The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Electoral Commission: Effectiveness
In accordance with its functions under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Speaker’s Committee met on 24 March to examine the Electoral Commission’s main supply estimates for 2020-21 and its five-year plan. In doing so, the Committee had regard to the advice from the Treasury and the latest report made to it by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Committee was satisfied that both the estimate and the plan were consistent with the economic, efficient and effective discharge by the Commission of its functions.
May I congratulate the hon. Member on his new responsibilities? But this is not about figures— it is about the way that the Electoral Commission has hounded leave campaigners. There have been 34 investigations, eight court cases, and at least four people referred to the police for criminal investigation—and it has all come to nowt. Would the hon. Member support a review by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels that the Speaker’s Committee is doing a decent job in maintaining scrutiny of the Electoral Commission. It is entirely appropriate, from time to time, for Select Committees to look into public bodies that fall under their competence, and I suggest that he write to the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee making that suggestion.
Boundary Review in England
The Local Government Boundary Commission for England continues to recommend fair electoral and boundary arrangements for local authorities in England. Last week, it published final recommendations for Westminster and Richmond upon Thames. These local government boundaries generally become the building blocks for parliamentary boundaries, which are, of course, a matter for the four Boundary Commissions, reporting through the Cabinet Office.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. The covid-19 virus has, of course, had an impact on every facet of our lives at the moment. Will he tell us more about its impact on the commission’s boundary work and whether it has been able to co-ordinate its work with other Boundary Commissions, such as those working on the parliamentary boundaries?
When coronavirus-related restrictions were introduced, the commission shifted entirely to home working. It took forward work on reviews where further external information or input was not required, such as those for Westminster and Richmond. The commission aims to deliver external reviews informed by local needs, views and circumstances. It therefore paused some reviews that were part way through the review process while it considered how to proceed. It has now developed new ways of working, and commissioners are meeting today to agree how and when to restart paused reviews and begin others. On the wider issue of parliamentary boundaries using these building blocks, because that is a rolling programme, many of those building blocks will already be in place and other reviews perhaps would never have been ready in time for the particular parliamentary reviews.
Digital Election Campaigning: Transparency
At its meeting on 24 March, the committee approved the commission’s interim corporate plan, which includes plans to address voter concerns about digital campaigning. The commission’s recent report on the 2019 general election highlighted significant public concerns about the transparency of digital election campaigns, which risk overshadowing their benefits. The commission has set out actions that parties, campaigners, Governments and social media companies should take to support trust and confidence at future elections. The actions include extending the imprint rules for printed materials to digital campaign materials so that voters know who is trying to influence them.
This follows on from what the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) asked earlier. Last week, he said the Electoral Commission, which, as my hon. Friend said, is asked to do this important work on digital campaigning, was “arrogant”, “incompetent” and
“politically corrupt, totally biased and morally bankrupt”.—[Official Report, 13 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 246.]
This was because it had the nerve to enforce the law and fine Vote Leave £61,000. Would the committee agree that to try to intimidate an independent electoral body in this way is more in the tradition of the politicians of Zimbabwe than of Britain?
The Electoral Commission has a regulatory role and regulatory authority which are the same as those of many regulators throughout the United Kingdom. I suggest that the track record of the Electoral Commission is one that perhaps does not bear some of the description that has just been repeated. In the past five years, it has carried out approximately 500 investigations into a variety of electoral offences. Only five of those have been challenged in the courts and only one challenge has been upheld.