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Electoral Commission

Volume 635: debated on Tuesday 23 January 2018

[Relevant document: Third Report of the Speakers Committee on the Electoral Commission of 2017, Appointment of an Electoral Commissioner, HC 688.]

I beg to move,

That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Professor Sir Ian Kennedy as an Electoral Commissioner with effect from 1 February 2018 for the period ending 31 January 2022.

As with the previous debate, the motion before us gives the House the opportunity to debate a recommendation that has been agreed, this time by the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission.

Electoral commissioners are appointed under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, as amended by the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009. Under the Act, the Speaker’s Committee has a responsibility to oversee the selection of candidates for appointment to the Electoral Commission. Commissioners are appointed for a fixed term, but the Committee may recommend their re-appointment, where that is appropriate.

Hon. Members may know that the Speaker’s Committee has produced its third report of 2017 in relation to the motion. The Speaker’s Committee is not regulated by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, but it has chosen to follow its recommended best practice in its supervision of appointments. The OCPA code of practice for appointments to public bodies, which was published in April 2012, provides that no reappointment may be made without a satisfactory performance appraisal.

The Speaker’s Committee was required to recruit a new electoral commissioner to replace the outgoing electoral commissioner, Toby Hobman. His term of office expired on 31 December 2017. Mr Hobman had been a commissioner since 2010, serving two terms.

As is normal for these appointments, Mr Speaker appointed a panel to conduct the shortlisting and interviewing of candidates. The panel was chaired by Joanna Place, chief operating officer at the Bank of England. The other panel members were Sir John Holmes, the chair of the Electoral Commission, and the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), a member of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission.

The independent panel was unanimous in its recommendation that Professor Sir Ian Kennedy be appointed. Sir Ian served as the first chair of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority from 2009 until 2016. Between 2002 and 2009, he was chairman of the Healthcare Commission, which was the first body to regulate the NHS. He has also chaired a number of reviews and inquiries across a spectrum of public life, including into xenotransplantation for the Department of Health, and into rabies and quarantine for the then Ministry of Agriculture.

The panel’s recommendation was endorsed by the Speaker’s Committee. Once the Committee has reached a decision, statute requires that the Speaker consults the leaders of political parties represented at Westminster on proposed appointments. The statutory consultation provides an opportunity for the party leaders to comment, but they are not required to do so. The responses to consultation can be found in the appendix to the Speaker’s Committee’s report. No objections to Sir Ian’s appointment were received.

If this appointment is made, Sir Ian will serve as an electoral commissioner for four years. If the motion is agreed, I wish him well in his post. I commend the motion to the House.

May I thank the Leader of the House for her comments? I also thank the chair of the independent panel, Joanna Place, and the other panel members, namely Sir John Holmes, the chair of the Electoral Commission, and my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), who is a member of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, for their work in identifying the candidates and going through the selection process. My thanks also go to the outgoing commissioner, Toby Hobman, who has served two terms since 2010.

The unanimous view of the panel was that Professor Sir Ian Kennedy should be appointed as an electoral commissioner. Sir Ian has been involved in public life for more than three decades. The Opposition therefore agree with the independent panel’s recommendation on the appointment of Professor Sir Ian Kennedy from 1 February 2018 to 31 January 2022.

I will be brief, because I know that the House wants to move on quickly.

I oppose the motion. The Electoral Commission is an incredibly important body, and I ask Members to reflect on why the issue has been brought to the House. It is because it is for the full House to make a decision, rather than relying on our Front Benchers and the official channels.

I do not believe that Sir Ian Kennedy would be an appropriate appointment to the Electoral Commission. This gentleman is 76 now; he would be 80 at the end of his term. When he served on the Health Commission, he claimed £15,000 on taxis from north London to the job. Although our expenses system desperately needed to be reformed, I do not think that a single Member thinks that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is a system lacking in bureaucracy that could not be well reformed. I do not think he did a good job there. The Electoral Commission requires somebody who understands politics. All its existing members either understand politics—and he does not get that—or understand the media and have an idea of how to project the commission’s broader work. We are being asked to vote on this motion because we can legitimately have an opinion. I believe that that opinion should be that he is not a fit and proper person to serve, and I ask Members to vote in the No Lobby this evening.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak. As the only Member of this House to serve on the appointments panel, and as a member of the Speaker’s Committee, I should like to make a short contribution setting out a bit more about the process mentioned by the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz).

I reiterate that the recruitment process that was followed was the same open, fair and transparent process that has been used in the past to recruit all electoral commissioners. It is also worth stressing that this appointment represents one of 10 places on the board, four of whom were nominated by the main political parties. As the Leader of the House set out, the appointments panel was composed of Joanna Place, the chief operating officer at the Bank of England, who served as our independent chair; Sir John Holmes, the chair of the Electoral Commission; and me, as the representative of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission.

With the support of independent consultants, and following an open advertisement, a long list and short list were drawn up. Five very strong candidates were selected for interview, and following a comprehensive and lengthy interview process, the panel concluded that Professor Sir Ian Kennedy was the strongest candidate, and unanimously recommended his appointment. The Speaker’s Committee in turn then agreed with that recommendation. As we have heard, the leaders of all the main parties were consulted, and no objections were received.

I seek to reassure the House that this was a fair, open and transparent process that followed all the usual steps that should be followed and that were followed in previous processes. I am confident in the rigorous process that was followed, and as a panel we stand by our decision to recommend the appointment of Sir Ian Kennedy.

Like other colleagues, I shall not detain the House for long. Many relevant points have already been made by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge).

I think that there is concern about this appointment. Quite apart from more general questions as to the role of the Electoral Commission and whether it is a body that has been losing its way, which is a wider debate for another day, we do need to look at this. Let us be frank: Sir Ian Kennedy, many colleagues feel, largely created the dreadful, anti-elected-Member, vindictive attitude that has permeated so much of IPSA, which has basically taken as its premise that it is there to make life difficult for Members of Parliament.

I have to say in all honesty to my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), who is an excellent Member of Parliament—I do not say that in any patronising way, but in a genuine way—that if Sir Ian Kennedy was the best candidate, I do wonder about the process through which we are undertaking appointments. We ought to look at how other countries run such electoral commissions. They have serving politicians who actually understand the current electoral system, rather than, as we do so often with such bodies in this country, putting it out to the great and the good, and the relentless quangocrats. When people read out the long list of quangos on which they have served, I regard it as a criticism rather than a commendation that they have constantly been on these public bodies, rather than, as used to be the case, people from industry on one side and from trade unions on the other who had much broader experience.

Why Sir Ian Kennedy, the arch-quangocrat? The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East mentioned Sir Ian Kennedy’s record at the Healthcare Commission. Many of those who were here at the time remember the disdain with which IPSA, his organisation, treated Members who had difficult transport issues, family housing issues or disabilities. In the case of new Members who might have been inclined to give more slack to the organisation, I know that many of them, and their staff, have found dealing with it incredibly difficult, due to the amount of staff time that that takes, and its great obstructionism and very limited access. That stemmed from the culture imbued there at the start.

With that record, I do not think that Sir Ian Kennedy has shown the qualities and comprehension appropriate to this position, which involves dealing with those in elected office. Frankly, I hope that we will reject this appointment and do better next time.

I am one of the new members of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, as well as of the Speaker’s Committee for IPSA. It has been really illuminating to be part of those bodies and, in particular, to look at the rigorous appointment procedures that are gone through in advance of somebody being recommended to the House.

I am honestly quite baffled by some of the contributions that we have heard. I am shocked that anybody would suggest that somebody was too old to sit on this body, given the number of people just along the corridor who are significantly older than Professor Sir Ian Kennedy. Although I have used that line in criticising the House of Lords, I do not think that Members who support the House of Lords are in a position to do so.

The other thing I am confused about is why people seem to be unhappy about the gentleman’s extreme length of experience. In any other circumstances, people would be saying that such experience was really impressive and that he could really bring something to the table.

It is pretty clear that there is a significant personal element to how some Members feel about this issue. Owing to the way the process has worked, when the matter has come to the House before, there has not been a debate, so people have just been able to shout “No” without making it clear why they believe that the appointment should not happen. Having been part of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, it honestly feels to me that the process was very rigorous. Any outside observer would think that a rigorous process had been undertaken, and that Professor Sir Ian Kennedy was therefore the right person to be appointed to the role.

Question put.