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Electoral Commission

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2021

[Relevant document: Sixth Report of 2020 from the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, HC 1102.]

Before I call the Leader of the House to move the motion, I should inform the House that I have not selected the amendment in the name of Mr Peter Bone.

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Alexander Attwood as an Electoral Commissioner with effect from 1 February 2021 for the period ending on 31 January 2024.

The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has produced a report, its sixth report of 2020, in relation to this motion and it may help if I set out the key points for the record. 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 the responsibility to oversee the selection of candidates for appointment to the Electoral Commission, including the reappointment of commissioners.

If this appointment were made, Alexander Attwood would be one of four nominated commissioners. Nominated commissioners are put forward by the leaders of registered political parties with two or more Members in the House of Commons at the time of the appointment. Three of the four nominated commissioners are put forward by the leaders of the three largest parties in the House of Commons. In the case of the fourth commissioner —the position in question today—the other qualifying parties are each invited to nominate candidates for that one post.

This appointment is necessary because of the resignation of Alastair Ross last year. I thank Mr Ross for his service on the commission. In May last year Mr Speaker wrote to the leaders of the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist party, Plaid Cymru and the Social Democratic and Labour party asking them for their nominations to replace Mr Ross. Three candidates were put forward. The Speaker’s Committee appointed an interview panel to assess each of these candidates against agreed criteria. The panel consisted of Philippa Helme CB, the independent chairman, Sir John Holmes, then chairman of the Electoral Commission, the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney). The panel interviewed the candidates on 7 September. Its recommendation was that Alexander Attwood, the candidate nominated by the Social Democratic and Labour party, should go forward as its preferred candidate.

The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission considered the panel’s report and recommendations, and agreed to recommend that Mr Attwood be appointed for a three-year term. Once the Speaker’s Committee has reached a decision, statute should require that Mr Speaker consult the leaders of political parties represented at Westminster on the proposed reappointments. The statutory consultation provides an opportunity for the party leaders to comment, but they are not required to do so. No objection to Mr Attwood’s appointment was received in response to this consultation.

Mr Attwood has significant political experience in Northern Ireland. He served as a Belfast City councillor, representing West Belfast. He was an elected Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly between 1998 and 2017 and held ministerial office in the Northern Ireland Executive. The interview panel found Mr Attwood to be an impressive candidate who met all the essential criteria for the position.

If the appointment were made, Mr Attwood would serve as an electoral commissioner for three years. I hope that the House will support this appointment, and I wish Mr Atwood success in this important role and commend this motion to the House.

I thank the outgoing member of the commission, Mr Alastair Ross, who served on the Electoral Commission from November 2018 to February 2020.

The Speaker’s Committee appointed a panel to consider the nominee to the Electoral Commission and I thank the panel for its work. In the report of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, its sixth report in this Session, Mr Alexander Attwood was selected by the panel to serve as an electoral commissioner. The panel said that Mr Attwood’s

“experience of consensus building and handling hostile criticism would be of great value to the Electoral Commission.”

Mr Attwood was appointed by John Hume to the Dublin Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in 1997. The Opposition support the motion, and wish Mr Attwood well in his work.

It is a great pleasure to follow the shadow Minister and the Leader of the House. I have concerns about today’s motion. Hopefully, the Leader of the House will be able to reassure me in his closing remarks. This is a very important appointment. There are only 10 electoral commissioners, and they have, overall, five different strategic reasons for being there. The most important, perhaps, is to set the overall strategic direction of the commission, to ensure delivery of its strategic goals, and to ensure public confidence in democracy.

As the Leader of the House rightly said, the process was started way back last year, and many things have changed since that process began. If the Electoral Commission had widespread support, a routine appointment of another electoral commissioner would be no problem. I fear that both the Leader of the House and the shadow Minister are treating it in that respect. I have a great deal of personal experience of dealing with the Electoral Commission, before and during the 2016 EU referendum. Since the appointment process started, there has been a huge amount of criticism of the Electoral Commission, and we do not know what Mr Attwood’s views on the proposed changes are.

I have absolutely no criticism of Mr Attwood. I do not know him, but his CV looks very good and he beat the Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru nominees for the post, but he is joining an organisation that is in serious trouble. As the shadow Minister referred to, one of the criteria was: “How are you going to deal with hostile criticism?” I wonder why the Electoral Commission had that as such an important point. It could be because it is not fit for purpose; it is an awful organisation.

What struck me as strange about this Humble Address was the length of time of the appointment. Nominated commissioners for the smaller parties are usually given only a two-year term. This motion calls for a three-year term. Nowhere in the report from the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission can I see why it changed it, and I notice that the Leader of the House did not explain why there was this change. It would seem to me, given the state of affairs in the Electoral Commission, that the term should have been shorter.

I am not seeking to block Mr Attwood’s appointment; I am just seeing whether the Leader of the House will consider withdrawing the motion and appointing Mr Attwood for a shorter period. I will explain why I think that is essential. I also hope that the Leader of the House will be able to answer some of the questions that I would have liked to pose to Mr Attwood personally, because the House needs to know his views on certain things to do with the Electoral Commission to see whether he is the right person to set its goals.

As the Leader of the House said, it is up to the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission how it makes its appointment of an electoral commissioner. It could, before this stage, have recommended pre-appointment scrutiny, perhaps via the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and the questions I am posing now could have been posed then. I understand that if we were appointing the chairman of the Electoral Commission, the Committee may well have gone for a pre-appointment hearing, but we have not had one on this occasion, so I am going to have to press on with the questions I would have liked to ask.

The process outlined by the Leader of the House was exactly how it happened, and it is recorded in the sixth report of the Speaker’s Committee. But of course, that Committee meets in private, so we do not really know what the thinking is about the Electoral Commission. We do know, however, that the Speaker’s Committee has rejected the application for the existing chairman to have a new term of office, which I would have thought implied some criticism of the way the Commission has been run. I think that the situation is so grave, and what the Electoral Commission has done is so wicked, that I want to know what Mr Attwood’s views are on certain things.

I mentioned the fact that PACAC was looking into the looking into the Electoral Commission. In fact, it is a wide-ranging inquiry that started sometime last year, and there are eight areas that the Committee is looking into. The third area asks whether the remit of the Electoral Commission should be changed. The sixth covers public and political confidence in the impartiality and ability of the Electoral Commission, and the eighth asks what, if any, reform to the Electoral Commission should be considered. I would like to know whether those points were put to Mr Attwood and what his answers were.

I also think it is unfair to Mr Attwood to appoint him for three years when he does not know what he is actually going to be appointed to. I have no doubt that PACAC will recommend massive changes to, if not the abolition of, the Electoral Commission, yet he is being appointed for three years to something that could be completely different after only a few months. I hope that the Leader of the House can tell us what will happen if the Electoral Commission is abolished later this summer. I understand that the Committee is likely to report during the summer.

I suppose the question I would have most wanted to ask, and which I hope the Leader of the House can shed some light on, involves the wicked behaviour, political corruption and nastiness of how the Electoral Commission dealt with people who were involved in the details of the 2016 referendum. It has been widely reported, and it will not come as any surprise to the House, that the Electoral Commission tried to persecute people who were heads of the leave campaign—the directors of legal organisations, like myself. I was a director and founder of Grassroots Out, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove). There was widespread coverage of this, and perhaps the most well known and vicious attack was on Mr Arron Banks. In the end, the Electoral Commission had to fight a law case and lose. During that period, Mr Banks suffered malicious attacks in the media. His reputation was damaged: commercially, bank accounts were closed because of the ongoing investigation, and press leaks from the Commission occurred. This was done by the Electoral Commission, whose electoral commissioners are responsible for its actions, yet they used the power of the state, the money of the state, to persecute people who had headed up leave campaigns. I would like to ask Mr Attwood what his view is on that and what he would do in future to stop it happening again.

The area that has not got much coverage, and should have done, is the position of what was called the responsible person. Every leave campaign had a responsible person. I will just mention four of them. For Grassroots Out, it was Mr Richard Murphy; for Better for the Country, it was Liz Bilney; for BeLeave, it was Darren Grimes; and for Vote Leave, it was Alan Halsall. They were threatened with prosecution. Their names were rubbished. Their professional reputations were attacked. They had to endure the worst of malicious state treatment. The money that the Electoral Commission could use in legal fees was endless, yet the individuals had to fight back. They had no support. Quite often the Electoral Commission would demand lengthy explanations of things and give a very short timescale to reply, and it then got months and months to come back. It was disgraceful.

I joined the Conservative party when I was 15, so I have now been in local and national politics for more than 50 years. Often I have disagreed with things and often I have been upset about things—very upset, quite often, by things my own party did—but at no time did I think there was an organisation that was maliciously undermining the democratic process and attacking individuals because of their political views. Let us remember this: the responsible people are not politicians. They are not the Peter Bones or the Arron Bankses; they are just people who want to be involved in the political process and have knowledge of how to do campaign returns. Anyone who thinks the Electoral Commission treated those people fairly either has no idea of what happened or is not telling the truth.

Many of these people had their health severely damaged, their reputations tarnished, and their finances destroyed by having to raise thousands and thousands of pounds to fight the Electoral Commission. Every time, those people won, and not a single one of them was ever charged with anything. They were honest, decent people who were attacked by the state through the Electoral Commission. I want to know from Mr Attwood what he thinks about that, and what the other commissioners think, when we get a chance to debate this. It really was the most disgusting thing that I have ever seen a state organisation do.

We should be immensely proud of the referendum and the debate that surrounded it. It was the greatest exercise in democracy in this country. Whether you were on the leave side or the remain side, it was a great debate. From my point of view, as I said, I formed Grassroots Out. I did not know at the time that Richard Murphy, who was put there to look after the paperwork and everything relating to the requirements of the Electoral Commission, would be in such a terrible, terrible state because of the Electoral Commission—and the electoral commissioners did nothing to stop it.

I put on this rather garish GO tie to show the extent that we went to to comply with the rules. I doubt if anyone else in the country has a tie that has an imprint on the back of it with Richard Murphy’s name on it. That is because we were assiduous in making sure that we did everything right. We went to the Electoral Commission’s buildings when we registered—we went throughout the process. We filled in its pre-poll reports. We broke off campaigning to deal with some return or other it wanted at the last minute during the campaign. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby and I toured the UK, going up and down the country, talking to people and having three meetings a day, but we would break off, if necessary, to deal with the Electoral Commission.

When we finished the campaign, we did the return, which was not that complicated; we had spent a few hundred thousand pounds, which was way under any limit that we could possibly have broken. Being a chartered accountant, I looked at the paperwork we were submitting and it was fine, but we took the extra precaution of going to the Electoral Commission’s offices—I, Richard Murphy and my hon. Friend the Member for Corby—where we went through the return line by line before we submitted it. We said, “Is there anything wrong with this? If there is, we will go back and check it.” It was given the all clear, but months later we are dragged through months and months of an inquiry by a commission whose only reason to do it was that they hated leave campaigners. Instead of being at the heart of the democratic process, encouraging democracy, the commission did exactly the reverse. I would like to know from Mr Attwood how he is going to restore trust in democracy for any future referendum. I would bet a few pounds that none of the responsible people in the EU referendum would take the job on again—I could not advise anyone to do it. They do the work and do it properly, and do not get paid for it, but then the state organisations use all the power of the state; first, it does the regulation, then it does the inspection, and then it becomes the jury and judge and executioner. That cannot be right.

Mr Attwood, I want to know what you think about the reforms necessary to bring confidence back to the Electoral Commission. It may well be that it has to be abolished and that the culture in the Electoral Commission is so wicked, bad and unfair that it has to be scrapped and we have to start again. I fear that we are appointing a commissioner to carry on in the same old way, for a three-year term. It must be clear to everyone that there is not cross-party support for the Electoral Commission and it has lost the support of people. This is not party political; Conservatives, Labour members, United Kingdom Independence party members and people of no party all found themselves being persecuted by this organisation. It is a disgrace. It spends more than £15 million of our money each year. So if Mr Attwood was standing there now, I would say, “What are you going to do about all this?” It may well be that he could give me the answers and I would be able to support him, but this system does not stand the test of scrutiny. I hope the Leader of the House will be able to reassure me on these things when he answers, but I doubt it.

In 2016, we had a revolution. It was not a bloody one; it was a democratic revolution. It changed our relationship with Europe peacefully. More people voted in that referendum than ever before. The Electoral Commission should be helping and encouraging a repeat of that in the future. Its wicked persecution of responsible people after the referendum is a disgrace. I have nothing against Mr Attwood personally, but I think we are being put in a very difficult situation tonight; we are being asked to ask Her Majesty to appoint him as an electoral commissioner when we do not know the views.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) is endorsing the concept of future referendums. I look forward to a referendum in the not-too-distant future, which might bring out a democratic revolution of its own, paving the way for independence for Scotland. If he wants to compare notes on ties, he might be interested to know that on the back of mine, the label states “United States Capitol Historical Society”, and it bears inscriptions from the constitution of the United States, such as:

“We the people of the United States in Congress assembled”,

and so on.

Mr Attwood will always remember the day when he was appointed to the Electoral Commission, not just because of the interrogation from the hon. Gentleman, but because of the other historic events that are taking place—the triumph of democracy being affirmed in the United States. Here we are in our own quiet way enacting the democratic processes of this country and affirming Mr Attwood’s nomination to the body that oversees those electoral processes.

It is right to question the role and functions of the Electoral Commission, but it is perhaps not quite so appropriate to hijack a relatively technical debate that should be a formality. It has happened several times recently, and I think it does no favours to the candidates, who have been through a rigorous process. We ought to have faith in those processes. I certainly have faith in my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson), who serves on the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. He assures me that all due process was carried out and the best candidate of those available was selected.

It is very clear from the report that Mr Attwood is highly qualified to take on the position. We wish his predecessor well and we wish him well as he takes up his office, much as we wish President Biden and Vice-President Harris well—I think I get to be the first person to call them that on the Floor of the House of Commons—in their positions.

I, too, add my voice of congratulations to Alastair Ross for the time he spent as an electoral commissioner. I am disappointed he has not been able to serve out a full term and contribute fully to the role of the Electoral Commission, but I believe he moved on to other things.

I have a number of points that I would like to raise, and I must say I have some sympathy with the points made by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) this evening. The first point I would make is: why are we appointing someone to the Electoral Commission for a period of three years, when the Electoral Commission itself is being reviewed and could, as the hon. Member said, no longer exist by the end of this appointment’s duration? It would be much more satisfactory if the appointment had been made for a year to allow the Committee dealing with the matter in Parliament to address its affairs properly. The matter should be looked at properly. Will the Leader of the House examine that matter and consider, as was requested of him, withdrawing the motion tonight, given the public transparency and scrutiny of these appointments?

There has been absolutely no public transparency over these appointments. We are told this is the best candidate available. We are not sure whether various sifts happened in the process. There is no transparency whatever about the appointment, and that matter should be looked at. Transparency in public appointments is very important, especially when people’s elected careers and mandates can be questioned.

There are issues about whether this is a controversial appointment. This will be regarded in Northern Ireland as a controversial appointment, just because of the very nature of the person being appointed, who is a member of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party. They therefore have political baggage. That is unfair on the gentleman in question, but that is a fact of life and we all deal with that. I have political baggage, because I am from the Unionist tradition, and those matters will be examined.

We do not know, for example, whether the Committee examined the professional conduct of the individuals in question or whether it knows about the pretty basic dealings with the Law Society. Were those matters addressed, were they examined? I do not know, because there has been no transparency in this House and no opportunity for Members, as the hon. Member for Wellingborough said, to examine any of the points of this appointment. We are not able to examine or to hold ourselves, or indeed this House, to account. The issue of how this appointment was made should be looked at, and the Leader of the House has a duty to take this matter away and to consider some of the points that are being raised.

On a wider point, I believe that there is very little public confidence left in the Electoral Commission by many of the larger parties in this House, which is why the decision must be examined. The commission wrongly reported three individuals to the National Crime Agency after the 2016 referendum, and it largely made that recommendation after a Twitter campaign against those individuals. The hon. Member for Wellingborough quite rightly said that people were persecuted. Just think of it: a publicly funded body in the United Kingdom made recommendations to the National Crime Agency, which led to the persecution of people. It led to the persecution of Liz Bilney. It led to the persecution of Andrew Wigmore. It led to the persecution of Arron Banks. Careers were put on hold and businesses were questioned and challenged all because of a narcissistic, axe-grinding campaign against those who organised Vote Leave. The Electoral Commission cannot wash its hands of those career-wrecking decisions.

I understand that those individuals had to spend upwards of a quarter of a million pounds in defending themselves. They then ended up with an apology and were just dismissed and told to go away: “Oh, we got it wrong. We persecuted you. We wrecked your jobs. We wrecked your careers.” The hon. Member for Wellingborough mentioned that bank accounts were closed and put on hold. “Well, we did all that to you and your family, but we will just say sorry and let it go on from here.” That is not good enough.

It is right and proper that we should be able to hold to account those members being appointed. After one of the most important electoral decisions in the history of this nation—certainly in the history of modern times—are they content with how the Electoral Commission behaved and will they instigate change in how the Electoral Commission behaves? There has been no effort to scrutinise how the Electoral Commission member would avoid any of the political activity or any of the conflicts of interest that would ultimately arise as they have arisen in the past. If the Electoral Commission cannot be trusted on the biggest election in our recent history, in the referendum, this issue really does require scrutiny. I urge the Leader of the House to bring it back.

An allegation of dark money was made to the Electoral Commission in relation to my own party, because we dared to be part of a nationwide campaign. Because the allegations were made on Twitter and on social media, the Electoral Commission thought it had to run with them and bow to them and push for those investigations. It took months for those issues to be dismissed, when they should have been dismissed out of hand.

I must say that the way that this commission is structured allows for the fuelling of these attacks on people. It has taken months for it to investigate people—to be a judge, a jury and an executioner itself. Effectively, it acts with the same carte blanche that the Star Chamber would have used in years gone by. All of this needs to be reformed. If we are in the process of considering these matters of reform, why are we in the process of appointing people who do not have the full confidence of the House, not in themselves but in terms of how the process of appointment is actually taking place? We need to encourage public confidence in this matter, not encourage public concern, and I do fear that tonight’s motion drives public concern.

I apologise that the video link went down, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he came through loud and clear.

This is an important debate, but it has wandered slightly, though in a very carefully phrased way within the orders of the House, beyond the appointment of Mr Attwood.

May I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) for his support and the support of the official Opposition, and the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for the support of the Scottish National party, for which I am grateful? There is one point I would pick up on with the hon. Gentleman, and it is not the label one has on one’s tie. It is that, in this process, the House is the final arbiter. This is part of the process, and we should never view this part of the process as being a mere rubber stamp. However good the earlier stages, when something comes to the House, we are free to decide in any direction, but I am grateful for his support.

There are really three points that have come up in this debate, the first two of which are not particularly controversial. The first is the question of the appointment of Mr Attwood, which seems to be accepted. It seems to be accepted that he is qualified. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) mentioned his support for the SDLP, but this is one of the four nominated members who do have party political affiliations. That is therefore perfectly reasonable within the structure of the Electoral Commission, although I obviously understand the sensitivities in Ulster over any political affiliations. It is broadly accepted that he is qualified, that he is a suitable person and that sending an Humble Address to Her Majesty in his name or on his behalf is reasonable.

The second point, which was perhaps slightly more contentious but not overwhelmingly so, was the question of whether this should be done now, or whether I should withdraw the motion and come back at a later stage. The problem with this is that it elides the first point and the third point, which I will come on to. The reason for doing it now is that Mr Attwood is accepted to be suitable, not because of questions on the Electoral Commission, which I shall turn to briefly.

There is the debate on why this appointment is for a three-year rather than a two-year term. The simple fact is that the Speaker’s Committee took the view that the Electoral Commission would benefit from the commissioner spending longer in post. That was the decision it came to and put forward in its report and, the amendment not being selected, that is what we have the ability to vote on this afternoon. I think it reasonable to put some confidence in the Speaker’s Committee, which represents all views of the House.

However, thirdly, the real issue of debate today is not the suitability of Mr Attwood and this question of an Humble Address, but the Electoral Commission itself and its treatment of individuals. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) mentioned that Richard Murphy had difficulty with the Electoral Commission. I have known Richard Murphy for 20 years, and he is the most brilliant, honest, sensible man one could think of and a formidable political campaigner. He was the area agent when I first stood for Parliament in England—when I stood in The Wrekin in 2001—and, goodness, he is an impressive and honest man. If even somebody like Richard finds the Electoral Commission is trying to hang weights round his neck, then that is something which of course is a matter of concern, and we know that the issue with Darren Grimes was settled in Darren Grimes’s favour.

I think it is not unjustifiable to raise these concerns, but that is not the issue for tonight’s vote. It is of course important that the Electoral Commission should be impartial in its judgments. It is of course crucial that people should have confidence in it when it is involved in a referendum—whether that be a referendum as in 2014, which we know settled things for a generation, or one in 2016, which settled our relationship with the European Union. If people do not have confidence in the Electoral Commission to be fair, regardless of which side of the debate they are on, then it is a risk for our democracy. So it is important that the Electoral Commission should hear this debate and should respond to the important points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, because that confidence is of fundamental importance.

However, I am glad to say that this House, in its wisdom, has an answer. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee—whose distinguished Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), is sitting behind me—is carrying out an examination into the Electoral Commission, which will be able to go through all the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and the hon. Member for North Antrim, consider them carefully and make recommendations. That is very important. We see in all elections how important confidence in the system is, and when confidence is undermined, whether rightly or wrongly, that is a troubling state for democracy to be in. I therefore urge the PACAC to put its shoulder to the wheel, put grease on its elbow and ensure that its report comes forward, to help us deliberate in future. In the meantime, I commend this motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Alexander Attwood as an Electoral Commissioner with effect from 1 February 2021 for the period ending on 31 January 2024.