On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There are two motions, one of which relates to the appointment of a new commissioner, with the other dealing with pay and remuneration. I wonder whether it would be convenient for the House to have one debate covering those two subjects.
With the House’s permission, we will deal with motions 9 and 10 together.
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Jennifer Watson to the office of chairman of the Electoral Commission with effect from 1 January 2009 for the period ending on 31 December 2012.
With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following motion:
That the following provision shall be made with respect to the remuneration and expenses of the Chairman of the Electoral Commission (“the chairman”):
(1) In respect of remuneration for service between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2009, the chairman shall be paid £100,000.
(2) In respect of the year starting with 1 January 2010 and in respect of any subsequent year starting on the anniversary of her appointment, the chairman shall be paid as remuneration for that year the sum payable during the immediately preceding year increased by the same percentage of that sum as the percentage (if any) or total of the percentages (if more than one) used to 10 increase the salary of a High Court Judge during that immediately preceding year.
(3) Where during any of the years referred to above the chairman ceases to hold that office, the sum to be paid to her in respect of the part of the year for which she held office shall be such proportion of the sum which would have been due had she completed that year in office as reflects the portion of that period during which she held the office of chairman.
(4) The chairman shall be reimbursed for any expenses she incurs in connection with the discharge of her duties as chairman on travel, accommodation and subsistence.
(5) The pension of the chairman shall be calculated broadly by analogy with the pension scheme of the staff of the Commission, thereby delivering a pension based on the Principal Civil Service Pension Scheme.
It is unusual for a Back Bencher to be asked to open a debate on a substantive motion, so my first task is to explain why the hon. Member for Gosport is on his feet and not the Minister. The motions before the House today are proposed by members of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. The Speaker has important statutory responsibilities in relation to decisions on the appointment and remuneration of the electoral commissioners. However, Mr. Speaker is not in a position to move a motion in the House, so it is in my capacity as a member of the Speaker’s Committee who answers on behalf of that Committee that I speak today.
All hon. Members have had the opportunity to read the report that the Speaker’s Committee published on 15 July, which set out how Mr. Speaker discharged his responsibilities under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to select a candidate for the post of chair of the Electoral Commission. It informs the House who is on the panel that advises Mr. Speaker on that selection and it is ably chaired by Baroness Fritchie. As a member of the panel, I can answer any questions that colleagues may have on the way in which the panel went about its business or on the reasoning behind the decisions that it and the Speaker’s Committee took. The Minister may be better placed than I to pass on to his Ministry of Justice colleagues any queries about the Government’s current legislative proposals as they will affect the commission in so far as those proposals are relevant to the matters before the House this evening.
The panel had to take two decisions: the first on whom to recommend to Mr. Speaker as candidate for the post of chair, and the second on the terms and conditions attaching to that post. Since the commission was set up in 2001, there has been only one chair, Sam Younger. I want to thank him for his leadership of the commission in its formative years. He has many friends in the House, and I am sure that many Members will join in wishing him well. His success in the role is evidenced by the fact that last year he was reappointed for a second term at the request of the House. He bequeaths to his successor an organisation in good shape, ready to face the challenges that are certainly coming. I pay tribute to Sam Younger, and wish him well.
The hon. Gentleman said that he and his colleagues were involved in the appointment, and that he could answer any questions about it. I believe that the remuneration figure that appeared on the Order Paper some weeks ago was £150,000. I do not know what has happened since—there may have been a printing error—but that is my recollection, and I should like to know what has taken place in the intervening period.
In a parliamentary answer, the hon. Gentleman indicated that the person whose appointment is proposed today would work for approximately three days a week. Is the recommended £100,000 a pro rata payment? Are we talking about £100,000 a year for a three-day week, or £60,000 a year? I think we should be told, and I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman provided clarification.
The hon. Gentleman has asked some pertinent questions. He will not be surprised to hear that I am about to deal specifically with the two points that he has raised. I shall deal first with the part-time basis and then with the pay, but I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions in terms.
Before the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) answers those questions, may I join him in paying tribute to Sam Younger? He has worked very hard, and when I speak later I shall cast no aspersions on him whatsoever. He is a great guy.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments.
Since the commission had become a well-established feature of the political landscape, the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended, in its important report of January 2007, that the post of chairman be held on a part-time basis. The Speaker’s Committee accepted that recommendation, and considered it desirable for the post to be filled on a part-time rather than a full-time basis. That underlines the non-executive nature of the role, and is entirely in line with similar public sector appointments. The panel appointed by Mr. Speaker took the same view. Mr. Speaker also wrote to a number of eminent public figures seeking their opinions on the matter, and they were overwhelmingly in favour of moving to a part-time appointment. So, too, were the leading firms of recruitment consultants with whom the panel discussed the question. The post was therefore advertised as involving a commitment of, typically, three days a week.
The report of the Speaker’s Committee also records the original decision, made in March 2008, to maintain the existing level of remuneration for the post, notwithstanding the move to a part-time role. That decision, too, was made after extensive discussion and careful consideration. Again, the panel asked leading consultants for their opinions. These were consistent with the advice received from others, which was that if we really wanted to attract a first-class candidate for the post—and in the view of the Speaker’s Committee, the post was too important for us to settle for anything less—we should not reduce the salary from the level set by Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the criteria that were adopted. I do not recall whether he used the word “consultants”, but he said that outside advice had been taken on what criteria were appropriate for the securing of a suitable candidate. Was public service—that somewhat devalued but to me extremely important factor—taken into account? As I said in the Chamber recently in the context of the Information Commissioner, we keep comparing senior public servants doing important jobs with those in the private sector in terms of remuneration, while not taking into account what I consider to be the vital issue of devotion to public service, which often involves a sacrifice in view of what the individual in question could earn in the private sector.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and when I conclude my arguments, he may feel that it has been well met.
It is important to note that, pro rata, the original offer was not off the scale for non-executive chairs. The chair of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission is paid at this rate, as are the chairs of HM Revenue and Customs and the Court Service board, and the chair of Ofcom is paid at a slightly higher rate. The fact is that there is a highly competitive market to secure the services of the best people. I can tell the House that two very credible candidates dropped out of this competition, in one case at the very last minute, because they had accepted other offers.
I need hardly remind Members tonight of the importance of the work of the Electoral Commission to all of us, to our parties and to our constituents. The Committee on Standards in Public Life emphasised this and stressed how important it is for the Electoral Commission to have strong direction and leadership. Accordingly, the post was offered and accepted, with the consent of the Treasury, on the basis of £150,000 a year for a part-time appointment.
However, events have moved on. It became clear to the Speaker’s Committee that the House was unlikely to support the remuneration proposal. We therefore had to reopen the whole question and, in essence, to invite the candidate, Jenny Watson, to accept a pay cut. I recognise that this could hardly be described as best practice, but it reflected the situation we were in. We were very fortunate indeed that Jenny Watson was prepared to go along with this; she could so easily have walked away from it, and the fact that she did not do so is a testament to her commitment to public service and the job. The revised salary of £100,000 a year is very close, pro rata, to the salary of the incumbent, which now stands at £155,000 a year and which would have been uprated next year in line with a previous resolution of the House. It is also well within the range of salaries for non-executive roles of this kind in public service.
I do not wish to cast any aspersions on the candidate; I have never met her and I was not party to the interviews. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us whether she holds any other posts, and whether she will be doing any other paid work in the other two days or at any other time?
In the Speaker’s Committee’s first report of 2008, what other appointments Jenny Watson has are spelled out, and it is made clear that she will resign from all those posts with the exception of the Audit Commission, although she has also undertaken to review her position there, should it seem—which is not the advice that has been given to her by various bodies—that there is a conflict of interests. Therefore, she will remain a member of the Audit Commission.
I cannot answer that question as I stand here now, but I will inquire. My understanding is that it is not very demanding in time terms.
I now turn to the candidate herself, who, in the opinion of the panel, the Speaker’s Committee, Mr. Speaker himself and the leaders of all the main political parties, is the right person for this job. Jenny Watson has a breadth of experience few others could match. She has chaired a large public sector organisation—the Equal Opportunities Commission—with distinction and flair. No less important, she has experience as a regulator. Most crucially in the context of the role it is now proposed she be appointed to perform, she has demonstrated that she can lead an organisation through change, enabling it to develop and evolve without losing its focus, self-confidence or drive. She knows her way around Westminster and local government, and she has an acute understanding of diversity issues. As I can confirm, at interview Jenny Watson’s analysis of the Electoral Commission as an organisation, and of the policy environment in which it works and the complex challenges it faces and will face in the coming years, was comprehensive and penetrating. She was the unanimous choice of the panel, she has been endorsed by the Speaker’s Committee, she has been approved by all the party leaders, and I therefore have no hesitation in inviting the House to support both motions.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers), and I am pleased that we are taking both these motions together because the two issues are indivisible. Obviously I do not know this particular candidate, but I am sure she has the highest of motives and sense of public service.
We are charged with considering this afternoon whether this matter has been handled well. The hon. Gentleman was candid enough with the House to indicate that some of these things had not been thought through, and that does not increase my confidence that the decision we are going to make this afternoon is the correct one. To put it simply, we should send the homework back. Wider consultation should be carried out within the various party groups about what is required of this post.
Originally the salary was going to be £150,000 for three days a week, and I believe the hon. Gentleman said it was felt that that could not get past the House of Commons—hon. Members may check that in the official record, if necessary. How right he was. Just because the amount is reduced like this, in an unsophisticated way, that does not mean that a salary of £100,000 for this post is acceptable—it is not acceptable to me, because I think it a disproportionate amount. The hon. Gentleman then prayed in aid recruitment consultants who thought this figure was okay—well they would, wouldn’t they? If ever there were an abuse and waste of public money, it is recruitment consultants. It is time this House of Commons baulked at this sort of thing, because many people are qualified to do this job, could do it to the satisfaction of all the political groups in this House and throughout the United Kingdom, and would do it for a much reduced salary.
I am favourably disposed towards the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), which proposes that the salary should be comparable to the pay of a Member of Parliament. That would be a reasonable compromise. One of the reasons why I shall invite the House to reject both these motions—I think that we will probably have to divide the House on the first one—is because I want us to send the homework back. If we reject the appointment, this good lady can still be considered, but that will be following further consultation and reflection by the hon. Member for Gosport and his colleagues, and following discussions within the party groups.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman gives way to other hon. Members, I should advise him that amendment (a), which stands in the name of the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and to which he just referred, has not been selected.
I just wanted to make the position clear. I call Simon Hughes.
The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and I were both present for a debate about a fortnight ago on the salary of the Information Commissioner. Does he take the view that jobs such as that one and this—public sector jobs on which Parliament has to make the decision, of which there are a few—should have comparable salaries? Should the Information Commissioner’s job be valued at the same worth—per week, per month or per year—as that of the chair of the Electoral Commission?
The jobs should probably be in the same band, but there is a danger of our comparing an apple with an orange. The hon. Member for Gosport prayed in aid this candidate’s work on regulatory bodies. Special qualities are probably required for jobs on some of the regulatory bodies and even for the job of Information Commissioner; indeed, people would look for candidates in a different reservoir. I do not think we are comparing like with like.
I recognise how imperative this role is, but my knowledge of public life means I am aware that many people could undertake this job with enthusiasm and to the satisfaction of the body politic of the United Kingdom, and could do so on a much lower salary. The hon. Member for Gosport did not say that this is so, but I imagine these “wretched” consultants—I used that adjective deliberately, out of despair—would do the initial selection. How kind of them! Even if there had been an open advertisement, the considerations I mention would not have reached the people making the recommended appointment.
My understanding—and I was here for the previous debate—is that the Information Commissioner is an executive position. This debate is about the chair of a body, which is somewhat different. The Information Commissioner will be on £140,000 a year for a five-day week. The individual we are discussing—I do not know whether she is suitable for the job or not, and I make no comment—will be on the equivalent of nearly £167,000 a year, which is quite a bit more than the incumbent who is on £155,000.
I am grateful for both those interventions because they buttress my case. The latter intervention makes the point that we are compounding the perversity of such appointments. All the indications are—and the hon. Member for Gosport was frank about this—that it has been handled very clumsily. We need a period of reflection.
The hon. Gentleman also told the House that, if appointed, the good lady will resign from all her other appointments except that of board member of the Audit Commission. But I suspect that there is a handsome salary for that; perhaps we could be told if that is so, and how many days a week it requires. If it is three days, basic arithmetic tells us that that person would be overworked, and that would be distressing. We have far too many examples of quango man and quango woman, and I am not prepared to put up with it any longer.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that all quango appointments of this kind—many are similar, but some are quite different—should be subject to scrutiny by the House, not necessarily in a debate on the Floor of the House as we are having now, but by the appropriate Select Committee? That would be a way forward for the consideration of remuneration of individuals in relation to the jobs they perform. [Interruption.]
The hon. Gentleman will have heard the echo from behind me. Many of us think there should be some scrutiny of appointments, the ground rules, the terms and conditions of services and the pay and rations by the appropriate Select Committee before we embark on the advertisement and the selection of a shortlist. If we reject this proposal, perhaps it will signal a change from the sloppy appointments to which, by our silence, we have acquiesced for too long.
As so often, my hon. Friend speaks for the House of Commons in the wider sense. I do not want to see the Mace put down a notch to turn this into a remuneration Committee of the whole House on every public appointment. That would be a nightmare, but the symptoms betray deep concern with the Electoral Commission itself. That is why I would be very happy to vote with my hon. Friend. I have much respect and affection for the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers), who works very hard, but the Electoral Commission is profoundly flawed, and we need a deeper debate on that, rather than having this displacement discussion about the salary of this poor woman.
I do not want to labour the point, but I got the Library to give me the job description for the post in question. Frankly, if that job description is to be fulfilled, three days a week is wholly inadequate. I realise that this is not a packed House, but we may have the opportunity later to persuade some people to be prudent and reject this motion so that the body politic—the political parties and Members—can reflect on the situation. We could have a better appointment, either with the same candidate or with a wider trawl, and dispense with the so-called recruitment consultants. We could have a new beginning, with appointments compared with one another. We could consider the pool for likely candidates and reflect the marketplace. As important as this job is, the marketplace is probably much wider than has been reflected so far. I hope that the House will reject the motion, as that would do a great deal for the Electoral Commission and for the House of Commons.
Following the intervention by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), does my hon. Friend not agree that it is rather important to ensure right now that we have a chair of the Electoral Commission? The debate about the commission’s future, which is important, needs to be held. The House is halfway through consideration of the Political Parties and Elections Bill, which will have substantial implications for the work of the Electoral Commission in the future. Does my hon. Friend not agree that in principle it would be a very good idea if we made sure that the Electoral Commission had a new chair, who could take the issues forward? Is he sure in his own mind that using the debate this evening as a substitute for the proper debate on the future of the Electoral Commission that ought to be held is a path that should not be pursued?
My hon. Friend rightly raises the critical stage we have reached both for the legislation before this House and for the work of the Electoral Commission. Of course, it is a sensitive time. I would not choose to make the changes at this stage. It is not for the House of Commons to micro-manage the situation, but my point is still valid. For instance, was it impossible to ask the existing chairman to stay on for a period? In a sense, my hon. Friend’s point supports the notion that that chairman should see things through and should provide continuity. Presumably, there is a vice-chairman, who is no doubt on a substantial salary. He or she could act up. The timing is not ideal, but if we let things go, we will have abdicated our responsibility to our constituents, who, if they saw this debate or noticed any reports of it, would see it as a disproportionate expenditure and an offence at this time of constraints. That is my case.
I am afraid I shall have to disappoint the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) by saying that I support the motions, the remuneration and the appointment in general.
As the Speaker’s Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) made clear, Ms Jenny Watson has an excellent CV that demonstrates experience, leadership and management skills, all of which will be required to steer the Electoral Commission forward over the coming years. She has a proven track record of public service, as we have heard. For example, she was chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission as well as a member of the board of the Audit Commission. I am told on reliable authority by several people that she served with distinction in both roles and that there was no reason to reproach her in any way.
The role of the chairman of the Electoral Commission is high profile, and it is likely to become even more so, Mr. Deputy Chairman, as new legislation on the financing of political parties progresses through the House. When that legislation is finally enacted, the Electoral Commission will face different and difficult challenges to ensure that any new financing regime is properly complied with. Having seen Ms Watson’s CV and read the glowing tribute of the Speaker’s Committee that recommends her appointment, I think that she should be more than able to deal with the issues that will arise.
May I also put on record our thanks to the outgoing chairman of the Commission, Mr. Sam Younger, for the service he has given since the Commission was created in 2001? Mr. Younger’s place in political history is secure as the man who got the commission up and running. We thank him for all his efforts in the past few years.
As regards remuneration, Mr. Deputy Chairman, if we are to attract the right person for the job it makes sense that they should be paid a competitive salary commensurate with their experience, skills and qualifications. The role of chairman of the Electoral Commission requires many qualities, such as leadership, strategic vision, management and so on. Let us not forget the high-profile nature of the job.
I am mindful that we have two debates merged into one, for which we have only one and a half hours. There have been several interventions already, and I am aware that several Members wish to speak. I trust that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not allow him to intervene, but I intend to keep my comments brief to ensure that as many hon. Members as possible have an opportunity to speak. I trust that he will bear with me.
As I said, the role of chairman requires many qualities, and it is also very high profile.
From a sedentary position, the hon. Gentleman says that anyone could do it, but I am minded to say that, if he felt he could do it, he should have put his name forward. I am also tempted to say that he probably would not have got the job.
We should be mindful that the salary that Ms Watson has accepted is much less than the one initially advertised. The suitability of the candidate for the post of chairman is not in doubt and, if we are to have the right candidate, we must be prepared to pay the right amount. Given all the circumstances, I am happy to rely on the judgment of those trusted with making the final selection regarding the final amount of pay for this position.
I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and his colleagues for undertaking this task. They put in a lot of hard work, and they did their job with distinction. For that, I thank them.
I am going to disappoint my friends down there by saying that I am not going to concentrate on Jenny Watson’s salary. Instead, I am going to talk about the nature of the job, and perhaps say a little bit about Jenny Watson.
I support her appointment. She is a former chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, and is a continuing member of the Audit Commission. In no sense is that a full-time job, and it is probably not even a part-time one: I do not know how often the commission meets, but it cannot be very often. Previously, she worked for Liberty, Charter88 and the Human Rights Act research unit at King’s college, London. She is a published author, and an independent director of the Banking Code Standards Board. She is also a deputy chair of the UK’s Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, and of the advisory board of the British Institute of Human Rights. So she has had experience in a very large number of fields, but what kind of qualities should we expect from the chair of the Electoral Commission?
I say that we need someone of robust independence, who is willing to speak out and to challenge—and, if necessary, face down—the Government of the day. Governments come and Governments go, but the Electoral Commission, as part of our constitutional framework, is there to police the electoral system and keep our politics clean. Of all the ethical and regulatory watchdogs, the Electoral Commission may be the most important.
The Electoral Commission has barked in the past, and the Government have ignored it. It barked in 2003, when it made a call for individual voter registration. The Government said that they would not go down that road, or include it in the Bill that became the Electoral Administration Act 2006.
Astonishingly, the Electoral Commission went public, and said—in public—that it disagreed with the Government’s position and that it wanted individual voter registration. That was picked up by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the ethical watchdog that presides over all the others. The hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) referred to it earlier, and it was also in favour of individual voter registration.
I am not telling tales out of school, but I remember having a conversation with Sam Younger and asking him, “If you and the rest of the Electoral Commission thought that the way in which our electoral system was being compromised was so important that it required you to speak out publicly, you should have resigned. That would have forced the Government to think again.”
I am very much in favour of individual voter registration. I have a constituent who is one of 27 adults living in a house of 44 people, and I do not know who the head of household is.
The hon. Gentleman may have noticed during the passage of the Political Parties and Elections Bill that the electoral commissioner, instead of resigning and running away from the issue, persisted with individual voter registration, as did the Opposition. I tabled an amendment to the Bill, which of course the hon. Gentleman’s Government voted down, but those of us who believe in individual voter registration still persist, with the backing of the Electoral Commission, quite properly and democratically.
The point is that resignation is the nuclear option. I like Sam Younger and I have no problems with him as an individual, but if the Electoral Commission really believes that our electoral system is being compromised by household registration, its chair should have resigned. That is my view, so we differ.
As I was saying, my constituent shares a house with 27 members of his huge extended family. Someone would have signed the electoral registration form as the designated head of household, and when I wrote to the chief executive of my local council—
Order. I am reluctant to stop the hon. Gentleman, but this is not a general debate about the electoral system. It is about two specific motions, so perhaps he could direct his remarks to them.
I am trying hard to stay in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I want to draw the attention of the House to the importance of the Electoral Commission, which may have a bearing on salary, remuneration and all those other matters.
Our electoral practices need constant running repairs. There have been allegations of fraud in Birmingham, Slough and Peterborough. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has floated the suggestion that electoral practices should be monitored in the United Kingdom, which is absolutely astonishing. Whoever chairs the Electoral Commission has an extremely important job to do and I am happy to endorse Jenny Watson as the new chair.
I want to start where the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) left off. I support the Electoral Commission as a body. We need it to be strong and robust and I wish it to be stronger and more robust in future than it has been until now.
I am glad that the proposal that the commission has some political appointees has been accepted. People with political experience will help it to be more robust; they will be a minority, not a majority, and will make it do its job better. We should change our procedures so that when the Electoral Commission makes a recommendation, such as the one about individual voter registration, which has been the most controversial one recently and was referred to by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), it is automatically laid before the House. There has to be some mechanism—it might be proposed by the representative of the Speaker’s Committee—but there should be a motion before the House so that if the Government want to change it they have to table an amendment. We would thus be able to see what the Electoral Commission—the independent body set up by Parliament—is proposing. Such a motion should also be laid within, say, 21 days of the commission making its recommendation. At present, when the commission makes a report, the Government can sit on it—they can deliberate, form a view, stall, delay and disagree, and in the end they can use their payroll vote and their majority to block things.
I hope we have a robust Electoral Commission. In the debates on the Political Parties and Elections Bill and elsewhere, I shall be looking to ensure that we strengthen the commission in that respect. In that context, I too pay tribute to Sam Younger. I have always found him courteous, proactive, consistent, accommodating and assiduous, but clearly independent. Through him, I thank his staff, who have been extremely helpful and made it their business to be available to MPs, both on a party and individual basis. They attend our conferences to make sure that our parties understand the score and they do their job well and publicly, so I hope we can recognise that the Electoral Commission under its first chair has done a good job.
Where do we go now? We clearly need a new chair. I do not know Jennifer Watson well, although I have met her. In my view, she is clearly eminently qualified to do the job. The hon. Member for Pendle read out parts of her work history. It is set out in the helpful report that the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has given us as its first report of 2008 on this subject. Not least because of her recent job as the chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, in which role I have seen her work, she comes with great credibility and great authority. Hers is a very good appointment. As the hon. Gentleman said in his introduction, it is surprising in a way that her name is still in the frame, given that, putting it crudely, she got messed around in the process. She applied; she was asked to do the job at one salary, but in the end, people said, “We’d like you to do the job, but we’re cutting the salary by a third.”
I will come to the salary in a moment, but Jennifer Watson will do the job admirably well.
Of course, there is a difference between this decision and the one that we made a couple weeks ago with the Information Commissioner: this one involves the appointment of the commissioners, whereas last time, as was rightly said, we were appointing a chief executive. This is a different role. Of course, the Electoral Commission will have a chief executive as well. Question: what is the right salary? I am always uncomfortable once we get into six-figure sums for salaries for part-time jobs, but I am persuaded that, given where we are, we probably cannot get someone of the quality of the proposed new chair to do the job for less than that sort of money.
The hon. Gentleman may not like the Electoral Commission. I have heard mutterings that he does not like it as a body, but it is an important, robust body, and we need it. If we are to give it authority, it needs a chair who will have authority, speak with authority, be independent and robust and speak in the public domain, and Jennifer Watson will do that in my view. It is also good that the chair will be a woman, but that is a separate but not irrelevant issue, given that one of the deficiencies of the House is the continuing relatively small number of women who are Members of Parliament.
The salary is appropriate, given where we are, for the job at this time. We should be grateful to Jennifer Watson for accepting the revised terms, which are much less than she had accepted. It is clear from the proposal that it will be a three-day-a-week job. She will do it full-time for three days a week. She may do more than 24 hours over the three days. I have not heard the result of the vote in the European Parliament on the European working time directive. Personally, I support the UK’s continuing opt-out, and I hope that the European Parliament has voted for that. I imagine that she might do more than 24 hours a week, which would be three eight-hour days.
The hon. Gentleman’s job is in large part a desk job, and he is paid £60,000-odd for his job. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) proposes that the salary should be the same as that of MPs. We have debated MPs’ salaries. We have come to the view that they should be about 60 grand. Our constituents probably think that that is about right on balance. Some of them think that it is too much; some think that it is too little. However, I want to make the wider point, although we cannot debate it now, that there is a debate to be had about the level of top salaries in the public and the private sectors. For me, the issue is that, when some of the private sector has grossly and excessively paid people ridiculous and silly salaries and failed—we have now seen the result of that ridiculous overstretching—it is not surprising that the public sector has had to offer higher salaries to be in the same market for good people.
I will come to that in a moment, but the reality is that people have a choice—whether to go to a private or a public sector job—and often, with this sort of salary, they may choose a public sector job, as Jennifer Watson did, but without such a salary, they may go off to the private sector.
Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right that the time is now ripe for a re-evaluation of top salaries in the public sector. However, does he acknowledge that the salaries attached to jobs such as this emerge from cosy, self-seeking, incestuous cabals in the recruitment agencies who promote that level of pay with little reference to other areas of the public sector? This matter has a strong resemblance to the so-called independent remuneration committees that are so evident and ubiquitous in the private sector. We have to start to reverse the spiral somewhere.
Order. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) himself said that this was not the time or place for a debate about the wider issue, but he has succeeded in igniting one. May I suggest that we go back to the specific terms of the motions that we are discussing?
As I saw you move towards the front of your Chair earlier, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was careful to ensure that I kept close to the motion. I am aware of the danger. However, before I finish I want—if it is in order, of course—to make sure that I link this with the fact that we are asked to appoint somebody at a specific salary. There is a relativity point, which I hope you will accept, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is properly in order.
It will certainly allow the fire to be brought under control much more quickly—I agree with that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not know about the inquiry, so the hon. Gentleman’s intervention is very helpful.
I support the measure and I recommend that my colleagues support the two motions on the Order Paper. I hope that Jennifer Watson takes up her post in the new year, and does so robustly. However, I hope that before similar proposals are put before us on other appointments that are in our gift, we have completed the exercise of comparability—across not only the public sector but the private sector. One of the scandals of Britain in 2008 is that the gap between the well-off and less well-off has widened, and far too many people are paid ridiculously high salaries when many of our constituents have very little indeed. Unless we redress that, every debate on such matters will be provocative and a lot of people will be regarded as far too well paid relative to most of the people whom they seek to serve.
First, I thank the House of Commons Commission for its helpful report, on which a lot of work has been done, led by the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers). I also thank the hon. Gentleman for his earlier remarks, which illuminated my own thoughts on this matter.
On the first motion, I have never met Jenny Watson, as I said in an intervention, and I have no idea about her other than what has been said in this debate and what is in the report. From what has been said in the debate, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), she sounds like an excellent candidate for the role. However, the direction of my remarks will be to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). The two motions—one to appoint a specific individual and the other dealing with the remuneration of whoever the chair of the Electoral Commission might be—will be taken together. That means that because I have severe reservations about the remuneration, which I will come to in a moment when I speak to the second motion, I will be driven to reject this candidate at this stage under the first motion.
The hon. Member for Gosport helpfully pointed out that the initial decision, as I understand it—he will correct me if I misunderstood—was to appoint this candidate on pay of £150,000 for a three-day week. There was then, I suspect, a debate among his Committee, and perhaps others, to the effect that that might not find favour in the House of Commons and that it should rethink the approach and the remuneration. I suspect strongly, although I have no direct evidence, that he and his colleagues were right about that, and that a proposal for £150,000 for a three-day week would not have succeeded before this Chamber.
Although one can talk about the excellent qualities that the candidate referred to in the first motion seems to have, and the fact that there may well be a limited number of people who could do such a job as effectively as she could, there are conversely a limited number of positions in connection with such work available for people who have those sorts of qualifications. That must come into the equation when one is appointing a person to any job.
Before I entered this place, I was one of the leading experts in the legal profession in the west midlands on vibration white finger, although the field was small. I say that to illuminate my point. However, if I had sought a job at a firm other than the one in which I was a partner, I would have found it difficult, because there are not a lot of jobs around for legal experts on vibration white finger. [Interruption.] I had to become an MP, of course, as the Deputy Leader of the House says from a sedentary position. The issue is not only the qualities and abilities of the candidate—in this case Jennifer Watson. There are a limited number of people who could do such jobs, but there are also a limited number of those jobs available; that has to be fed into our considerations.
The second motion mentions £100,000 for a three-day week. In round terms, pro rata, that is £167,000 a year for a five-day week. The current incumbent is on £155,000 for a five-day week. That is not a vast pay increase—it is in the order of 8 per cent., off the top of my head—but it is a pay increase. That causes me concern, given that we are discussing the chair of a body, as I said in an intervention—the point was picked up by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes)—and not the chief executive. From memory, the Information Commissioner, whose remuneration we debated a couple of weeks ago, receives £140,000 a year as chief executive of an organisation that has something like 286,000 employees.
Yes, and a budget of something like £13 million. It is an executive position. Tonight, we are talking about a chair who will be on something like 15 per cent. more per year, pro rata, than the Information Commissioner, who has an executive position. The Information Commissioner is also an important public role that touches the lives of all our constituents, in terms of data protection, freedom of information requests and so on.
We were told, in an effort to pacify, reassure and convince us, that the salary is competitive, as though the job were being passed around a small number of candidates with lots of other jobs, and as though the salary had to be upped to the point at which someone would take it. Surely it is the other way around: surely there are substantial numbers of people out there who could do the job—I am sure that the candidate is a fine person—and who would do it for rather less than the figure that we are talking about.
I agree with my hon. Friend, to the extent that I agree that there is a substantial number of people out there—thousands in my constituency—who would do the job for £100,000 for three days a week, but with all due respect to my constituents, there are not thousands of them who could do that difficult job. I am not sure that there are vast numbers of people who could do the job and who would wish to put their name forward—that is, who do not like their current job, are unemployed or have three days a week spare. However, as I was saying earlier, there are a limited number of such positions for people who have those skills.
We have to bear in mind the notion of public service when we consider the remuneration of the individual. In the public sector, there should of course be remuneration, so that people in the public sector who have a sense of public service can contribute and still pay their mortgage, eat and so on, and so that we get people with certain qualities, but there should not be direct comparison with what an individual with a given set of skills could earn in the private sector.
Looking around the House, I see quite a number of right hon. and hon. Members, including myself, who took pay cuts to come here because of a notion of public service. There is, I am convinced, an even larger number of right hon. and hon. Members who could earn more than they do as Members of Parliament on leaving this place. The reason why they do not leave, and the reason why they are prepared to take a pay cut when they come here, is the notion of public service. The job of chair of the Electoral Commission should involve the notion of public service.
I pay tribute to Jenny Watson for what appears to be her notion of public service. She put her name forward, as I understand it, for a package of £150,000 for three days a week. It was then suggested to her, as the hon. Member for Gosport pointed out, that that may not get through the House of Commons, and she was asked to reconsider the job at £100,000 for three days a week. She said yes—or the motion would not be before us. That is someone who has knocked off a third of the pay for the role that they thought they were going to get, and she clearly seems to have a notion of public service—unless she could not get another job, although we know that she has one, which is another three days a week or so. However, I am so uneasy about the way that the situation has come about and the remuneration for a chair of £167,000 pro rata that I will be driven to vote against both motions, even though I have no dispute whatever with the candidate.
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I feel a little like Scrooge and a little embarrassed that we are even debating an individual and her salary. It seems somewhat below what we should be doing in the Chamber, but we have to do it. It is our duty, so we must approach that task diligently, no matter how embarrassing.
I start by thanking the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) for all that he has done, his courtesy and his help in the matter. He has done a sterling job and his words earlier were very helpful, so I thank him most sincerely.
Let me give the House a little of the history. There was a motion on the Order Paper some three weeks ago for a salary of £150,000. I looked at that and thought it was excessive. It was equivalent to a full-time salary of £250,000 a year for a chairmanship. I immediately banged down an amendment to reduce that salary to the level of salary of a Member of Parliament. I thought that that was a reasonable level of pay for a public servant. Excellent arguments have been made about public service, which is a large factor. With the pension and other benefits that go with it, a salary of £250,000 a year is a very big deal.
Now, Mr. Chairman—sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I think it is because we are debating the subject of the chairman of the commission that I keep making the mistake. When my amendment was tabled, the motion was withdrawn and immediately replaced with a motion for a salary not of £150,000, but of £100,000. That equates to £167,000 a year, with pension and other benefits, which is still quite a substantial salary for such a chairmanship position. It is about the same salary as the Prime Minister gets. I thought it appropriate to table an amendment reducing the £100,000 to the level of salary of a Member of Parliament. That amendment was not selected so we will not debate it tonight.
That change from £150,000 to £100,00 a year in salary has saved the public purse £250,000 over the next four years, along with the pension and benefits. That is quite a substantial sum, so this is not an insubstantial debate. There was a nice round figure of £150,000, and now there is a nice round figure of £100,000, and I wondered where it came from. Let me tell hon. Members where it came from. It was plucked out of thin air. There is no analysis, no job evaluation, no Hay-MSL comparison of salaries. All those tools are available.
There may have been recruitment consultants who were consulted and gave the answer that was sought, and I wonder how much they were paid. Were they paid a percentage of the salary? I suspect that they were, in which case they would want to see the salary higher—[Interruption.] Higher or lower? Higher. That is what recruitment consultants do. I know that extremely well, and the House knows that. Was there a formal analysis? Was Hay-MSL used? Was there any job evaluation? If there was, why has that evidence not been presented to the House? It seems to me that the £100,000 was plucked out of thin air.
I come now to the real debate that I wanted and why I challenged the salary in the first place. When pay is being decided—that is what we are doing tonight—it is absolutely right that performance should be considered. What we are considering represents an increase of about 8 per cent. on the current incumbent’s salary and we would all agree that performance in the job is an essential consideration.
The Electoral Commission has been warmly praised; the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said that it was important, and I agree. It is crucial. The hon. Gentleman said that it was available, courteous and accommodating and that its representatives were nice people; we have all said such things. We know that Sam Younger is a great guy.
The hon. Gentleman says “robust”; I would challenge him on that.
Having said all that, I ask what those representatives have done in the job. What has happened during the period of the Electoral Commission’s existence? If we look at the facts, we see that it has been a conspicuous failure. The most obvious measure of the health of our democracy and of how well the Electoral Commission is working is what has happened to turnout at elections. That has been falling. When I was first elected in 1992, I was voted in on an 82 per cent. turnout; last time, I think it was below 60 per cent. That indicates a conspicuous failure indeed.
There has been no indication tonight about what this candidate will do to put that failure right. What skills will she bring to the job which will enable her to bring in the innovative, flexible and safe voting options that will enable us to drive turnout at elections back up and improve the health of our democracy as we surely should? While I am on the subject, I should say that the safety of elections is also spiralling out of control. Electoral fraud—particularly postal vote fraud—has been getting more and more common during the Electoral Commission’s term of office.
We also see electoral abuses such as the fact that the Conservative party continues to be allowed to fund, with £30,000 or £40,000, the campaigning for a candidate in marginal constituencies before the election is called. That is totally against any public perception of fair play and the spirit of our democracy. What has the Electoral Commission done to stop that? Nothing—it is still going on.
The hon. Gentleman has a perfectly reasonable set of complaints about our political process, but none of them is fairly directed at the Electoral Commission. It cannot decide what percentage of people vote. It cannot write new laws; we do that. If the Tory party gives such huge sums in funds for campaigning for seats, that is because we have allowed it to do that and Parliament has not changed the law. The hon. Gentleman should please not blame the Electoral Commission for things that are the fault of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s complaint in part, but the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) made another point more eloquently than I could: if the Electoral Commission wanted to, it could have taken the nuclear option on any of those issues and forced the hand of the Government and Parliament to make changes that would have improved the health of our electoral system and democracy.
I should say to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that Alistair Graham, the former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, was publicly very critical of the Electoral Commission. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) is absolutely right.
I am grateful for that support from the opposite Benches; I am getting more and more support from them these days.
There has been another failure of the Electoral Commission, and it relates to the commission’s direct responsibility: its failure to deal with the transgressions of electoral returning officers.
Order. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that this is not a debate about the past performance of the Electoral Commission. That is not within the terms of the motions. A slight reference to that might be acceptable, but we cannot have the sort of debate that the hon. Gentleman appears to be conducting.
We heard earlier lots of analogies from the private sector. In the private sector, incentives and performance-related pay may be used. The hon. Gentleman listed some of the objectives of the commission. Would he support a system whereby, during the period of office, performance-related pay would apply if certain key criteria laid down by Parliament were met?
I think that this point is in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A performance indicator for the Electoral Commission might assist in future remuneration discussions, but we should certainly not choose electoral turnout. It was 87 per cent. in North-West Leicestershire in 1992—the highest in the country. The responsibility for turnout, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, lies in this place. We should go for something like the level of electoral registration. There may be some sense in that.
We are now spoilt for choice with excellent ideas and innovations. I hope that the House will divide tonight. I hope that we will reject the measure, so that a more well-thought-out set of proposals will be put before the House which will enable us to pick the right candidate, who will address the issues raised while being paid the right level of salary.
My final point is a swipe at quangos. The public perceive that it is a matter of jobs for the boys, and that we are prepared to pay them public money; we can throw it around. We are not going to throw it at teachers, policemen or firemen when they come, cap in hand, for their pay increases. They will be told, “Sorry, there is nothing in the cupboard for you.” But here we are, throwing public money at our friends. That is how the public perceive the situation, and we must change it. This debate is embarrassing, and we really should not be having it in this Chamber.
If we do reject these motions tonight, the public will not say that it is about jobs for the boys, but that the boys have decided that there should not be a job. If we put ourselves in that position, we will send a worrying and damaging message about the real debate on the Electoral Commission. Unlike other regulators, the commission is not a quango regulator; instead it directly, and often intimately, affects the activities and lives of every Member of this House.
It is important that we get the right person to be the new chair of the Electoral Commission. Whatever we may think about the detail of the procedures governing the proposals on the appointment and final salary, the debate should not swing around whether we appoint someone or not. Discussions about procedures may be carried on by other means. We have heard the proposed salary compared with that of the Prime Minister, but it is lower than the salary of a local authority chief executive. It is not much higher than the salary of a senior electoral registration officer, whose role is to increase voter turnout, and who has a fairly intimate relationship—[Interruption.] I said a little higher.
I challenge the hon. Gentleman to find any electoral registration officer in any local authority—[Hon. Members: “Returning officer.”] Returning officers are the chief executives, but the people who deal with elections on a day-to-day basis are paid £20,000, £30,000 or £40,000, not £140,000.
As far as public sector pay is concerned, I do not think that the suggested salary is completely out of line with the sort of salaries that are paid to those in public service work such as local authority chief executives. I accept that it is quite a bit more than what local electoral registration officers are paid—although that varies in different local authorities—but the suggested salary is not comparable with, say, the quite obscene private sector salaries that are paid for what appears to be very little work on boards, for non-executive directorships and so on, which the House should quite properly continue to be concerned about.
What I want to emphasise about the appointment—how we think about it and how we vote on it this evening—is not just the message that may be sent out if it is believed that we are having a proxy debate about the Electoral Commission, rather than a real debate about appointing someone to head it. If that is believed to be case, the message that we will send out by rejecting the motion this evening will have a wholly destructive effect on the necessary future relationship between this House and the Electoral Commission.
It is essential that the Electoral Commission should be independent and robust, that it should speak up when it needs to, that it should be heard when it speaks up and that it should be seen to be holding the ring properly and impartially in electoral matters and on a range of issues that relate to them. Indeed, the Political Parties and Elections Bill, which is shortly to return to this House on Report, will be seen almost as a new beginning for the Electoral Commission and a number of the things that it does, in terms of who is a commissioner, the proposed changes in the appointment of commissioners, which the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) mentioned, the Electoral Commission’s powers—perhaps amendments tabled on Report will eventually find their way into the Bill—trigger mechanisms for electoral spending and possibly even registration.
All those matters will centrally involve the Electoral Commission. At that new phase in its life, it is vital that the Electoral Commission should have a chairman, be fully functioning and work properly, robustly and independently, in the way that has been described. If we in this House say tonight, “Let’s not make an appointment. Let’s consider everything for a little while and come back later,” but then introduce that new stage, the Electoral Commission will appear to be without leadership—rudderless and without a way forward. At that point, it may be said that that result arose because the House deliberately connived at it, and not for any other reason. If that is thought to be the case, it will be a sorry outcome.
I am sure that the discussions that hon. Members have had this evening have not intentionally aimed at that outcome. I am sure, too, not only that a proper discussion of the Electoral Commission’s role can take place when we debate the Bill on Report and at other stages, but that there ought to be an ongoing examination of whether some of the things that the Electoral Commission has done in the past or will do in the future are completely right. Those matters, however, are not matters for debate this evening. It is important not only that we make the appointment and ensure that the Electoral Commission should have access to the powers and constraints under the legislation that is currently passing through the House to do its job, but that it is headed in a way that makes that possible, that a public announcement is made that that is the way forward that we all want to take and, above all, that we support the independence and future work of the Electoral Commission.
This debate is perhaps more important than we imagine. I wonder whether other Members share my view that the rise of the quangocracy has coincided exactly with the fall in the respect in which this House is held. The more we have given away to so-called independents, the less respect we have had, because we have become less and less powerful, and less and less able to represent our constituents. We talk about independence as though it is some kind of formula but, in truth, no one is independent. Everyone brings their baggage with them. If they have no baggage, it is almost certain that they have very little judgment. So we are starting off in a difficult set of circumstances. The rise and rise of the quangocracy will be supported if the motions are agreed tonight.
A colleague has suggested that we should think, review and reflect once more about this post. Let us imagine for a moment what our purpose in life is. It is to make a difference through the decisions that we make here in the House, but we have contracted them out, privatised them and given them to quangos. The person who wants to do this job is not the person who should get it. As Groucho Marx once said, “I don’t care to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.” More seriously, I shall give the House the example of a friend of mine who was a police officer. He was recruiting marksmen, and he told me that he never once accepted a volunteer. He always preferred to recruit them in a different way, because it was dangerous for volunteers to be police marksmen.
As other hon. Members have said, the establishment of the Electoral Commission has not led to more people voting, or to young people getting more excited about politics. Nor has it led to any greater respect for people in this House. Things have got worse, not better. Is there a correlation? Well, no, because the Electoral Commission is pretty unimportant as a body. It has done nothing worth talking about, barring getting into the headlines from time to time to drag hon. Members over the coals for failing to report something on time. Those are peccadillos as far as the general public are concerned.
When I mentioned to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that anyone could do the job, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) said that not everyone in his constituency could do it. I have to tell him, however, that a good many could. It is a non-job; it is not terribly important to anybody outside this place, and we are navel-gazing again if we think that it is. As for the idea that we should pay someone £167,000 a year to do the job—what an affront! It is an affront at a time when people are losing their jobs hand over fist, often through no fault of their own. However, we could trace the blame for this to the people who are paid that kind of money, and more, and who have made an awful mess of the companies that they are supposed to be running. We are getting into a similar mess with this job. It is simply not worth it.
My hon. Friend and I have a fundamental philosophical disagreement about this job. I am in favour of a democracy that functions properly and has proper elections in which people are voted in and voted out. It does not need policing, other than by this place. This is where these things should be decided.
I can almost trace the beginning of this nonsense of putting everything out to the private sector and to quangos. It was when two Conservative MPs took money for asking questions and the then Prime Minister did not appear to have the courage to say to his Whips, “Deal with them”. We set up an inquiry and ever since we have had all these quangos and nothing is ever done in a proper way as the Whips would want—[Interruption.]
So the hon. Gentleman thinks that we do not need any legislation or any regulation to deal with how much money can be given in donations and what funding is permissible. Is he saying that nobody is needed to police those matters, that the majority party will always get its way and that we can trust democracy to a majority party? He must be living on another planet.
Well, isn’t that a giveaway: “We can trust democracy. Not” he said. Oh no, we cannot trust democracy. Of course we can—[Interruption.] Look, if the great Winston Churchill decided that out of all the systems, democracy was the least worst, I am prepared to go along with it. What I am not prepared to do is continually undermine the power and strength of this House by giving it away to unelected people in quangoland who, if they had any respect for this place, really should not be doing these jobs at all. It seems to me that we have to be proper, right and judicial in this House in setting down the rules. If that fails, then we have the police. If it is felt that people have acted unlawfully, refer it to the police; do not go through this nonsense where these people spend 12 months testing out a decent Member of this House only to decide that there is no case to answer. We should do it in the right way to begin with. I shall support the amendment this evening and I sincerely hope that we reflect on all this business of quangoland before we make any further appointments.
This is the vote before Christmas, so I shall not seek to delay the House too long. The Government support the motion, ably moved by the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers), speaking on behalf of the Speaker’s Committee. We are grateful to all those who have taken part in this decision.
I would like to pay my personal tribute to Sam Younger. I used to work with him at the BBC; I have known him for several years and know him to be an honourable and upright man who has performed his tasks with a great deal of probity. There were many occasions on which I profoundly disagreed with what he and the commission had said and done, but I none the less think that there are times when having such an element of grit in the political democratic system is important, especially if we are to maintain brightly the pearl of democracy.
From what I have read in the report presented in July, I believe that Jenny Watson is an able person who has the kind of track record that would recommend her for this post. She was chosen unanimously by a panel nominated by Mr. Speaker, chaired by Baroness Fritchie of Gloucester and including a representative of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Although there has been some criticism of the process of appointment, I would not want to echo it, although I will come to the issue of remuneration in a few moments.
Jenny Watson is the former chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission and a non-executive board member of the Audit Commission. It is good that she has shown a degree of commitment to public service, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) mentioned earlier, and it will enable her to enhance the role of the Electoral Commission. As is required, the leaders of all the political parties in the House were consulted and none raised any objection to the appointment, so I think that it is a good one.
Several hon. Members raised the issue of remuneration for the chair of the Electoral Commission. It would have been wrong for us to propose voting on £150,000 this evening and I pay tribute to Jenny Watson for taking the very significant pay cut that was proposed to her some time after she was offered the job.
Surely the Minister is not telling the House that if I had not tabled an amendment to reduce the remuneration from £150,000 to £100,000, the House would not simply have allowed it go through on the nod. If he is telling that to the House, he is being disingenuous.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will one day do the sensible thing and swap sides of the House. He has many miraculous powers, but making the Government change their mind is not normally one of them.
I think it right that a more sensible proposition is before us tonight. For my part, I would have found it very difficult to recommend to my constituents a dramatic increase—which this would have represented—from the pay that Sam Younger currently receives to that which Jenny Watson would have received had it been £150,000 for three days a week. I therefore feel that we should pay tribute to her, not least because if we voted against her appointment or her remuneration tonight it would show a degree of lack of grace on the House’s part—given that a Committee of the House produced the recommendation and made her an offer which she accepted—to choose to turn down the recommendation of a report presented to us 22 weeks later. I think that that would be unfair to the lady concerned.
I think that the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) will be able to enlighten my hon. Friend. I shall merely say that I feel that it would be ungracious of us, at this point, to turn down the nomination.
Let me finally express the hope that, in the job that I hope she will be taking on, Jenny Watson will examine one issue that particularly affects hon. Members: the fact that at present we must report donations, gifts, travel and hospitality to both the Electoral Commission and the Register of Members’ Interests. A one-stop shop is long overdue, and I hope that the commission will not be as recalcitrant and difficult in that regard as I have found it to be of late.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
In response to the last comment made by the Deputy Leader of the House, I should point out that it was the House that created the regulations that annoy us all so much, and that it would be for the House to change them if the Electoral Commission were put in a position in which it did not have to require duplicate registration.
There have been some calls for a broader discussion about the Electoral Commission, and I for one would welcome that. The only full discussion we have had on the subject was one that that I instituted by asking for a debate on the Consolidated Fund. I have been asking Ministers for Government time for such a debate, because there are indeed many issues to be discussed.
The main purpose behind the creation of the commission was to promote participation and confidence in the electoral process, and we know what has happened over the past 10 years. It may well be that acceptance of the commission’s proposal for individual voter registration would help to put right some of the things that have gone wrong in the past 10 years, so we need a more general debate. I would welcome a more general debate on appointments and salaries for similar reasons. However, we are not here this evening to talk about that. We are talking about the appointment of a chair of the Electoral Commission, and the remuneration that that chair should receive. The Electoral Commission does exist, and until the House abolishes it, there it is. It needs a chair; it needs to be properly led. That is what we are discussing.
As for the appointment process itself, I absolutely reject the criticism that the selection process was not properly conducted or considered. It was rigorous, it was scrupulous, and it was properly conducted in every detail. I am proud to be associated with it.
The remuneration was also carefully considered. Our starting point was the 11th report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We did not start by asking, “How much should we give Jenny Watson?” We started by listening to the Committee, reading its 11th report, and noting its call for a refocusing on the part of the Electoral Commission and its demand for leadership and direction from the commission. On that basis we consulted, discussed and asked about the terms and conditions that we would need to offer in order to recruit the very best candidates. We managed to reduce 37 candidates to five and then to four, we interviewed them all, and I am confident that we chose the best. We went into the process with our eyes wide open, knowing exactly what we were seeking to do. It was on that basis that we decided that the right salary was £150,000 a year for a three-day week.
We are, of course, talking about March 2008. The world has changed since March 2008, but when the proposal was made, it was to meet the wish of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I draw the House’s attention to the fact that the motion proposing a salary of £150,000 a year for a three-day week carried the words “Queen’s recommendation signified”, meaning that it was acceptable to the Treasury.
I am unsure whether the hon. Gentleman was present earlier in the debate. All the detail is in the first report of the Speaker’s Committee; we pointed out there just how wide that consultation was. I was a participant in all stages of the process and it was, indeed, wide.
My reply is that the hon. Gentleman should ask the Government. It is the Leader of the House who tables motions. We considered it to be very important that we reach our conclusion on the appointment in June of this year and it has taken until now; the responsibility for that lies squarely with the Leader of the House.
The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) claimed credit for reducing the proposed salary from £150,000 to £100,000. Having been engaged in this process, I have to tell him that although we noted his contribution on the Order Paper, he cannot claim credit for that. It was a matter decided by discussion and consultation.
I am sorry, but I will not do so as I have only one minute left.
I am not a natural friend of quangos, but the fact is that the House created the Electoral Commission, and it is important that it should be properly led and directed. I am confident that the appointment of Jenny Watson is the right one, as is the salary proposed for her. Her preparedness to accept a lower salary than the one for which she applied is a noble indication of her public service. I commend the order to the House.
Order. Well, I hope I have cleared that up. Two Questions will be put.
Question put and agreed to.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Jennifer Watson to the office of chairman of the Electoral Commission with effect from 1 January 2009 for the period ending on 31 December 2012.