opportunity to consider the future direction of the commission, and that is entirely right. This debate will provide an opportunity for a wider cross-section of the House to make known its views on the Electoral Commission, and I hope that both the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the commissioners will take the views expressed into account when reaching their conclusions.
I am having some difficulty understanding section 16 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which outlines the arrangements for the transfer of the functions of the parliamentary boundary commissions to the Electoral Commission. Could my hon. Friend explain why the Committee on Standards in Public Life has anything to do with delaying that actually happening?
The committee is not delaying that; the Government have given power to enable the transfer to take place, but the proposal to make the transfer has not yet occurred. I will refer to that point later in my speech.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life, to which my hon. Friend referred, played a decisive part in the establishment of the Electoral Commission. In November 1997, the Prime Minister extended that committee’s remit by adding to its existing terms of reference:
“To review issues in relation to the funding of political parties, and to make recommendations as to any changes in the present arrangements.”
In the committee’s fifth report, on the funding of political parties in the United Kingdom, published in October 1998, it recommended the creation of a
“totally independent and authoritative Election Commission with widespread executive and investigative powers”
to underpin its recommendations relating to party funding.
The committee also envisaged that its proposed commission would report on the conduct and administration of principal elections or referendums within six months of their taking place, advise the Government on the modernisation and revision of electoral law, be consulted by the Government ahead of changes relating to electoral law and administration, and act as the registrar of political parties.
Crucially, the committee envisaged that its proposed commission would be, and be seen to be, an independent and impartial body, the members of which would be chosen on a non-partisan basis and by means of a non-partisan procedure, while none the less being acceptable to the leaders of the main political parties. It also recommended that the commission’s budget should be set in such a way as to preserve its authority and independence.
The Government responded to the committee’s report in July 1999 and were altogether more ambitious about the role of the new commissions’ functions. They accepted the recommendation to establish an independent and authoritative Electoral Commission, but they went on to say:
“The Electoral Commission’s role will not be a purely enforcement one. It will have a wide-ranging remit to review electoral law and practice, much of which dates back to the last century. As well as being a force for the modernisation of electoral machinery, the commission will have an important role in promoting public awareness of the democratic process and encouraging greater participation in it. The establishment of the Electoral Commission also provides an opportunity to rationalise the number of disparate bodies responsible for different aspects of the electoral process and to bring overlapping functions together under the overall control of one organisation.”
However, the Neill committee also made it clear that the Electoral Commission’s core functions would be those recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It stated:
“The bedrock functions of the Electoral Commission as recommended by the Neill committee will be those relating to the new regulatory framework for the reporting of donations to political parties, the ban on foreign donations and the controls on campaign expenditure at parliamentary and other elections.”
The Government also saw the establishment of the Electoral Commission as an opportunity to re-examine the arrangements for the review of electoral boundaries. The committee has expressed doubts about the Electoral Commission assuming the responsibility of the parliamentary boundary commissions, but the Jenkins Commission on the voting system, whose report was published shortly after the committee report, had argued for greater co-ordination and for bringing that work under the Electoral Commission.
The Government therefore created in the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000—usually referred to as PPERA, but I prefer to call it the 2000 Act—the legislation that gave effect to the new arrangements for regulating the finance of political parties and a range of other matters: a statutory framework in which responsibility for both reviewing parliamentary constituency boundaries and local administrative and electoral boundaries could be transferred to the Electoral Commission. To date, only responsibility for local authority administrative boundaries has been transferred to the Electoral Commission.
I am great supporter of the Electoral Commission’s work—it has done a wonderful job—but does my hon. Friend agree that the boundary commissions are in a terrible mess. There are all sorts of boundaries commissions—local government, central Government and so on—and I cannot quite work out which one does what. Does he agree that the boundary commissions are already producing new boundaries for the next election that are not within the 70,000 electorate limit that has been recommended. Some are as high as 110,000, and some are as low as 30,000. Is it not about time that the boundary commissions’ work, which is failing, was transferred to a better and more competent body?
If the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice) should catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is possible that she might refer to this matter because she has laid down a timetable within which the work of the boundary commissions will not be transferred to the Electoral Commission, while leaving it open for it to be transferred at a later date. However, I would prefer to leave that to the Minister, who can speak with authority on it.
Part of the problem with the boundary commissions is that some of the seven criteria under which they operate are mutually contradictory, and we have had reference to one of them so far. Would anything in the rules of transfer allow the Electoral Commission to look at the criteria under which the boundary commissions undertake their work?
Recently, entirely of my own volition, I provided to the Electoral Commission details of sponsorship of a number of visits that I had made overseas, overwhelmingly in the course of my then duties as shadow Secretary of State for International Development. However, given that one already has a responsibility to declare such interests in the Register of Members’ Interests, is there not a danger of duplication—I put it no more strongly than that—if by virtue of the 2000 Act, one is also required to make a declaration to a body that could perfectly well apprise itself of that information from a publicly available source?
It is not often that an hon. Member can give total reassurance to a colleague, but I assure my hon. Friend that the current legislation has now amalgamated the requirement to make a declaration to the House authorities and to the Electoral Commission and I share his relief.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I must press on at this point.
I think that I have made the point that the 2000 Act substantially enlarged the original plan for an elections commission, which became the Electoral Commission and has been given very wide powers. The Government saw the functions of the new Electoral Commission
“as crucial to maintaining public confidence in our democratic institutions”.
It therefore shared the view of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the commission should be wholly independent of the Government and be seen to be scrupulously impartial in its dealings with political parties. It was therefore deliberately not constituted as a non-departmental public body, but was made directly accountable to Parliament. During the passage of the legislation through the House, the Government introduced stringent restrictions on the extent to which commissioners could be involved in active politics.
The arrangements for setting the Electoral Commission’s budget were designed to reinforce that independent status. That responsibility was given to a statutory committee—the Speaker’s Committee—of nine Members of Parliament, including Mr. Speaker and of which I am a member. The Committee is deliberately constituted so that no party has a majority of the membership.
I understand that in the evidence given to the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, the budget was then about £26 million a year, which represented about three times the figure that a broad range of similar activities had cost when they were subsumed within the Home Office. I support the work of the Electoral Commission and am very impressed by its chairman, but is the hon. Gentleman convinced that the extra two thirds, whatever that may be—£16 or £17 million—represents good value for money for the extra responsibilities that the Electoral Commission has within its brief?
I will be dealing with exactly that point in a few moments if the hon. Gentleman will contain himself. May I just deal with the matter of the Speaker’s Committee?
As there has been some discussion in evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life about an alleged lack of transparency in the operations of the Speaker’s Committee, I should perhaps note in passing that it was a deliberate decision of the House, welcomed by all the principal parties, that Mr. Speaker should chair the Committee that bears his name. In 2000, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill as originally envisaged, provided for Mr. Speaker merely to appoint members to the Committee. Mr. Speaker’s predecessor agreed with the Government that she would become an ex-officio Chairman of the Speaker’s Committee, and that decision was welcomed by all the principal parties. The view has been taken that it would be inappropriate for a Committee of which the Speaker is an active participant to meet in public. That is the basis on which the Committee currently operates. There is obviously a trade-off to be made between the degree of transparency and Mr. Speaker taking an active part in the Committee’s work. For my part, I have no doubt that the benefit of the authority of his involvement far outweighs the effects of the inevitable but limited reduction in transparency.
The Speaker’s Committee also approves the Commission’s five-year corporate plan. The Government intended the functions of the Speaker’s Committee to mirror as closely as possible those of the Public Accounts Commission in relation to the National Audit Office. They nonetheless had anxieties about how those arrangements would work in practice and included safeguards in the legislation designed to prevent what they described as runaway expenditure. The Speaker’s Committee is therefore required to consult the Treasury on both the estimate and corporate plan and to have regard to any advice that the Treasury may give. It must also have regard to the most recent annual value for money report on the Electoral Commission produced by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Both the Treasury input and the NAO reports are very much more than a tick-the-box exercise. The NAO typically reports each year on a specific policy that accounts for a significant amount of the Electoral Commission’s expenditure, such as its public awareness strategy, on which the NAO has reported to us twice. In many cases, the NAO’s choice of subject reflects the concerns that the Speaker’s Committee has expressed, so there is a welcome synergy between us. It is also a very transparent input; the Speaker’s Committee publishes these reports for all to see.
The Speaker’s Committee has a significant part in promoting understanding between the Electoral Commission and the House. However, it is not the only body with a role in this place. I welcome the fact that various departmental Committees have examined the commission’s policy stances on a number of important issues. While it is the duty of the Speaker’s Committee to be mindful, on behalf of the House, of what we call the three Es—economy, efficiency and effectiveness—it is open to others to hold the commission to account in the context of its wider interests for its policy stances. The two strands of parliamentary strategy are complementary, not competitive.
Taken overall, I would submit that there are few tranches of public expenditure of a similar size for which Government are responsible that are subject to the same level of sustained and systematic parliamentary scrutiny as is the Electoral Commission.
About five years on after the creation of the Electoral Commission, where do we stand? The commission started out with an agenda that its chairman described to the Speaker’s Committee in November 2001 as “very ambitious” in relation to its newness and the existing resource level. The commission has grown. Its net resource requirement for 2006-07 is £26.18 million, and it now has an average full-time equivalent staff of 150, compared with 25 in March 2001.
The commission has thoroughly documented its work in the successive annual reports that it has presented to Parliament. I will comment later on some aspect of its record.
Over the past five years, the political outlook has changed considerably. The conclusions of the Jenkins Commission, which clearly had a marked effect on the Government’s thinking about the role of the commission, have not been implemented. The electoral modernisation has thrown up real doubts about the wider impact of some of the changes that have been made, such as easier access to postal votes. More recently, the controversy over loans to political parties has raised doubts among the general public over the effectiveness of the controls enacted in the year 2000, and further dented public confidence in politicians and political parties. At the same time the level of voter engagement remains historically low.
Not surprisingly, this change in political outlook has impacted on the Electoral Commission and raised questions as to whether the original 1991 blueprint still meets the current requirements. Thus some have expressed the view that the commission’s remit is too broad and that it would be a more effective body if its remit were concentrated on its core regulatory functions. Others have accused it of lacking political awareness, suggesting that it would be more effective if some, at least, of the commissioners had experience of active politics.
The commission has had its disagreements with Government on a number of issues—notably on the extent of the piloting of postal voting in the European elections and the acceptability of all-postal voting at elections, and the need for improved safeguards for our current system of postal voting on demand. There is particularly the debate about individual electoral registration.
In that context, it is worth recalling the key principles on which Henry Samuel Chapman built the first secret ballot law 150 years ago—the rock on which our current system ultimately rests and which
“by combining secrecy with limited vote-tracing both protected the elector and detected fraud when election results were in dispute.”
People tend to remember the secret ballot and tend not to know about limited vote tracing, both of which are very important.
That an independent body has a difference of view with the Government over a policy issue is not inherently a problem, but each of these is a sensitive political issue, and there is a risk in these circumstances that such disagreement may lead to a loss of confidence in the political process at a time when there is general concern about overall levels of political engagement. Some, such as the Government in their evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, have therefore raised the issue whether the commission’s policy development role continues to be appropriate.
There have been two general elections—in 2001 and 2005—since the Electoral Commission was established, but the most recent general election was the first in respect of which the relevant provisions of the 2000 legislation, including the provisions relating to notional expenditure, applied fully. For all these reasons, and others besides, it seems right that the opportunity is now taken on a number of fronts to take stock of the arrangements put in place in 2000, and to consider how best to move forward. One contribution to this process is, of course, this debate. I welcome the many Members who wish to participate. If the debate did not start at 7 o’clock as we originally intended, I do not think that it is for me to apologise. I am grateful for the attendance. The debate is an important part to the process of discussion.
There are three other strands that I should mention. The first is the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s inquiry, which is currently in hand, focusing on the core issues of the mandate, governance and accountability of the Electoral Commission. In practical terms, this means examining the current responsibilities and the balance between the commission’s executive and advisory functions. The inquiry is expected to be completed by the end of the year. I have been pleased to give evidence to it on behalf of the Speaker’s Committee. I will do so again, and I look forward to seeing the Committee’s conclusions.
The Speaker’s Committee has taken steps to satisfy itself that its conclusions that the estimates and corporate plans that it lays before the House are, in the words of the 2000 Act, consistent with the
“economical, efficient and effective discharge by the Commission of its functions”.
Those are the three Es that I mentioned earlier. The Committee was itself planning a general inquiry that would have encompassed issues relating to the commission’s governance and accountability, but deferred these elements when it learned of the proposed inquiry by the CSPL. Instead, the Speaker’s Committee asked the Scrutiny Unit—that is the scrutiny unit at the House—to carry out a detailed study of the commission’s business and financial planning processes, how it assesses the effectiveness of policy outcomes and how the statutory roles of the Treasury and the National Audit Office contribute to the discharge of the Committee’s duty.
The Speaker’s Committee entrusted this review to the scrutiny unit, which has the necessary specialist expertise to conduct precisely this sort of review. I understand that this is the first exercise of this type that the unit has undertaken. The Committee was pleased with the thorough job done by the unit, and the positive response of the Electoral Commission to the recommendations addressed to it. The Speaker’s Committee is still considering the detailed recommendations that the unit addressed to it, designed to improve the effectiveness of its scrutiny. Already, however, it has set up a sub-committee, which I chair, and the Minister for Local Government is good enough to participate in our discussions. This is to give consideration to the recommendations, and I expect to be putting forward recommendations as to their implementation before the full Committee before the summer recess.
Finally, there is Sir Hayden Phillips’ review of the funding of political parties. It is also relevant to the work of the Electoral Commission. Given the extension of the terms of reference in 1997 to the Electoral Commission, specifically to cover party funding issues, it is perhaps surprising that a separate review was felt necessary as a result of the controversy over loans to political parties.
I propose briefly to analyse three specific aspects of the work of Electoral Commission, including its record in each and some of the concerns that have been expressed. They are: first, governance and accountability; second, regulatory functions; thirdly, advisory functions.
In broad terms, the accountability arrangements to the House appear to have worked satisfactorily. As I have already said, the arrangements for regulating its finances have operated effectively, and the run-away expenditure feared by the Government has not materialised. All the existing commissioners whose original periods of office have expired have been reappointed; none of the reappointments has proved controversial in the House. The commission has been to keen to participate in Select Committee inquiries, and this has provided an opportunity for its policy stances to be examined critically.
Less satisfactory, perhaps, have been the arrangements for the political parties to make an input to the commission. While the political parties panel, constituted under section 4 of the 2000 Act, has provided a mechanism for party inputs at an official level, the parties and the commission appear not to have developed a similar mechanism at a political level. Given that commissioners are by definition people with no political experience insofar as that relates to donations, political employment or standing for election for at least 10 years before their appointment, this has been seen as a weakness, in that the commission has had little exposure to front-line political reality. This, some would argue, has been reflected in the overall way in which it has interpreted its role, and on occasion in the nature of the proposals that it has made.
In relation to its regulatory functions, the commission has continued to register new political parties. The number on the register has more than tripled since 2001 to 394. The commission has also received and published details of more than 13,000 donations to political parties totalling more than £180 million, and some £86 million of campaign expenditure at six elections and one referendum, since 2001, while investigating where there is doubt about whether the existing rules have been followed.
A welcome change, for which provision will be made in the Electoral Administration Bill, will be the one-stop-shop for Members, whereby the information needed by the Commission for its register of recordable donations may be drawn from information given to the Register of Members’ Interests. However, as the recent controversy over loans to political parties has shown, there is evidence that public confidence in some parts of the political arrangements is fragile at best.
It is right to record that the Electoral Commission has successfully completed the 126 reviews of local authority electoral boundaries in England that it inherited from the Local Government Commission for England and has implemented all the consequent changes in good time for the next election in the reviewed area. It successfully conducted the regional government referendum in the north-east of England in November 2004.
On the local government boundary issue and the transfer of functions to the Electoral Commission, is it the view of the Speaker’s Committee that that job has been well done? If it is, has the committee taken the view that therefore it would be logical—this point was made earlier by one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues—for the commission to be given as soon as practicable the responsibility for all other boundaries, because the precedent is a good one?
My best answer to that is that the Speaker’s Committee takes the view that the Electoral Commission has fulfilled its role satisfactorily—even very satisfactorily—but that it does not follow logically that the work of the boundary commission should be referred to it. I hope and trust that the Minister will refer to that matter later.
As I understand it, my hon. Friend is saying that the commission’s job with regard to local authority boundaries has been very satisfactorily dealt with—as my hon. Friend, if I may call him that, the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) pointed out. Why is my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) not as bullish about parliamentary boundaries? Is it because he has not got the remit to speak, or is it that he feels certain reservations that he does not feel able to share with the House?
It is for the Government, and not the Speaker’s Committee, to take the initiative on this issue, so my diffidence is entirely justified.
The Electoral Commission has built up a role in providing authoritative advice and guidance to those involved in running our elections—the electoral registration officers and returning officers. It has to be borne in mind that it is the officers, not the commission, who have the direct responsibility. However, we should consider some of the figures being put forward for the number of errors on the electoral roll—both people who are not on it who should be and people who are on it who should not be. Dr. Pinto Duschinsky, in evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, recently suggested that there might be up to 7 million errors—a projection of an estimated under-registration of 3.5 million. That figure is disputed by the Electoral Commission. There clearly remains substantial scope for improvement on that score.
The commission has also worked hard to promote public awareness of, and participation in, the democratic process. However, it is certainly open to colleagues to comment if they feel that the Electoral Commission need give that area less emphasis in future. That is a matter for colleagues to advise on.
The Electoral Commission has come a long way in the past five years. It has established itself as a serious and respected player on the electoral scene—from a standing start. It has not been helped in that process by some of the rough edges on the legislative framework—at least some of which arose from the rushed enactment of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Electoral Administration Bill addresses some of those matters, but there remain a number of other issues, such as the qualification for office, which may also be relevant.
The considerable achievements are a tribute to the hard work and dedication of the Electoral Commission; the chairman, Sam Younger, and his fellow commissioners; Peter Wardle and his predecessor as chief executive; and all the staff. I visited the Electoral Commission recently to reopen their refurbished offices and I was greatly impressed first by the youth of the staff and then, in discussion with them, by their commitment and enthusiasm. They are a good team. I also pay a personal tribute to Dr. Christopher Ward, the Clerk of the Speaker’s Committee, who has been enormously helpful to the Committee.
I know from the Speaker’s Committee’s own examination of the commission that the commissioners accept the need to consider at this juncture whether their priorities are clear enough and, in particular, whether they have achieved the right balance between their different functions. As the commission recognises, a key issue that it currently faces is the extent to which the balance between its different roles—between its regulatory and advisory functions—may need to change in the light of the developments since it was first established in 2000. As I said at the start of the debate, tonight is a first. It gives the House an opportunity to reflect not only on the considerable achievements of the Electoral Commission to date, but on how we would like to see it move forward in the light of the challenges that we face in the electoral field and elsewhere. I look forward to hearing colleagues’ views. I apologise for taking so long, but there are certain matters that it is important to put on the record.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should say that the division of time between the two debates has not worked out quite as it normally does. A lot of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. In order to get as many people in as possible, it would be most helpful if hon. Members could curtail their remarks if they can.
I, too, welcome the debate. I share the view of the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) that it is important. However, as he pointed out, it is the first time since the Electoral Commission was formed that such a debate has been held. In many ways, the arrangements that the Electoral Commission has with the House—in terms of how it reports to the House, how it is scrutinised and how it performs its function—have played the role of an inspired invention. I am talking about resolving through the legislation the difficulty of how such a commission would work—deeply involved as it was going to be in matters that could be politically controversial, even though it clearly should not be politically biased in its own right. How that situation was resolved in the legislation, and the function of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission in that respect, constituted that inspired invention.
However, in reality, as the hon. Gentleman said, the Electoral Commission is the equivalent of a medium-sized non-departmental public body. It has a staff of 150 and a budget of £26 million. Normally, as far as the Government are concerned, the structure for such bodies—particularly, say, next steps agencies—will be a parent Department, a framework agreement and a series of relationships with that Department in order to specify how the accountability is to be undertaken. No such framework exists for the Electoral Commission. There are a number of other unique elements of that relationship with the House that do not in any way parallel the relationship of any other body of similar size.
In practice, the Speaker’s Committee has performed something of a scrutiny role towards the work of the Electoral Commission through its meetings. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, those are not held in public. He gives understandable reasons for that, but it does have something of a result. The Speaker’s Committee accidentally, rather than deliberately, scrutinises what the Electoral Commission is doing. We have an indirect form of running accountability to the House, through the short time allotted to questions to the Chairman of the Speaker’s Committee each month.
I ask myself whether the commission might be more formally scrutinised through the medium of a Select Committee, as a departmentally attached agency might be. I can suggest a candidate for that role: the Constitutional Affairs Committee, of which I am a member. In any event, the Chair of that Committee, or a Committee designated by the legislation, sits on the Speaker’s Committee by statutory authority. It might be possible for the Speaker’s Committee to change its function. It could take upon itself a scrutinising role through the appointment of senior Back Benchers to form a scrutiny committee. Perhaps a good alternative would be for that Select Committee function to be more formalised in connection with the way in which the Electoral Commission works.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned what I think is a very restrictive definition in the legislation of who may be appointed as an electoral commissioner, or even an assistant electoral commissioner. It is enshrined in the legislation that if a person is to be appointed to such a post, they cannot have been a member of a political party or held any form of office in one, and cannot have been employed by a political party or, indeed, have been a named donor to one. It is understandable that a number of those restrictions may be imposed, but it is perhaps less known that also set out in the legislation are similar if slightly less onerous restrictions on all members of staff of the commission. Therefore, almost the entire commission will never have had any dealings with political parties, certainly not for a very long time.
As the duties and responsibilities of the Electoral Commission lie at the heart of the functioning of the democratic system of government in the UK, and political parties are an integral part of that, the involvement in the political process of the electoral commissioners and the staff of the Electoral Commission is a pertinent question to consider. As I have said, those who put themselves forward as candidates for the post of electoral commissioner are outside the political process, and it might be necessary to readdress the legislation, but the question that arises is whether there should be additional commissioners appointed through the medium of political parties, or whether the nomination of commissioners in its own right should be addressed. After all, political even-handedness is not the same as political celibacy. It would be beneficial to the functioning of the Electoral Commission if the position on the political involvement of both commissioners and staff were reviewed.
As the hon. Member for Gosport also mentioned, the Electoral Commission has devoted a considerable proportion of its resource not just to regulating elections but to the promotion of electoral awareness and to providing information on the practice of elections and referendums. Within the terms of that remit, it has promoted electoral awareness well, but it must be said that the limitations have meant that only one area has been addressed—voter disengagement, and the issue of not knowing what to do about voting in an era of what one might say are atomised families who might previously have gone to the polls together.
The results of the commission’s audit of political engagement show, however, that other factors are at work. In particular, there is a distaste for voting among those in their 40s, not just among the newly enfranchised. The question whether such distaste results from the inability of parties to engage voters or from a more problematic anti-politics societal norm is a difficult one to answer, but either way it presents the Electoral Commission with a difficult task if it is to promote voting on a wider basis than simply providing information about how to do it. In essence, the challenge is one of promoting the norms and necessities of democracy and politics themselves, which might be considered outside the commission’s remit.
In considering what the commission does to advance awareness of the electoral process, it is tempting, therefore, to argue for a bifurcation of that promoting role. There certainly is a need for information and reminding, and for research into the process of voting—certainly about whether the present geographically based system of casting votes is seen to be appropriate to new generations of voters, and whether changes in its structure can overcome other issues such as the security and integrity of the vote.
However, the process of argument about the role that politics plays in democracy in the UK and why the political process, including elections, is important might be a remit too far for the commission, and the development of political democracy foundations similar to those established in Germany, such as the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, which represent the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats respectively, might be a better course of action to address the issue. That would entail, of course, the development and resolution of the argument about state funding for political parties, since the establishment of such foundations could not be seriously contemplated within the present structure of voluntary funding of political parties.
That brings me to the role of the commission in policing the regulation of political parties and the control of campaign finance. Other Members have mentioned that the Electoral Commission has in general been relatively effective—within, frankly, a flawed regulatory brief—at implementing and policing the recording and controlling role. The commission has been less effective in the regulation of donations to political parties, partly because of its own issues about asking questions about donations that might be considered at the margins of its remit, and partly because of the limitations of that remit itself.
The question that might be asked of the Electoral Commission is this: what exactly does it regulate? Its name suggests that it regulates elections, but its practice suggests that it regulates the conduct and practice of elections and the functioning of political parties where they relate to elections. As elections are an important but by no means the sole activity of political parties, that entails the close regulation of some party activity relating to the democratic process, but no regulation of other matters, even where those matters are closely connected. For example, the registration of parties in order to nominate candidates is regulated, but the process of nominating candidates for elections is not. The activity of such candidates once nominated may be regulated, provided that it is within the period of an election, but the activity and funding methods of adopted candidates outside an electoral period is not regulated.
In reality, political parties do not make such distinctions, and in any event they do not operate financially and in soliciting and managing donations in identical ways. Therefore, it may be said that the first problem arises from an implied assumption in the legislation that UK political parties are in essence machines for electing people to posts—essentially the American party model—and the second problem arises from an apparent assumption by the Electoral Commission that, provided certain reporting rules and accounting conventions were laid down, it would be possible to gain a coherent picture of parties’ funding and hence donations.
The Conservatives and the Labour party do not work, and never have worked, in identical ways. The ways in which the parties fund themselves differ fundamentally. The Conservative party was formed in Parliament and gained supporters’ associations that raised money for the party, while the Labour party was formed outside Parliament and operated as both a federation and a centralised party, combining funds in the middle in order to get into Parliament.
The regulation of donations by the commission therefore often fails to record accurately the real income of parties and does not pick up innovations such as the recent funding of local parties outside the campaign period to promote nominated candidates with the use of money that might otherwise be declared as central donations. Proper regulation under those circumstances would probably entail an extension of the assumption of regulation of political parties generally, and might therefore also entail a required operating standard for political parties themselves. That might call into question the reasonable right of political parties to organise themselves in the way that they feel is best appropriate to their political and geographical circumstances. Regulation that covered the whole range of party financial activity, locally and nationally, regardless of the method of organisation, might be more appropriate, and certainly a more transparent and understandable way for the Electoral Commission to discharge its regulatory function effectively in future.
Does my hon. Friend accept that some of us face particular difficulties inasmuch as, as Labour/Co-operative MPs, we represent two parties? The two parties could operate differently, and therefore any regulation must carefully take account of diversity, because I would hate to have to choose which party I wanted to follow.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about how we regulate for diversity. I was emphasising the fact that, because of that issue, the commission has, not through any lack of resolve or resourcefulness on its part, but perhaps because of the way in which the legislation and its remit are cast, struggled to regulate campaign and party expenditure. It has regulated well expenditure that clearly occurs within campaigns, but that is and always has been an artificial construct.
One could argue that campaigns in marginal seats start on the day that the original result is declared and the seat is then appraised as being, or becoming, a marginal. Efforts to regulate the campaign better by defining more accurately what the campaign period is will probably be doomed to failure. Indeed, as hon. Members will be aware, that is precisely the difficulty that arose during consideration of how we might legislate for that in the Electoral Administration Bill. Again, the question arises of proper regulation implying oversight over the whole activity of party politics—the entire expenditure of parties both locally and nationally.
My plea to the House in respect of the future conduct of the Electoral Commission is that the commission works well where its remit is clearly defined and where that remit can be undertaken transparently and expertly; it works less well where the remit itself remains unclear, or the arrangements under which the commission can work within that remit are incomplete. Perhaps, as the hon. Member for Gosport hinted, it is time to review and make sure that the remit within which the Electoral Commission works in its regulatory, its advisory and its promotional functions is more clearly defined. In that way, we might ensure that on the sticky issue of how parties are regulated and funded, among other matters, the procedure is clear, and the role that the commission plays in it is therefore also clear.
In today’s estimates debate, it is appropriate to consider whether the Electoral Commission is giving the taxpayer value for money. I believe that it could improve the service it provides and reduce its costs if it took certain steps, which I shall outline.
The commission employs about 150 people. I acknowledge the tribute that my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) paid to their enthusiasm and youth—I was glad to hear that—and to the excellent role played by the chairman. The commission costs the taxpayer approximately £26 million—a figure that could be cut by up to a half immediately if the commission accepted the suggestion inherent in the remarks made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), that all the activity to encourage participation is well beyond the role that the Electoral Commission can realistically be expected to perform. The fact is that, as I am well aware following my recent involvement in the by-election in Bromley and Chislehurst, participation in general elections and in local elections is affected by very different matters from putting an advert on the side of a London bus telling people to go and vote and giving them more information. The issue is far wider and bigger than that, and, to be frank, the Electoral Commission is wasting its time getting involved. The activity was imposed on the commission by the Government—it was not in its original remit—and I think that the commission should get well clear. Quite apart from anything else, that sort of marketing activity requires different skills from the regulatory role that is the commission’s core business.
The commission should concentrate on its core business. As we know, it has taken a conscientious and straightforward approach in advocating individual registration and personal identifiers. The fact is, however, that the Government have in large measure refused to implement those measures through the Electoral Administration Bill. At that point, the commission should have had the robustness to say openly that the Government, to their credit, set it up precisely to take such delicate issues out of party politics but then, when the commission made sensible proposals, the Government voted them down, and that is to fly in the face of the logic of setting up the commission in the first place. The Government have adopted a nonsensical position and the Electoral Commission should have been more robust in making that plain. I realise that there are difficulties in the way of the commission making those points in public with force. None the less, it should have tried, especially in view of the information dug up by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) about the advice given on the Government’s consultation document by various Labour consultees that are in favour of individual registration and personal identifiers. That was brought out dramatically in our last debate on the Electoral Administration Bill, and I am pleased because it shows that there is support, not merely from the official Opposition, the Liberal Democrats and the minor parties, but from the Labour party for that sort of sensible improvement. As we have always said, Britain and Zimbabwe are the only countries that do not have individual registration, and it is ridiculous that it should be so.
Several hon. Members have spoken about the Speaker’s Committee and accountability and their points were well made. With due respect to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport, who has done a conscientious and comprehensive job, as has the Speaker’s Committee, whose independence and neutrality we accept absolutely, the fact is that the Speaker’s Office and the Speaker himself have many, many other responsibilities. The amount of time that the Speaker and the Speaker’s Committee can devote to these issues is limited. I do not know how many times the Committee has met to consider the matter of the Electoral Commission, but I suspect that the number of such occasions is quite small in any one year. That suggests that, as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test said and my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) has said on more than one occasion, we need to examine the arrangements for accountability to this House. Various suggestions have been made—some rather complicated—but the matter should be grasped as soon as possible. The present arrangements are not entirely satisfactory, even though the Speaker’s Committee is very conscientious.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) pointed out, with great force, in his intervention, the whole business of whether the Electoral Commission should take over the work of the boundary commissions is a total mess. It is profoundly unsatisfactory and there seems to be no clear decisiveness about what will happen.
Is my hon. Friend aware that 351 seats in this House cover approximately 61,000 electors, despite the fact that this House has instructed the boundary commission to make each parliamentary seat cover 70,000 electors? Does he agree that the present boundary commission arrangements are not only not working, but they are going against what Parliament has recommended; and that if the boundary commission’s responsibilities are not to be transferred to the Electoral Commission, something else should be done so that we get parliamentary seats of the size that this House has recommended—something that has been prevented by the present arrangements?
My view is that votes should have equal weight, wherever they are in the country. That is the principle that I would like to see adopted by the boundary commissions. At present, we have four boundary commissions and votes in different parts of the country carry different weights, and that is unacceptable. I would like the Electoral Commission to take that on board and I would like the Government, whatever their views on the matter, to listen to the views of the Electoral Commission. I do not take a strong view either way on whether the Electoral Commission itself should take over the work of the boundary commission, which would be quite a big bundle of work, or whether the boundary commission should remain in some form but supervised by the Electoral Commission. Whatever happens, given that the present round of boundary arrangements is being completed, the Government have plenty of time to consider the matter fundamentally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes says, this is very important, so let us have clear decisions from the Government.
As we know, the Electoral Commission is responsible for overseeing several aspects of electoral law, such as the registration of political parties, the monitoring of significant donations and the regulation of party spending on electoral campaigns. A further responsibility is promoting public awareness of, and involvement in, the democratic system. I understand that that responsibility commands 50 per cent. of the commission’s budget, and I will refer to that aspect of its role first.
Over the past nine months or so, we have been discussing and debating low turnout in elections and the associated problems of falling electoral registration. In the Second Reading debate on the Electoral Administration Bill last October, hon. Members acknowledged that there was a crisis in registration. The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), talked about “democracy deserts” and the fact that 3 million people, most of whom share some of the characteristics of being poor, council tenants, black, or living in inner-city areas, would not be on the register, whereas those who were better off would be. The problem is illustrated in my constituency and local authority area. Registration levels in Salford vary from 75 per cent. to 92 per cent., with some wards having registration levels as low as 64 per cent., which represents less than two thirds of the people in those wards.
Low registration leads inexorably to low turnout, and the turnout recorded in last year’s general election was 61 per cent. The Electoral Commission’s most recent audit of political engagement showed that beneath the headline figures there were now considerable disparities in the extent of political engagement among certain social groups. That shows that social and political exclusion are strongly related and mutually reinforcing. The report says that professional workers are more likely to feel knowledgeable about politics than manual workers or the unemployed. Only a minority of those in very deprived areas are interested in politics, while a quarter are now unwilling to engage in any activity around influencing decisions. Perhaps most depressing of all, the extent of political knowledge and interest in acting and participating is lower among younger people than it is among the population as a whole. Anyone who is active in political campaigning will know that there is a cohort of younger people who have never voted and are becoming less likely to do so as the years pass. I find it depressing to canvass a 30-year-old who says, “I have never voted.”
Such trends are well known by those who are locally and nationally politically active, and they form the subject of comment and debate by bodies such as the Hansard Society and of reports such as that of the Power inquiry. Having set up the Electoral Commission with the express responsibility of promoting public awareness of, and involvement in, the democratic process, hon. Members should be worried that, five years on, we have a crisis in registration and democracy deserts, with young people and people in deprived areas being uninterested in our democracy and unwilling to vote or to try to influence decision making. Happily, there are measures in the Electoral Administration Bill to start to remedy the problem of registration and to give returning officers more powers to improve access to voting and promote participation.
The Electoral Commission has presided over a slide in registration and has done little that has been truly effective to halt the decline in turnout. Additionally, the commission has quite wrongly argued for amendments to the Electoral Administration Bill that might lead to an even greater decline in registration. It has backed individual registration despite knowing that when such a system was introduced in Northern Ireland, it caused a 10 per cent. dip in registration.
No. We have spoken about these matters a great deal during our consideration of the Bill.
When I spoke on the matter on Second Reading last October, I recalled that an electoral registration officer for the Trafford local authority had said that, in his view,
“whole areas of the electorate would not respond”
to requests for individual registration, especially the poorest responding groups, such as young people. The registration officer for Salford local authority said more recently that he thought that moving to individual registration would have an impact on the register that would be
“a throwback to the days of the poll tax”
because it would make the registration numbers drop like a stone and they would not recover for many years.
I have referred to the cohort identified by the Electoral Commission of young people who do not register or vote when they attain voting age and become less and less likely to register and vote. That links to targets that the commission has set, so I am surprised that it has taken such a stand on registration over the past eight or nine months.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life is conducting an inquiry into the Electoral Commission and has asked about the balance of the division of responsibilities between the commission and other public bodies when promoting public awareness of, and participation in, elections. The balance is not working well at present. Propensity to vote, which is a key aspect of the Electoral Commission’s targets 2 and 3 on the increased or maintained likelihood of voting, is measured at 52 per cent. Surprisingly, the most recent report shows that the commission did not until this year establish measures of public awareness on how to cast a vote, where to find out about practical arrangements for voting, and why it is important to vote. Those are key measures to have waited six years to establish.
So we have very low levels of public awareness of, and declining levels of involvement in, our democratic process. On target 3, the percentage of the public who feel that they know about politics has fallen from 45 per cent. to 39 per cent., so the key indicators are in decline.
Is the hon. Lady aware of the huge amount of research showing that there is enormous—in some respects, unprecedented—public involvement in politics? I am thinking of the volume of correspondence to MPs, the great increase in activity on the internet and young people’s extensive knowledge of, and involvement in, single-issue politics. Is not much of the problem the failure of political parties to appeal to young people, rather than young people deciding to dissociate themselves from politics altogether?
No, I do not agree. I have been heavily involved in a single-issue organisation—Amnesty International—for more than 20 years. Indeed, my husband used to chair the local group, but when he gave it up nobody else was willing to do it. Despite claims of increasing membership of such single-issue organisations, we found that, in the entire borough area that we served, it was very hard to get six, seven or eight people even to attend meetings. People will sign the odd postcard and send messages on the internet, but they will not contribute in various ways to the running of such organisations. That happens not only in political parties and single-issue campaigning groups, but in scouts, guides and volunteering organisations. So I do not agree that the problem lies with political parties; it is a problem in our society that the Electoral Commission was charged with addressing, but which it has not addressed fully.
A further question relating to the Electoral Commission is governance, which has been touched on, and I want to comment briefly on the restrictions on who can be an electoral commissioner or, indeed, work for the commission. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) raised this issue and I agree that the situation needs to be reviewed. There is growing recognition that the restrictions are unworkable. A national body is charged with regulating political parties and their finances—a complicated issue, currently—advising those involved in elections and reporting on major elections; yet knowledge and experience of party structures, organisation, fundraising and campaigning are disqualifiers for either governing, or working for, that body.
In that context, the Electoral Commission would perhaps have benefited from establishing a robust relationship with political parties. When the Constitutional Affairs Committee asked questions on this subject of Sam Younger, the chairman and chief executive of the Electoral Commission, last November, we were surprised to find out that that had not happened. When questioned about the commission’s being politically naive—as it was put to him—he admitted that the commission had forged a working relationship with only one political party, meeting quarterly with the Conservatives’ 1922 committee of Back Benchers. I found it astonishing, and I still do, that an independent body charged with regulating parties and their finance had, in effect, developed a working relationship with only one party.
Since that shortcoming was identified, there have been a number of informal meetings with MPs, which I and other Labour Members have attended. Sam Younger will soon meet Members of both Houses to discuss this issue and to see whether a way forward can be established. However, the fact remains that, five years after we established the Electoral Commission, it had not forged working relationships with the political parties until members of the Committee on which I serve queried that point. So as with the crisis in registration, static or falling turnout and low levels of political engagement, the time must be right to re-examine restrictions on the governance of, and staff employment in, the Electoral Commission, so that it does not continue to be politically naive by design.
The issues to which I have referred have been highlighted over the past eight to nine months, and since then there has been recognition of gaps in performance. It has perhaps been a question of too little, too late on registration, as I have outlined, but rather more has been done on trying to bridge the gap between the commission and political parties. I hope that these improvements continue and gather pace, so that, in the new situation following the passage in a few months’ time of the Electoral Administration Bill, there will be a greatly improved Electoral Commission.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), who gave an outstanding speech setting out what the Electoral Commission has been doing and putting the case for it extremely well. I shall be critical of the Electoral Commission, but the chairman does a very good job and is an outstanding man. We should bear in mind that it is a new institution that has been messed around by some well meaning but ill thought out Government initiatives and incomplete and defective legislation.
The Electoral Commission was created because the Committee on Standards in Public Life said that the oversight of elections should be neutral and should be seen to be neutral, so the task should be taken away from the Home Office. The case for doing so was never adequately made. The Home Office system was not ideal. It gave the governing party an opportunity to rig elections but, in a typically British way, that rarely happened. Indeed, there was rarely even a controversy about the system. One would not recommend such arrangements for Guatemala or the Ukraine, but they seemed to work in the United Kingdom. The old system was also cheap, and this is an estimates debate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) pointed out. However, we cannot put the clock back.
Any change that we make must be subject to one overriding test: does it contribute to the securing of consent from the electorate to the result? With that, we will get an increase in democratic interest and respect for democracy. Without it, we are on the slippery slope to anarchy.
It is difficult to argue that the early years of the Electoral Commission have bolstered consent. Examples to the contrary are legion, such as the commission’s failure to get to grips with the service voters farrago. It is astonishing that we allowed ourselves to get into the position where we effectively disfranchised a large proportion of our service voters by mistake. The Electoral Commission was alerted to that extensively by me before the election, as was the Government, but they did hardly anything about it. Another example is the postal votes scandal. The Electoral Commission was originally bright eyed and bushy tailed about extending postal voting. It was far too weak and slow in flagging up the crisis that was developing, which we could already see early on as a result of the pilots.
There is the risk of another problem being generated now in relation to the reform of the boundary commissions. If the Electoral Commission is to have such responsibility, it must open up a public debate immediately to ensure that a vote is worth the same—that is, that seats are of equal size—throughout the United Kingdom. We cannot carry on with the moribund system that was put in place after the second world war.
There are several other examples, I regret to say, of the Electoral Commission’s failure to grasp the nettle adequately. I agree with the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) that we still do not really know how parties obtain their money. We are supposed to have more transparency, but we have had only a little more. The Electoral Commission should be pressing vigorously and in public debate to make sure that all necessary information is available.
I also worry that we have inadvertently created the conditions in which the Government can behave as though they had been absolved of their obligation to act impartially, as they had when they had responsibility directly through the Home Office. The Government—any Government—can abuse the system more effectively now by claiming that they have been open to independent advice but, having considered it, have set it aside. That is exactly what happened with regard to postal voting.
All the functions that I have described are core functions of the Electoral Commission. I deeply regret that the commission seems to have involved itself far too much in what one might call not the bread and butter, but the jam—that is, the much more interesting work of encouraging greater participation and understanding of the democratic process. We have had a stream of reports and initiatives on that. It is worth pointing out that when the Committee on Standards in Public Life began the process, it did not recommend that this role should be given to the Electoral Commission but argued that the core tasks given to the commission were already sufficient to do the job. I am not convinced that the problem of voter participation will be dealt with by anything undertaken by the commission. That work will almost certainly turn out to be a waste of money.
I find it surprising that the hon. Gentleman is so exercised by equal numbers for the boundary commissions but not worried about participation. As many as 7 million errors may be being made in registers, and 3.5 million people may not be registered. If there is any scandal—he has used that word several times—that is it.
I am not complacent about it, but I am not as gripped by it as some Labour Members. Voter participation increases dramatically when, as I think is going to happen, an election takes place in which people do not know what the result will be and major issues are at stake. As recently as 1992, arguably the highest turnout in modern British democratic history was recorded. Technically speaking, it was the third largest by a whisker, but a careful look at the degree of redundancy in the register for the earlier elections suggests that there is a good case for saying that there was enormous participation in 1992. It is largely the job of parties to enthuse electors. If we succeed in doing that, we will see a big recovery in registration and turnout in elections.
Does my hon. Friend agree that lower turnouts are a function of social change? Voters may take a consumerist approach whereby they are less tribal than they used to be, say, in the 1950s, when absolute levels of poverty and deprivation were higher and there was no political education. That social pattern is the reason for lower turnouts through the years, and no amount of Government spending will change that.
I should like to think carefully about that before agreeing with my hon. Friend. I am keen to speak for less than 10 minutes, so I will not think aloud at the moment.
I want to end by making the five proposals that I have already made in a submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. First, the Electoral Commission must concentrate on its core tasks instead of engaging in all these other activities. That will also lead to financial savings. As a former Treasury adviser, savings interest me a good deal.
Secondly, the Electoral Commission must exercise leadership right now with regard to what it will probably have to take on board through its new responsibilities for the boundary commissions. We cannot carry on with boundaries that are always 10 to 15 years out of date in relation to the population statistics and with constituencies of such widely differing sizes. These problems are readily resolvable, but that requires leadership from the commission.
Thirdly, we need much more rigorous and independent thinking to implement reform on postal votes. It cannot be right for us to go into an election as we did last time, with so much scope for scandal. Again, the Electoral Commission must be much more vigorous in public debate to ensure that we do not carry on as we are.
Fourthly, we need much more accurate data on party funding. For example, we cannot carry on with the pretence of transparency but the reality of still not knowing—I hope that Members do not think that this is a party political point—how much and by what means trade unions are supporting the Labour party.
We must also sort out the accountability arrangements, to which many hon. Members referred. It is not the Electoral Commission’s fault but ours that they are in such a mess. How on earth did we get into a position whereby the commission is accountable behind closed doors, with no verbatim minutes published, when it scrutinises more than £25 million of expenditure? There is a case for a statutory committee to do the work, chaired by a senior Opposition Member of Parliament, along the lines of the Public Accounts Committee, rather than expecting the Speaker to do it. It is burdensome for the Speaker. The Constitutional Affairs Committee also has a role to play. I have raised that matter in private hearings on several occasions, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who chairs the Constitutional Affairs Committee, knows.
My final point is about the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It brought us to where we are and it is important that it considers carefully what we should do now. We cannot and should not meddle with the relevant legislation indefinitely. We must make one more change and allow matters to settle down. Continual change is a recipe for the further erosion of public confidence. My advice to the Committee on Standards in Public Life is, therefore, to think carefully about the matter, get it right and, to sum it up in one phrase, expect the Electoral Commission to do less and do it better.
After the downbeat assessment of the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), I am happy to follow with a sunnier and more optimistic view of the Electoral Commission. I enjoyed the account by the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) of his recent visit to the commission’s premises. He does not need telling that one is definitely old when one thinks that even Electoral Commission staff look young. He needs no reassurance from me that, behind chief executive Sam Younger’s boyish good looks lies a shrewd, intelligent and experienced operator.
Is it only five years ago that we legislated to set up the Electoral Commission? It is such an obviously sensible thing to do and a constitutional necessity in a democracy such as ours. The public now take the commission for granted, as though it had always existed. I am sure that they found it interesting on the first occasion to learn, after the 2005 general election, the cost of the then Leader of the Opposition’s make-up or of the Prime Minister’s wife’s hairdressing, but, like other hon. Members who spoke, I hope that, after future elections, people will focus more on the serious issues of the source of money and its use.
It is fair to make criticisms of the new organisation’s role so far, and some hon. Members have done that. I am sure that the commissioners and members of staff are not too proud to learn from us and other observers where they are going wrong or to try to make reforms to put that right. The debate on the subject and the two reviews that are currently taking place, which have featured so often in other hon. Members’ contributions, are timely. It is a good time to speak about how well some things have gone and how others need attention and change. However, I do not agree that one of the Electoral Commission’s statutory responsibilities should be removed.
The Electoral Commission has several statutory responsibilities, which I would hesitate to rank because they are all important. Perhaps, after the most recent controversy about parties using loans instead of donations for funding, openness and transparency in the financial affairs of political parties attracts people’s attention. That is one of the Electoral Commission’s responsibilities and includes registering political parties, monitoring and publishing significant donations to parties and regulating their spending on election campaigns.
Beyond that, the Electoral Commission has important responsibilities such as reporting on the conduct of elections. We should pause and think about the reports that we have received in the few years since it was set up. They include reports on elections—not only two general elections but local elections and the pilot schemes for different ways in which to organise voting in local elections, for example, through setting up polling stations in popular places such as shopping centres, organising all-postal ballots or attempting electronic voting and counting. These all make a valuable contribution to our understanding of what works and what does not, and to encouraging more voters to come out and take part in the democratic process. The assessments from the commission have helped us in our understanding of these approaches.
The Electoral Commission has done its job in identifying the weaknesses in the postal voting system since the acceleration in the use of postal votes, and it has made recommendations to the Government on the issue. In fact, when we pass the Electoral Administration Bill into law, we shall be enacting some of the commission’s recommendations on making postal voting more secure in this country. We ought to give credit where it is due in that regard.
An important role for the Electoral Commission in the next few years will be to oversee the implementation of the new legislation. For the first time, consistent guidance will be given to all electoral returning officers and, also for the first time, the commission will be able to insist that the same information be supplied by all electoral returning officers. In a recent discussion that I had with Sam Younger, he told me about requests for information that he had made to returning officers to enable him to compile his reports. He said that some authorities had not even replied, because they were under no statutory obligation to do so, they were busy with other things, and did not regard it as a priority to give him the information that he needed. That will change under the new legislation, and the commission will be able to get the information that it needs to compile its reports, so that people like us who are interested in these matters will be able to read them afterwards.
A good point was made about the slowness of the response in regard to service personnel, but the commission would probably say in its defence that this is an extremely complex issue and that it has made recommendations to the Ministry of Defence. So far as it is able to play its part in promoting greater awareness of the electoral system among service personnel and the importance of their registering to vote, wherever they are in the world, the commission is doing its job.
I want to talk about the statutory responsibility to promote public awareness of our electoral systems. I disagree with the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam)—and with the hon. Member for Chichester in so far as he agreed with the hon. Gentleman on this matter—in that I believe that the commission has an important role to play in promoting such awareness. I am not saying that that should be a substitute for our doing our job of making politics interesting, making ourselves trustworthy and attracting lots of people to come out and join the democratic process. However, there is a role for the commission to provide independent expertise, advice and information to those who want it.
I shall give the House an example of this working in other areas, where other regulators have more than simply a regulatory role. The Financial Services Authority—another Labour innovation since 1997—has a statutory obligation to promote financial understanding. The Food Standards Agency operates in a completely different area of policy, although, curiously, it has the same initials. It is another Labour innovation since 1997, and has the role, alongside enforcement and regulation, of promoting knowledge and understanding of healthy and safe foods. Those examples show why the Electoral Commission should have a role in promoting public awareness. It can be trusted, it is independent and it can be authoritative in providing information.
I commend the work that the commission already does in that area. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) said in an earlier intervention, education in politics and citizenship has not been part of the national curriculum until recently. In fact, such education was established in 2001, and it is now part of the compulsory curriculum for all secondary schools. One strand of citizenship education is political literacy, and the Electoral Commission has contributed to the teaching of that subject through its “Democracy Cookbook”, a valuable source of teaching aids for teachers and others in a learning environment. I therefore congratulate the commission on its work in that role.
Like other Members who have spoken, I think that the Electoral Commission has done its job well as a committee on local government boundaries and is worthy of taking over that role for the boundaries of our constituencies, too. The adage that we should walk before we run is sensible, and if the Minister tells us that there is still a little more walking to be done before the sprint stage is reached, I shall take her advice. The commission is earning its spurs, however, and I am sure that it will in due course be a reliable reviewer of constituency boundaries.
With regard to referendums, the commission has the primary responsibility for their conduct. On the small number of occasions on which it has exercised that role, the commission has done extremely well—although perhaps the Government have not enjoyed the result of one of those referendums—in overseeing the conduct of the referendums, setting up the parties for the yes and no camps and ensuring that the question is fair. I foresee quite a call on its services in conducting further referendums in future.
Looking to the immediate future, a lot of work will be done on electoral registration and raising the practices of all local authorities to the level of the best, both in the registration of people’s entitlement to vote and their ability to cast their votes in local and national elections. The two reviews being conducted at present will lead to recommendations to us to amend the 2000 Act, and I gather from tonight’s debate that there will be a willingness to consider sensible and well-thought-through recommendations for change to that law, some of which will be welcome. When we come to legislate, I hope that we will consider not just the receipt of money by political parties but the spending of it, especially between formal elections in this country. I would like to see annual limits on spending introduced and perhaps, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House says, an end to the arms race in political spending in this country, with some flexibility in the years of general and European elections.
It is easy for Members of the House who disagree with the Electoral Commission’s recommendations to say, “We are hardened politicians and we know this business; they are all novices,” because those on the commission are not even allowed to have an experience of politics, as that debars them from being a commissioner or member of the senior staff of the organisation. That is a criticism, and it undermines the authority with which the commission speaks to us, the politicians. I am one of those who supports a change in the rules about who may be a commissioner or senior officer of the commission, and a lifting of the bar on people who have modern, relevant political experience. That could benefit the whole organisation in providing an understanding of what we are about, what is practical and what will not pass through this place. Ultimately, that would benefit the commission and our country’s democracy.
I have served on the Speaker’s Committee almost continuously since it was created. I now do so ex officio as chairman of the Constitutional Affairs Committee. I used to do the job that the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) did so well tonight. The Constitutional Affairs Committee has the Electoral Commission as well as the Department for Constitutional Affairs within its remit. I should also mention that I have given evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life for its review of the commission. As a declaration of interest, I should mention that my wife serves on the Committee on Standards in Public Life, but I am not speaking on behalf of any of those aforementioned bodies. As time is limited, I just want to refer to the governance points, and to follow some of the arguments made so far.
Generally, as the debate has revealed, the Electoral Commission has done several good things, but it has not dealt successfully with several areas, and several problems have been identified. Some internal problems were identified by the scrutiny unit report, to which the hon. Member for Gosport referred, and which I agree was a very good piece of work.
My first key point about the commission is that I think it needs authority in the political world. It ought to be a body whose recommendations it is very difficult for the Government and Parliament to turn down. That is what we want for electoral commissions in all other countries, and it is what I want for our Electoral Commission. As a number of Members have said today, however, it is undermined by the lack of political experience on the commission. It is too easy for us in Parliament to say, “Sorry, but you do not know enough about it. You have good intentions, but we know what it is like.”
Sometimes that it true. We may indeed be more aware of, for example, the fact that proposed improvements would not achieve their intended purpose, because we know how parties operate. I think it would be right for the commission to include a minority of members who have experience of the various political parties but are no longer in the front line of activity in that context, and I think we should change the statute to make that possible.
As was pointed out earlier, it was not originally envisaged that Mr. Speaker would chair the Speaker’s Committee. His chairmanship was seen as a way of giving the committee, and hence the Electoral Commission, more authority. That places limitations on the committee. It is clear that if the Speaker’s valued independence and impartiality are to be preserved, the minuted discussions about whose absence—in a thoughtful speech—the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) complained cannot be allowed. If they are, the possibility will arise that the Speaker’s views will start to be quoted. Similarly, the Speaker cannot be questioned on the Floor of the House. The hon. Member for Gosport does the job in his place. The Speaker is a very busy man.
The decision to give the committee authority by making the Speaker chairman had certain consequences for the way in which it could operate. It is important to remember, however, that it does not operate in quite the same way as a Select Committee. Its responsibilities are comparable to those of a Minister in relation to a Department: it is responsible for the Electoral Commission’s estimate, and effectively it brings that estimate to the House. It does not merely scrutinise how the commission has spent money; it decides in the first place whether it can spend that money—whether the money can be allocated for its purposes.
The Speaker’s Committee does a great deal of work of that kind. It challenges the commission’s budget. It makes the commission very aware that certain areas of expenditure are under-challenged, that they may not be continued, and that the budget may have to be varied. It does its work through a regular cycle of meetings, with the assistance of the scrutiny unit and, of course, the National Audit Office, which provides it with extremely helpful material. Its function is different from the normal function of a Select Committee.
At the same time, the Constitutional Affairs Committee has a scrutiny role in relation to the Electoral Commission’s work, its policy proposals and the Department’s relationship with it. It is necessarily an intermittent role. Our Committee has numerous other responsibilities concerned with numerous other aspects of the Department’s work—including legal aid, the judiciary, other public bodies, national archives and the Public Guardianship Office—although we do question the chairman of the Electoral Commission, and also the chief executive. A number of our recent reports have involved questions to him. We are currently engaged in an inquiry into party funding, an issue that has been mentioned a good deal this evening. We have elicited the views of the commission and many others on that. Nevertheless, it is the case—and will remain the case following any future changes—that the Committee has few responsibilities in this regard.
Do we need to modify the system? There are obviously clear advantages for the Electoral Commission in its being responsible to the House directly, rather than through the Department. I am very glad that that was made part of the system. Indeed, the Constitutional Affairs Committee has suggested that a similar route would be appropriate for the Information Commissioner. We have observed the difficulties presented to him by the fact that his budget was set by the Department and set very late in the day, and the problem—a theoretical problem, at least—that one of the Departments he is scrutinising is responsible for his budget. The direct route to Parliament is therefore valuable.
The hon. Member for Chichester and others have suggested that a new committee, perhaps chaired by a senior member of the Opposition, could conduct its proceedings openly. We might then lose something of the authority conferred by the Speaker’s presence, and it might become a little more difficult to resist Government pressure. It is quite useful to have the Speaker on one’s side if one has to do battle with the Treasury over the estimates. However, it is a serious proposition that we should look at. Even if such a committee were created, the Constitutional Affairs Committee would still be involved because the policy issues that the Electoral Commission is involved in are very much its sphere.
The logical division of responsibility between the Speaker’s Committee and the Constitutional Affairs Committee is that the Speaker’s Committee does pay and rations and the Constitutional Affairs Committee does policy, to put it broadly. It never works out quite like that, for reasons that I will not go into in this short debate. I do not think that we could put all those responsibilities and the responsibility for presenting the estimate in one body, but now that we have established the authority of the Speaker's Committee and the relationship is clearer—it is not as messy as has been suggested by some—we should perhaps consider moving to an arrangement in which the Speaker did not need to chair it and its role could develop from there. I do not have a rigid view about that, but I suppose I would be staking my Committee’s claim if in conclusion I said that any Constitutional Affairs Committee, whatever its membership—four of its members have taken part in today’s debate—would want to continue its scrutiny of the key areas of policy of great constitutional importance with which the Electoral Commission is concerned.
Like others, I would like to concentrate in the short time available on something that has not yet been mentioned: the oversight of by-elections. By-elections have been in the news in England and Wales, but I would like to share an experience of a recent Scottish Parliament by-election that I think should give all Members of the House cause to consider how elections are conducted. In meetings with the Electoral Commission, I have already suggested ways in which the commission should look at the issue.
There is a juggernaut heading in the direction of politics in this country which I find disturbing. It comes through the effective trebling of spending limits in by-elections to £100,000. The political campaigning time is as short as possible; most parties think it to their advantage to call short campaigns in a by-election. As we all know, with some imagination, £100,000 can go pretty far.
I would like to make Members aware of some of the most dubious campaigning techniques that are being used. Again, I will concentrate on my experience in the Moray by-election, held only two months ago to replace Margaret Ewing, who many people in this House will remember served here between 1974 and 1979 for East Dunbartonshire and between 1987 and 2001 for Moray.
It is important to point out that I am raising the issue not out of sour grapes, because at the by-election my party secured its biggest ever majority. It was our most successful campaign ever. I am not going to go into how bad it was for other parties, but it was not good for them.
The campaigning spending in that by-election was published last week. The Conservative party spent £91,000, the Lib Dems £42,000, the Scottish National party £33,000 and the Labour party £10,000. What happened in that by-election? The Conservative campaign was launched on the day of the cremation of Margaret Ewing. The majority of the materials used by the Conservative party, which has traditionally been the main challenging party in Moray, did not contain the word “Conservative” or “Tory”. Clearly the impression was trying to be created that its candidate, Mary Scanlon, who had been of high standing as a Conservative Member in the Scottish Parliament for the Highlands and Islands, was “another bonnie fechter”, creating the impression that she was following in the footsteps of a Scottish Nationalist. It is beyond credibility. Posters were put up on lampposts throughout the constituency without mention of the party’s name.
The real shocker was that apparently handwritten letters were sent to constituents that claimed to be from independent councillors who never gave their permission for their names to be used in the campaign. That led to headlines on the front pages of Scottish newspapers describing the Conservatives’ campaign as “deceitful”.
The Conservatives were closely followed by the Liberal Democrats, who produced materials that claimed that the SNP candidate was from Aberdeen. That is not true. He does not live in Aberdeen. Indeed, he lived in the same parliamentary constituency as the Liberal Democrat candidate, who was described as “local”. I have given the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) notice that I intended to raise this issue. Clarification has been sought of why such misinformation was used repeatedly in campaign materials, despite the fact that it was established as not being true. Two months later, I still await a reply from the hon. Gentleman.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), who cannot be here tonight, alerted me that this issue might be raised. My understanding is that the candidate came from a village on the boundary of Aberdeen. As one goes into the village, the sign says that one is entering Aberdeen. In common parlance, that would make the claims true.
The hon. Gentleman obviously has not been there, because he clearly does not know what he is talking about. The point that I am trying to make is that, for significant campaign expenditure, techniques of character assassination imported from the United States are being used in by-elections, whether in Moray, Bromley and Chislehurst or south Wales. That should stop.
There would be nothing wrong with that if the party had the honesty to add the party name underneath the candidate’s photograph and on the rest of the literature. The party sought to create an impression that she was something that she was not. That is not honest and that is not how political parties should campaign.
Worst of all for the Liberal Democrats was the revelation that they took their own quotes from a report in The Northern Scot—regularly voted the best weekly newspaper in the UK—and reproduced them in campaigning literature as the opinions of the newspaper itself. The editor of the newspaper asked whether they really thought that readers and the people of Moray would be stupid enough to believe that the newspaper would prejudice its reputation for impartial political reporting. That scam has been tried elsewhere by the Liberal Democrats, so they cannot pretend that the manipulation of the comments was a mistake.
I venture to suggest that many hon. Members have seen some of those campaign techniques in their constituencies and in by-elections. It has to stop. Such dubious campaign techniques do nothing but undermine the democratic process.
I sympathise very much with the hon. Gentleman’s complaints. He mentioned American campaigning techniques, and I am sure that he will agree that it is significant that sometimes less than half the population participates in elections, even presidential ones. His most important point was about the high level of expenditure. Does he agree that the only way to overcome that problem is to have very low, rigidly enforced limits on election spending, so that we do not go the way of the US, where parties are bought by big business?
I sincerely hope that the Electoral Commission will consider the issue of by-elections and the new by-election spending limit. I think that £100,000 for a three or four-week campaign is far too much.
The point about local media coverage is that in Moray we have independent local newspapers that are read by the entire local electorate, but I fear for by-elections in places where the local media have less ability to report impartially on what is being said and done. I would not like to be part of a debate about people’s concerns that elections were being bought. We are running the risk of that happening in by-elections, which, as we all know, are important for all political parties as tests of opinion between general elections.
The Electoral Commission has a role to play but the political parties have a role, too, including through the party bodies that bring representatives of all of us together in the commission. Perhaps we should have a mature discussion about ending some of the campaign techniques that undermine the democratic process that we are all trying to support, as is the Electoral Commission.
Some of the things that the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) said were relatively controversial. I remind him that I visited Moray, where I spent an enjoyable day, and I am sure that I told him that I was going there—but by-elections are robust events and local newspapers are often prayed in aid; they certainly have been in every by-election in which I have been involved for 20 years.
No, by all parties, if the papers can be used to support the party in any way. We could have that dispute, but I shall be happy to continue the conversation outside.
However, there is nothing wrong with asking the Electoral Commission to look at by-elections, which is the relevance of this debate, and I have no objection to that. I share the view that has been expressed on both sides of the House and elsewhere that party expenditure is properly an issue for the commission. In many ways, I regret the fact that that job was suddenly taken from the commission’s remit and given to Hayden Phillips—not that I have anything against him, but it seems logical to give the commission the task of looking at spending. There is clearly an issue in respect of the spending that starts in seats—whether the hon. Gentleman’s seat, mine or any other—not just a month before the general election, but six months, a year or two years before. That is local spending, although it is technically disguised as part of a national budget. All those things justify giving the Electoral Commission the responsibility of looking further at expenditure.
I welcome this debate on the Electoral Commission. My colleagues and I are grateful to the Liaison Committee for proposing the first debate of this kind. We each have a maximum of 10 minutes for our wind-ups so, on behalf of my party, I shall simply make the points that I think are most important. I apologise to colleagues, therefore, for the fact that I cannot reflect on all the other contributions.
The proposal for an Electoral Commission was a good one and we supported it. It is right that the commission came into existence; it has done an important and good job and we support its continuance. The commission has spent a significant amount of money, but that has been scrutinised. Apart from one year, when there was a critical comment about some of the spend, the scrutiny process has endorsed the commission as having spent its money wisely. That is a good commendation, much better than what we hear in many areas of public life, not least Departments such as the Home Office.
The debate plays into the review undertaken by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was the genesis of the Electoral Commission, and is thus especially timely. Like the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) and others, I have given evidence to the Committee and we await with interest its conclusions at the end of the year. Like the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), I come in to bat strongly in favour of the Electoral Commission. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, both on his own behalf and reflecting the views of his Committee, when the Electoral Commission proposes something, the assumption should be that it has the authority to carry the day unless there is a strong argument against it. But that requires two or three things to happen.
First, a minority of the commission’s members should be from political backgrounds, because that will provide the antennae and there will be authority from inside and outside. Nobody will be able to say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about—it’s not like this in real life.” The real life element will have been inserted. I am clear that that should happen.
I am clear, too, that the structure of accountability, which was conceived for the best of reasons, needs to be reformed, so that it becomes a fully open and accountable process of scrutiny and moves from the present position whereby the Speaker, quite properly, cannot participate fully, because it would be prejudicial to his role as the independent guardian of the House’s interests if he were to express views. Therefore, whether with Mr. Speaker or his successors, we need to find another structure to open up the process.
Such things should happen in open forum and the minutes should be recorded, and the Committee might therefore meet more often and be able to take more political responsibility. That would pick up some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) and other hon. Members. Any failings—for example, on service voting—might have been picked up much more quickly and action taken much more rigorously. It would have helped the Electoral Commission to do its job better. I can see no disadvantage—but, yes, there must be a minority of political appointees. Four such appointees in a commission of eleven or more would seem entirely appropriate.
One topical debate is still going on: we are debating whether personal identifiers should be part of the registration and voting process, and the Electoral Administration Bill is still before Parliament. My view is that if the Electoral Commission makes a proposal, there should be a mechanism whereby that proposal comes to the House, and that if the Government want to amend the proposal, that is seen as a Government amendment to the independent proposal. We will need to find a mechanism whereby that legislation could be promoted, for example, by the Committee and given special status. That is not impossible and there are parallels in other legislatures.
The next big question is whether the Electoral Commission has tried to do too much, and whether it has concentrated on the right things. My judgment is that it has sought to do what it thought were the relevant things. There are some very good election reports on all the major elections, including on specific sub-issues, such as expenditure at certain elections and the electronic counting of votes, which was tried for the first time at the London elections. Some good policy reports have added to information. An example of one of the ones that matter is the funding of electoral services, which are often underfunded by local authorities.
There is an argument that political advertising should be subject to the Advertising Standards Authority. [Interruption.] Seriously—I have argued for that on many occasions before. Those are real issues, on which the Electoral Commission should be able to do the work. I would not join those who say that it must do only its core job; it can do other jobs too, and it has done them well, by and large. It is clear that it chose to concentrate on party funding. That is very important; the electorate want the reforms to be made. Mercifully, we are moving in the right direction, but we are not yet there.
There has been a set of exchanges about the boundary commission reviews. The hon. Member for Gosport confirmed that the boundary commission review of local government boundaries in England had been done well. I am clear that the Electoral Commission should take over, as soon as possible, the review of UK parliamentary boundaries, and I am clear that there should be one UK parliamentary boundary commission for this Parliament. That would save a lot of money to start with. We would not necessarily get constituencies of absolutely the same size. There are some very good Scottish examples. In my view, it would be illogical for the Western Isles, and Orkney and Shetland, as well as Anglesey in Wales not to be seen as natural constituencies. However, the same principle could and should apply across the UK. If there is a case for smaller electorate in a very depopulated or rural area, that principle should be seen to apply equally in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but we must not continue with different electoral norms for this Parliament in the four countries. That is no longer acceptable. We should have the same electoral norm for this Parliament, other than for exceptions that could arise in any of the four countries.
I want to make two last substantive points. What key issues are now on our common agenda? One of them is to ensure that we increase the number of people who are not only registered but vote—an issue that has been raised by other colleagues. A guy called Gordon Spencer, whom I met at an organisation in my constituency, has recently undertaken, as part of his degree, a piece of research based on my constituency, focusing on what makes people turn out to vote, or why they do not vote. I have a copy of that, and it contains examples of the information that we all need. The information shows, most tellingly, not that people were uninterested but that there were practical issues that made a difference. For example, people were away on the day and had not registered for a postal vote; polling stations were not in convenient places, and were not open for long enough in the day. There are many practical answers to the question of how we can increase the ability of the electorate to participate in elections, and we should do that. We are moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.
No. I must finish in a few seconds.
I hope that the Electoral Commission will carry out an urgent piece of work on one last matter. We now have many different election systems in many different parts of the UK. That in itself is becoming confusing. I hope that the commission will review that diversity of experience. There is a simple proposition which would make all our lives easier, and I ask the commission to consider it. Given the exact nature of the process in each of the elections, at least we should move to a situation that wherever they are in the UK, at every election people can express their preferences by a one, two, three system rather than some using preference and others by putting crosses on ballot papers. There would then at least be a greater likelihood of people understanding the system, expressing a preference and participating more significantly. I ask the commission to consider that, and I hope that we as a Parliament will then consider the recommendations that it makes to us.
I did not agree with that. However, some themes have come out of the debate—for example, that the Electoral Commission should have more authority. I agree with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and with my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) that it would be wise for the people on the board of the commission to have some political experience, provided that it is not so much as to be overbearing—a modest amount of political experience, which is balanced. That would be a good thing.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who said that the commissioners should do less and do it well. I think that the commission is at its best when it is working from experience in an area at the core of its functions. I would like to see it do more of that and less of the work on the margins.
I am pleased that we are having an annual debate—or are we? It is certainly nice to have the first debate. I have said for some time that it would be useful to have an annual debate about the Electoral Commission. I hope that that will happen in future. I agree with the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) that we need more scrutiny. However, I would like the commission to remain independent and to report to Parliament. I would not want to see it come under the aegis of the Department for Constitutional Affairs.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport, who opened the debate. He does a good job and handles sensibly his role in representing the Speaker’s Committee in Parliament. He takes much trouble with hon. Members if they ask a question. He will often ask them whether they want further information over and above the answers that have been given. That is much appreciated. I join the tributes that have been paid to Sam Younger for the work that he has done.
The issue of the Boundary Commission is a difficult one. I have some doubts about the idea of the Electoral Commission taking over the work of the Boundary Commission. That is partly because I see the work of the Electoral Commission more as a regulator than as an executive body taking forward work such as drawing lines on maps. I would like to see the Electoral Commission considering how the Boundary Commission functions and making comments, based on experience, of what lessons can be learned. There are some points to be made about the figures that are used and whether they are sufficiently up to date.
The process of Boundary Commission reviews is long and some improvements could be made. However, if the Electoral Commission is doing the work, there is a risk that some of the exercises that we would expect from a regulator will not be followed through.
I agree that the boundary committee and the various boundary commissions should come together in one UK-wide body that has particular expertise. In terms of the period over which the Electoral Commission has been working, five years is a good point at which to have a reconsideration. We cannot be entirely complacent. Obviously it is right to say that some good work is done by the Electoral Commission, but if one looks at, for example, the integrity of the ballot and the public perception of that integrity—that must be an important test for the Electoral Commission after five years—many people would say that the standing of the ballot in Britain is probably at its lowest for many years. I notice that, today, the Electoral Commission has brought out its report on the last local elections. It reports that, again, allegations of fraud were a feature of the local elections in 2006, and that the public’s perception of whether postal voting is safe from fraud and abuse has fallen from 51 per cent. thinking it is safe or very safe to just 37 per cent. thinking that. We cannot be complacent about the way in which things are working.
I agree with the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) that there is great concern about the number of individuals who are registered. There are some areas where there is a registration desert. The only point that I would make to her is that the levels of registration are unchanged from 10 years ago. A Government who have been in power for nine years have to take some responsibility for the fact that there has been no significant improvement in levels of registration over that period. Nothing has been done so far to ensure that people are actively canvassed and that data are matched—things that we know can be done, from the experience in Australia.
On party funding, I agree that there is an important role for the Electoral Commission. I was as surprised as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey that the Government did not choose the Electoral Commission to do the review that Sir Hayden is now doing. As I said at the time, although we have the highest respect for Sir Hayden and his background, the truth of the matter is that we are talking about something that is the core work of the Electoral Commission. One would expect the commission to be doing the job.
As far as by-elections are concerned, I am perfectly happy for the Electoral Commission to look at that. That is an important suggestion. The idea that it is a disgrace—I think that this is the point that the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) was making—to describe your candidate as a bonny fighter in a by-election is extraordinary. It is particularly unfair of him to make that point with such a good candidate. I certainly do not agree with him about that.
This is a short debate and I can make only a short winding-up speech. If one looks at the overall picture, the worry is about the integrity of the ballot. There has been no shortage of advice about that. It is true that, over the period, the Electoral Commission has changed its mind about postal voting and it has come to individual voter registration rather later than some of us, but its advice has been clear over recent months: we need individual voter registration and identifiers if we are to have a clean system in this country and to get rid of the fraud. It is extraordinary, and a disgrace, that the Government have not been prepared to take the advice of the body that they set up for that very purpose. All the other parties in the House, with the exception of the Scottish National party, which seems to have thrown a wobbly on the issue, agree that we need individual voter registration and we need it now. It is a disgrace that the Government have not done that.
This has been an excellent debate, with a great deal of consensus across the House. I will more or less throw away my original notes and respond, if I may, to some of the threads that ran through the debate.
Members raised three main issues: first, the boundary commission and the Electoral Commission; secondly, the political experience of the commissioners; and, thirdly, the way in which the Electoral Commission reports. Before I move on to that, I welcome the opportunity that we have had to talk about the work of the Electoral Commission. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), whose efforts have made it possible to obtain this slot in today’s estimates debate. I thank the Liaison Committee for accommodating that request.
There are many issues relating to the commission about which we may disagree. However, we all agree that the role that it has to play in ensuring the health of our democratic system is very important. So, as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said, it is timely, after five years of experience of the commission, that we have a review and learn some lessons about what it has done.
The commission’s stated aim is to promote openness in the financial affairs of political parties, to develop electoral law and practice, and to increase awareness of the democratic processes across the United Kingdom—in short, to promote integrity, involvement and effectiveness in the democratic process. I want to say a few words about how the commission has done that over the past few years.
It is clearly of great importance to our democracy that the commission look at the way in which political parties fund themselves. Nevertheless, a great deal of controversy has been generated recently about donations and loans, so it was appropriate for the Government to hand that matter to an independent figure who could look at it in the round, which is why Sir Hayden Phillips has been asked to review party funding. The Electoral Commission will work closely with him in coming to a conclusion.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is present, because in response to hon. Members’ comments about funding, particularly at election times, I am pleased to put on record the fact that he now agrees with me that there should be a cap on funding across the piece. I am pleased that he will be taking that forward in much more detail.
The commission has worked closely with the Government over the past five years in developing electoral law and practice. It has dealt with the passage of seven Bills through Parliament in that time and has worked closely with the Government in trying to ensure that it is properly engaged once those Bills become law. The Electoral Administration Bill currently before Parliament is a very good example of that partnership.
I should like to rebut a couple of comments that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and one or two others made about personal identifiers. The Government have said all along that in principle we are in favour of personal identifiers, which is why we have accepted amendments on postal voting and personal identifiers. The hon. Gentleman was quick to quote from the consultation, so let me explain to him and other Opposition Members that the responses expressed a variety of opinions, very often beginning along the lines of that from the London borough of Hillingdon, which said:
“It is difficult to oppose the idea of individual registration in principle but the practical implications are extremely worrying.”
Let us consider instead the comments of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk council, which is hardly known as a bedrock of socialism. It said:
“Undertaking individual registration will have significant resource implications and present almost insurmountable difficulties for staff in contacting every eligible elector. Under-registration and effectively disenfranchisement will be obvious consequences.”
The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) thought that that was not such a bad idea anyway, and he and the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) seemed to think that the role of the commission in developing electoral awareness and encouraging people to participate was, as the hon. Member for Chichester described it, jam. Frankly, I am appalled that members of a democratic institution such as this Parliament think that using institutions such as the Electoral Commission to promote democracy is simply jam. It is far more bread and butter than that.
I turn to the boundary commission issues. I have some sympathy with the view that a number of Members expressed about the fact that the Electoral Commission has been charged with at some point taking over the role of the boundary commission. The Committee on Standards in Public Life is looking at the role of the Electoral Commission. Some stakeholders feel that it might be worth reflecting on whether the Electoral Commission should take over that role. I hear what hon. Members on both sides of the House say about how well the commission has done in local government, and I have some sympathy with their views, but we should wait until the Committee on Standards in Public Life has reported before we take the matter any further. What is more, the boundary commission has to complete its work, which is to report by the end of this year, before we can deal with the matter.
Political experience was a constant theme throughout the debate. Every Member who spoke seemed to feel that the deliberate lack of political experience in the Electoral Commission is not helping it. In my discussions with Sam Younger, to whom I pay tribute, as did several hon. Members, I have said that I think it would be useful, in the interim at least, if the commission had a small group—an advisory panel—of ex-Members of Parliament, who could offer a view on the experience of being a candidate and of all that the election process entails. He has been open to that idea.
Sam Younger has already set up small panels on matters such as candidates’ expenditure and fraud, so he may well be open to setting up a group of the type that I have described.
On fraud, in its press release on its report the Electoral Commission states:
“The majority of people (55%) did not think that electoral fraud was a problem at the elections, although allegations of electoral fraud and the way candidates fought their campaigns were a key feature in some areas and in the media.
Those who felt fraud had been a problem said they were influenced by media coverage (51%) rather than first hand experience (4%)”.
Perhaps the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire will bear that in mind. He continually bangs the drum and suggests that electoral fraud is widespread in this country. It is not.
Where the commission should report is a tricky issue. The commission sees many benefits in reporting to the Speaker’s Committee, which highlights its independence from Government. The chairman of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), made a good point when he said that his Committee will of course want to examine some aspects of the Electoral Commission’s work, so it should have a role. I ask the House to wait to see whether, as a result of the evidence that is put before it, the Committee on Standards in Public Life takes a view on whether it would be more appropriate for the Electoral Commission to report to a body other than the Speaker’s Committee. I assure Opposition Members that the Department for Constitutional Affairs is not suggesting that it should take that responsibility; we would much prefer it to be left to some aspect of Parliament.
Finally, let me say a few words about the future. Since its inception, the Electoral Commission has been successful in meeting its wide-ranging remit. There have been differences of view on policy in some areas, but that has not prevented an effective partnership, and those differences are a sign of the commission’s independence. We believe that the Electoral Commission’s operational role is crucial and probably the area in which, in the next few years, it can add most value to the running of elections and democratic services between elections.
As we have said in our evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Government have developed a stronger policy-making capacity since 2000, so it might now be appropriate for the Government to lead in policy development and for the commission to concentrate on ensuring that electoral services are delivered successfully. Meanwhile, we shall continue to involve the commission, administrators and other stakeholders in policy and legislation development to ensure that the electorate’s needs are being met. Another area in which it might be time for change is how to ensure that, while retaining the commission’s independence, there is political input into its work—a point that was raised in the debate.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On behalf of the Speaker’s Committee, I thank all the participants in the debate, which is particularly well timed in view of the inquiries that are now taking place. All the comments that have been made will be noted. In so far as any relevant facts have been raised, I shall ask the chairman of the Electoral Commission to write to the hon. Member concerned. Finally, let me say again that we are extremely grateful to the Liaison Committee for allowing this debate to proceed.
It being Ten o’clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker proceeded to put forthwith the Questions relating to Estimates which he was directed to put at that hour, pursuant to Standing Order No. 55(1) and (4) (Consideration of estimates).