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Electoral Commission

Volume 691: debated on Monday 22 March 2021

[Relevant document: Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, First Report of 2021, Appointment of the Chair of the Electoral Commission, HC 1276.]

Before I call the Leader of the House to move the motion, I inform the House that Mr Speaker has 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 John Pullinger CB as the Chair of the Electoral Commission with effect from 1 May 2021 for the period ending on 30 April 2025.

The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has produced a report—its first report of 2021—in relation to the motion, which sets out in some detail the process by which Mr Pullinger was selected. It may help if I set out the key points for the record. Electoral commissioners, including the chairman of the commission, 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 put in place and oversee a procedure for the selection of candidates for appointment to the Electoral Commission.

On this occasion, the Committee asked Mr Speaker to appoint a panel to recommend a preferred candidate for the post. The panel consisted of Philippa Helme CB, independent chairman; Tony Hobman, a former electoral commissioner; Sarah Laessig, a former civil service commissioner; and two members of the Speaker’s Committee: the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. Following an open competition and interviews with shortlisted candidates, the panel’s unanimous view was that John Pullinger CB should be appointed as chairman of the Electoral Commission.

The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission considered the panel’s report and recommendation at its meeting on 26 January. It agreed to put John Pullinger’s name forward for the statutory consultation with the leaders of each registered party to which two or more Members of the House of Commons belong. That consultation provides an opportunity for the party leaders to comment, but they are not required to do so. No objection to John Pullinger’s appointment was received in response to the consultation.

The Speaker’s Committee subsequently held a public hearing with John Pullinger on 1 March to test his suitability for the role. A transcript of the hearing has been appended to the committee’s report. Following the hearing, the Speaker’s Committee agreed to recommend to the House that Mr Pullinger be appointed as chairman of the Electoral Commission for a four-year term.

John Pullinger was Librarian of the House of Commons from 2004 to 2014—he is remembered by many hon. and right hon. Members, and I hope that gives them confidence that a friend is being appointed—and he was the UK national statistician from 2014 to 2019. He is currently a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, a visiting professor at Imperial College London, and a governor of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. I hope that the House will support this appointment, and I wish Mr Pullinger every success in his important role.

I thank the Leader of the House for moving the motion. May I start by thanking the outgoing chair of the Electoral Commission, Sir John Holmes, for his four years of service in what is a very important role? I am sure many hon. Members will remember that, before chairing the Electoral Commission, Sir John spent his career working in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and as a foreign affairs adviser to two Prime Ministers of two different parties. We thank Sir John for his leadership and his work to support our democratic process.

As the Leader of the House set out, the panel was appointed by Mr Speaker to oversee the selection process for Sir John’s successor. I want to place on the record my thanks to all those who served on that panel: my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), Philippa Helme, Tony Hobman and Sarah Laessig.

The full transcript of the interview on 1 March 2021 with seven hon. Members and Mr Speaker is available, as the Leader of the House said, in the report of the Speaker’s Committee. In recommending John Pullinger, the panel said:

“John gave full and wide-ranging answers that persuaded us that he had the knowledge and experience necessary to perform strongly in this role. He had a clear appreciation of the range of issues the Commission was facing and of the complexity of its stakeholder base.”

We remember John fondly as the Librarian until 2014. He then became the UK national statistician between 2014 and 2019. He developed and delivered a strategy to enhance the trustworthiness, quality and value of official statistics to support political debate and decisions. He said that it is

“unacceptable for people to either not use evidence, or to misuse it.”

He has also helped to strengthen democracies in places such as Myanmar and Iraq. That emphasis on transparency and evidence-based decision making means that he is suitable for the role, which safeguards the integrity of our electoral process.

The Electoral Commission, like the Office for National Statistics, is independent of Government. John Pullinger therefore has experience to lead this organisation in an independent, robust and accountable way. We in the Opposition thank the Committee of Selection. We are pleased that John Pullinger has agreed to take this position after a rigorous interview, and we wish him all the best in his new role.

Realising the hour, I shall not detain the House long at all, which I know will come as a great relief to colleagues. Let me just say that, as a member of the panel appointed by Mr Speaker to conduct the interview process, I have no doubt whatsoever of the sterling abilities of Mr John Pullinger and therefore recommend him wholeheartedly to Her Majesty for appointment as chair of the Electoral Commission for a four-year period. He will do that job with great ability without fear or favour. I was struck particularly by his understanding of the word “impartiality”.

I will also be very brief in welcoming the proposed appointment of Mr Pullinger. The extensive and vigorous process that has been gone through to reach the point we are at tonight is certainly telling. The public session of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission at which he was questioned went a long way to giving confidence to Members who I know have had questions around the role of the chair of the Electoral Commission in the past. I add my thanks to the former chair, Sir John Holmes, and to the selection panel. They have clearly done an excellent job in meeting their remit.

The period ahead will be very interesting for the new chair. I hope it is one in which we can start to deal with how we properly monitor digital campaigning, digital issues around elections and the online activities of political parties. It is certainly a big task, but I am pretty sure from what I have seen that Mr Pullinger will be up to it.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) and the speakers before him, who clearly made the point that the panel has done a very good job in the selection of Mr John Pullinger.

The chairman of the Electoral Commission is an extremely important appointment. This evening, we have to decide whether a humble address be presented to Her Majesty requesting her to appoint John Pullinger as chairman of the Electoral Commission, with effect from 1 May 2021 to 30 April 2025. In making this decision, we should consider two factors: first, whether Mr John Pullinger is a fit and proper person to chair the Electoral Commission; and, secondly, whether there will be an Electoral Commission for him to chair until 30 April 2025. In helping me to consider this issue, I met Bob Posner, the chief executive of the Electoral Commission, and Louise Edwards, the commission’s director of regulation, on Monday 1 February. I also took the opportunity to watch the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission on Monday 1 March, which held an appointments hearing with Mr Pullinger.

I would first like to say that I have absolutely no criticism of Mr John Pullinger. I do not know him personally, but his experience speaks for itself. His time as the House of Commons Librarian will certainly stand him in good stead when it comes to building a rapport with Members from across the House. His role as national statistician shows that he can run an organisation that is in trouble. I therefore think the answer to my first question is that he is a fit and proper person to carry out the role.

However, I am seriously concerned that Mr Pullinger is joining an organisation that is in very serious trouble and that I do not believe will exist in its current format by the end of this year. How can we appoint someone to an organisation that will, in my opinion, disappear in a few months? The Electoral Commission is politically corrupt, unfit for purpose and is damaging democracy in this country. The chairman of the Electoral Commission must set the overall strategic goals for the organisation and ensure public confidence in the institution and democracy. Unfortunately, I think this will be an impossible task for Mr Pullinger.

Given the state of affairs at the Electoral Commission, rebuilding public trust and respect among people from across all political persuasions will not be possible while it is in its current form. I am not seeking to block Mr Pullinger’s appointment, but he is joining an organisation that is being investigated by two parliamentary Committees: the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. The previous chairman’s request to extend his tenure was turned down by the Speaker’s Committee, and the commission has been widely criticised across the political spectrum. How can Mr Pullinger truly change this failed organisation in its current form, when all trust and respect for it has been lost? The answer is that he cannot.

I have a great deal of personal experience of working with the Electoral Commission, and Members of this House will know that I have raised my concerns time and again through oral and written questions, including questions to the Member who speaks on behalf of the Speaker’s Committee, to the Leader of the House, to the Prime Minister and to the Select Committee. My own close experience of the Electoral Commission goes back to the winter of 2015 when I founded Grassroots Out alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove). Grassroots Out—or GO—was a nationwide campaign whose aim was for us to leave the European Union. We worked with individuals of all political persuasions and none, and travelled the length and breadth of the United Kingdom spreading our message of a better life for the UK outside the European Union. The GO campaign was not a party political organisation.

From the very beginning of the campaign, before we even finalised the name, we were in discussions with the Electoral Commission. I held meetings with officials in Parliament and at the head office. We filled in its pre-poll reports, and we broke off campaigning to hold meetings with it. We went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that we were correctly observing the electoral regulations—which were often extremely unclear—even in relation to putting our imprint on ties, umbrellas and pens. Throughout the campaign, we kept up a dialogue with the commission to ensure that we were abiding by the rules, and at no point were we told of any wrongdoing or any concerns that the commission had with the campaign. So I have probably had more detailed experience of the Electoral Commission than any other Member in this House. When the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union on 23 June 2016, there was—

Order. I am not stopping the hon. Gentleman; I am merely drawing his attention to the fact that this is a very narrow motion. It is specifically about the appointment of Mr John Pullinger as the chair of the Electoral Commission. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman wishes to draw to the attention of the House his concerns about the Electoral Commission, but I do hope that he is not going to give us a history of the actions of the commission with which he personally has been engaged over these last several years. Everybody here present is nodding; we all remember these matters. It has also been made clear that the Committee that took the decision to appoint Mr John Pullinger was well aware of the matters that the hon. Gentleman is bringing before the House, so I hope that he is going to be brief in his description of his concerns, which have been noted by the Leader of the House and everyone else who is present.

Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker; my remarks are in fact going to be brief, but I want to draw the House’s attention to some things, and to one particular thing that Members may not be aware of, which my experience will lead to. I hope that this will help the House to make a decision on whether we are right to make this appointment for such a long period. That is my question; it is not about Mr Pullinger, but about whether we are right to make the appointment for such a long period—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that Mr Speaker did not did not select his amendment about the time. Therefore, the House is considering not the length of time of the appointment but merely whether the appointment should be made. We are not considering how long it should be made for, or any other circumstances surrounding it. This is a simple question of yes or no.

Absolutely, Madam Deputy Speaker. I just want to point out my concerns before I decide how to vote on the motion, and before I listen to what the Leader of the House says in conclusion.

My challenge for Mr Pullinger is whether he will get the commission to apologise unreservedly for the wicked and bullying way in which it treated responsible people. Hon. Members may not know this, but each campaign group had to have a responsible person. They were not the political leaders or the politicians; they were not the David Camerons and the Nigel Farages; they were not the people on the television screens; they were not the people making political decisions. They were honest, hard-working people of great integrity who were making sure that the campaigns kept to the election rules.

I want to concentrate for a brief moment on four: Richard Murphy for Grassroots Out, Liz Bilney for Better for the Country, Darren Grimes for BeLeave and Alan Halsall for Vote Leave. I have worked with two of them, and I know one very well as a personal friend, but what linked them all was their great integrity—yet the Electoral Commission set out deliberately to destroy that integrity.

That is the challenge that I want Mr Pullinger to address. The individuals were threatened with criminal prosecution, their names were rubbished, their professional reputations were attacked and they had to endure the worst malicious treatment from a state-funded organisation that I have ever known. I do not say that lightly. In 50 years in politics, I have never known a state-funded regulator to act in such a way. Remember that these people were not guilty of any wrongdoing. Quite the contrary: they helped to facilitate the greatest democratic debate—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is giving us a long history that does not appear to be relevant to the very precise “yes or no” matter before us now, which—as on the Order Paper—is whether Mr John Pullinger should or should not be appointed. I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to give us a history lesson at this point. I hope that he will bring his remarks to a conclusion.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you are bringing me to the very crux of the matter. I have four points for Mr Pullinger to answer; I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to respond to them, since obviously Mr Pullinger is not here.

In my opinion, if Mr Pullinger is to be the next chairman of the Electoral Commission, he must accept that what happened in the past to responsible people was unacceptable. He must offer a personal apology to the responsible people—to Richard, Liz, Darren and Alan. He must accept that the Electoral Commission acted in a totally unacceptable way and that it must offer compensation. I hope he will.

I listened very carefully to what the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission put to Mr Pullinger at the public hearing. He answered its questions very well—my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) referred to his answer about impartiality—but we cannot forget the past when we decide the future. Mr Pullinger said that one of the Electoral Commission’s biggest mistakes over the past few years related to

“bureaucracy and timeliness—some things seem to take an inordinate length of time”.

I could not agree more. The Electoral Commission would demand answers from responsible people, but then take months and months to reply. Those delay tactics left the individuals with so much anxiety and concern, even though they did absolutely nothing wrong.

The question tonight is whether we can appoint a chairman to an organisation that has failed so badly and has treated people so badly. If I am right that the commission will be split in two later this year, which half will Mr Pullinger chair? Will it be the bit that is responsible for regulation and running elections, or will he be responsible for a separate organisation that does enforcement? At the moment, the Electoral Commission is investigator, judge, jury and executioner. That cannot continue. However, we are being asked to appoint somebody to that organisation, which is likely to be split. I ask the Leader of the House whether, in the contract that is being given to Mr Pullinger, this situation has been considered, because we cannot go on as we have.

In conclusion, we have a number of people who were bullied by the state. I take bullying very seriously, but this is the sort of thing that happens in totalitarian regimes, not in this United Kingdom. We pride ourselves on our democracy. I think Mr John Pullinger is an excellent choice of chairman, but as the chairman of a new Electoral Commission, so I am going to make my decision on how to vote at the end of this debate, after hearing from the Leader of the House.

I will speak only briefly in support of the motion. I was honoured to be a member of the panel, along with my good friend the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), that made the nomination before the House today. As the Leader of the House said, the process was long and detailed, with numerous stages, and the shortlist was very strong, with a variety of candidates offering different strengths. John Pullinger was the unanimous choice of the interview panel. He has had a varied career, but with lots of political experience in non-party political roles, including as the Leader of the House said, in this place as Librarian. It seems that hon. Members of a longer vintage than me clearly remember him well from that time. He demonstrated to the panel during the process a simultaneous grasp of detail and the big-picture strategic issues facing the Electoral Commission, which is perhaps not surprising with somebody who has also served as national statistician, so I strongly urge the House to support Mr Pullinger’s nomination today and send his name through to Her Majesty.

During the process, it is fair to say that he was clear—hon. Members will see this too in the transcript of the Speaker’s Committee meeting—that the commission is not firing on all cylinders and needs reform. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) said, I think that we need to give him a chance to do that job, to do that reform, to make an assessment of what is wrong and to institute a plan for improvement. He can start doing that very quickly—perhaps he is already giving it some serious thought—but making the implementation will last more than a year, although, I have to say, I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving a pre-announcement of what he thinks the Government intend to do. Perhaps the Leader of the House will comment on those plans shortly.

I also want to be clear that there is criticism from both sides of the House about the Electoral Commission, because, frankly, nobody likes being regulated. For Government Members to make out that they are the only ones with a beef against the commission, that they are the only ones with a legitimate grievance, is a misrepresentation.

Every public body needs democratic accountability. We do that for the Electoral Commission through the Speaker’s Committee, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and debates in this House, including this short debate tonight. Obviously, we have areas where we want Mr Pullinger to get cracking to improve the performance of the Electoral Commission, but intimidation from some areas threatening the commission with being shut down within a year needs to stop. We need to give him a clear run to make right what he thinks is wrong in what we all know is not an organisation that is operating at full steam at the moment. Let us start tonight by confirming the nomination of somebody who I think is an excellent candidate and who, I am sure, will be listening to this debate. He will know what he has to do to start tightening the running of the good ship Electoral Commission. Let us give him time to do the job. He knows that he has a job on his hands and that he will be asked to demonstrate clear improvement in performance. Let us give him a chance to do just that.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson).

When I heard that we were appointing a new chair of the Electoral Commission, in the manner of Brenda from Bristol, I said, “Not another one!” But in truth another was needed, partly because of what my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) said, but also because of the other things that the previous chair of the Electoral Commission was doing, seeking to expand its empire and take on prosecution powers—things that were rejected by a majority of Members across this House. I trust that Mr Pullinger as chair will put voters first. Indeed, I am encouraged by the answer he gave my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) and the panel: that

“this is all about the voters”.

The reason I wanted to speak briefly in this evening’s debate is that I was a member of the Joint Committee on the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, to which both the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators gave evidence. I think Mr Pullinger would do well to reflect on that evidence. Without breaching any confidences of our private meeting or scooping our report, which is coming out in a little over 24 hours’ time, most of the members really feel that the election period really needs to be shortened from 25 days, ideally back to the 17 it was before, but perhaps to 20 days. The Electoral Commission said in evidence to the Committee that there were

“a number of benefits for voters, candidates and political parties”

from the 2011 legislation, which increased the period to 25 days, including:

“Allowing more time for voters to receive campaign material from candidates and political parties.”

I am not sure that that is necessarily an advantage. Perhaps we should have taken evidence from Brenda from Bristol and other ordinary voters, and perhaps also from campaigners.

I hope Mr Pullinger hears those words, reads our Joint Committee report and reflects on how his commission —assuming that we appoint him as chair this evening—might think about how to shorten the electoral period to the benefit of democracy, including perhaps by making recommendations to this place if necessary. However, he sounds like a fantastic candidate, with his service in this place and as national statistician, and I will be pleased to support him tonight.

First, I pay tribute to Sir John Holmes for his time as chairman of the Electoral Commission and his work in support of our UK democratic process. It takes courage to challenge the operation of all political parties, particularly a governing party. I am grateful for Sir John’s courage and very much hope that it is not the reason why his chairmanship is not being renewed.

I welcome the appointment of John Pullinger after a robust process, and I am sure his knowledge of parliamentary processes will be a great asset as he takes up his new role. The Electoral Commission is answerable to Parliament, not to the Government or a single political party. The public must be able to have full confidence in its impartiality, and the principle of impartiality underpins the Electoral Commission’s role. It ensures that no party gains an unfair advantage.

The Electoral Commission guarantees our democracy and strengthens our democratic processes, and we must absolutely protect its independence. There have been a number of threats to its independence that should worry us. We Liberal Democrats are concerned that there is increasing pressure on the commission to cave in to the governing Conservative party. No party should have a disproportionate influence on the commission, but we now have a Conservative majority on the Speaker’s Committee. This is the first time in the commission’s 20-year history that the membership of the Speaker’s Committee has a majority from one single party, and it is wrong. Instead, the commission’s 20th anniversary should be marked by making it a more, not a less effective watchdog. Why does the commission have to rely on the police to pursue individual cases when the police have neither the commission’s expertise nor the resources to follow up cases effectively?

We Liberal Democrats want the Electoral Commission to have the power and resources to play its vital role effectively and impartially. It is for the good of our democracy that elections are free and fair. Independent checks and balances on all political parties are crucial and necessary to guarantee a political process that our citizens trust and value. Our democracy can never be taken for granted. Freedom and fairness need to be fought for again and again. We Liberal Democrats will keep fighting to protect these pillars of our democracy.

May I begin by thanking the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for her support and my neighbour the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for the Lib Dems’ support? May I particularly thank the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson), who is currently the Sir Alec Guinness of the Scottish National party? If one remembers “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, one will recall that Sir Alec Guinness played every part, and the hon. Gentleman is currently playing every part for the SNP. If I may say so, he does it with panache similar to that of the late and most distinguished Sir Alec Guinness.

Let me come to the other contributions. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) for his support, but he is also known to be concerned about the Electoral Commission, as, obviously, is my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) said that it was not only the governing party that had concerns and that there were grievances in all parties. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) also hinted at that. This is important. I do not want to go into the theological questions of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough about whether one could make an appointment to a body that might or might not exist at some point in future, because we could say that about almost any organisation. We might have a meteorite hit—we even had one in Somerset last week. You never know, one may hit people on the head and that may change things. These theological debates are not, however, really ones for the Chamber. We have to assume that things will continue as they are for the period in which they are expected to continue, otherwise we would get remarkably little business done.

However, from the Government’s point of view it is clear that many believe the Electoral Commission’s operations are in serious need of reform, particularly regarding its accountability to the House and how it may bring prosecutions. This appointment is perhaps an opportunity for the House to take renewed interest in the way the commission operates. I wish to refer right hon. and hon. Members to the inquiry being conducted into the commission by the Committee on Standards, to which the Conservative party has submitted its own evidence, which I might quote. It said:

“The Electoral Commission's primary function is an executive and administrative one, to oversee the compliance regime for national campaigning finance. In the performance of its functions, it should ensure that the prevailing laws are fairly and proportionately followed, allowing for an appropriate level of transparency on significant donations and significant spending…

The Commission should not be a lobbying organisation, nor should it supplant the role of Government and Parliament in determining the broader legislative and regulatory policy framework…we would argue that the work of the Electoral Commission needs to be more focused and targeted, and there should be greater clarity over its governance and accountability.”

That is the evidence we have put forward and we hope it will be taken into account by the new chairman, assuming this motion is accepted and this Humble Address is passed to Her Majesty and accepted by our sovereign, but those are going to be detailed debates for another day. Today’s debate is simply: do we think that Mr Pullinger is a suitable candidate? I have certainly noticed from today’s debate that there is a general feeling that he is basically a good egg, and on that basis I commend this Humble Address to the House.

Question put and agreed to.