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Electoral Commission Committee

Volume 456: debated on Monday 29 January 2007

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Parliamentary Constituency Boundaries

23. When the Commission expects the new parliamentary constituency boundaries to be laid before the House. (111475)

The Electoral Commission is responsible for conducting reviews of English local authority ward boundaries, but not parliamentary constituency boundaries, which are the responsibility of the respective boundary commissioners. Statutory responsibility for laying their reports before Parliament, and for laying draft orders to give effect to any proposed new boundaries, rests with the respective Secretaries of State to whom the boundary commissions submit their reports.

The hon. Gentleman will know that under sections 16 and 17 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, it is in the Government’s power to transfer boundaries to the responsibility of the Electoral Commission. Has he any view on that, in the light of the report that was published recently?

My hon. Friend is right that that is a matter for the Government, who made it clear when the provisions were enacted that they did not intend to take such steps before the current general reviews of all UK parliamentary constituencies had been concluded. My hon. Friend also rightly points out that the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended in its recent report on the Electoral Commission that the provisions should be repealed, as part of a wider series of recommendations aimed at ensuring that the Electoral Commission no longer has any involvement in electoral boundary matters.

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to do so.

I put it to my hon. Friend that even if the Electoral Commission does not have formal responsibility in this matter—which is a source of some surprise, and also disquiet, to me and a number of my hon. and right hon. Friends—it will have a view about the transparency and accountability of the democratic process. Is it not unsatisfactory that instead of the changes having been laid in a timeous fashion, they have not yet been laid at all and we have had too much procrastination and delay? Is it not a good thing that the Leader of the House is present in the Chamber so that he can at least witness our protests and seek to ensure that something is done to address them?

The Committee on Standards in Public Life made some robust comments about the timeliness of the reviews of the boundary commissions. I noted that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House said that he thought that the Committee’s report should be debated by the House, and I am sure that that is one of the aspects of it to which Members will wish to give consideration.

Electoral Commission Review

24. When do the Speaker’s Committee and the Electoral Commission plan to respond to the recommendations of the review of the Electoral Commission by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. (111476)

The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has not yet had an opportunity to meet to consider the report. The chairman of the Electoral Commission wrote to all Members on 19 January setting out its initial reaction to the report, and Mr. Speaker arranged for a copy to be placed in the Library. The Electoral Commission informs me that it intends to publish a formal response to the report within the next three months.

Once the Electoral Commission has published its report, will the Speaker’s Committee, in conjunction with the House authorities, make sure that we have an early debate on some of the robust proposals of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to restore confidence in the electoral process and the accountability of the Electoral Commission to all Members of this House? That is a hugely important matter outside the House, and I am keen to know that there will be enthusiasm from inside the House that it gets on our agenda so that we can legislate by changing the law if necessary.

The Speaker’s Committee took an initiative to promote a debate in the House by asking the Liaison Committee for time and that was granted. It is open to those on either Opposition Front Bench to table a motion for debate, but I think that the reassurance of the Leader of the House that an opportunity will be given for the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to be debated in the House is broadly welcomed.