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Political Parties and Elections Bill

Volume 712: debated on Thursday 9 July 2009

Third Reading

Clause 5 : Four Electoral Commissioners to be persons put forward by parties

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 5, page 4, line 21, leave out “one or more” and insert “three”

My Lords, government Amendment 1 has been tabled in response to concerns expressed by the Electoral Commission that commissioners with recent political experience should be selected by open competition. Although the Government fully subscribe to the principles of open competition, we believe that it is important to retain a role for leaders of political parties in the appointments process for these commissioners. Party leaders are well placed to judge those who have the relevant skills and experience to contribute positively to the Electoral Commission’s work.

Having said that, I believe that there is now cross-party consensus that there should be some element of competition in the appointments process for nominated commissioners. In view of this, Amendment 1 seeks to amend Clause 5 on the selection process for nominated commissioners. The amendment would require the leaders of the three largest qualifying parties in Westminster each to nominate three candidates for consideration for appointment as a nominated commissioner, rather than to put forward at least a single candidate each, as the Bill currently requires.

The amendment is intended to introduce a degree of competition into the process for appointing nominated commissioners. The Political Parties and Elections Bill provides that four persons with recent political experience can be appointed as electoral commissioners. The persons must be nominated by the leader of a qualifying political party—that is, a party with two or more Members of Parliament belonging to it. Of these four nominated commissioners, the Bill provides that there will be one from each of the three largest nominating parties and one from another qualifying party. The Speaker’s Committee, which appoints all commissioners, will be responsible for running the process and making the appointments, which will first be approved by all the main party leaders and will finally be approved by Parliament.

The nomination of three persons each by the leaders of the three largest qualifying parties and one person from the qualifying smaller parties will ensure that there is a pool of candidates from which the Speaker’s Committee can select four successful people on merit—one from each of the three largest nominating parties and one from a smaller party.

Amendments 2 and 3 are consequential to Amendment 1. I beg to move.

My Lords, I welcome the amendment but I have one or two questions for clarification. The Minister referred to the conversations that he had had with the Electoral Commission but I wondered whether he had had any conversations with the Speaker’s Committee or whether he can say what view the committee has expressed on this. Clearly, the amendment will impose an additional responsibility on the Speaker’s Committee, in that the committee will adjudicate on which of the three candidates put forward is the most suitable. Given that some of the candidates put forward will, by their very nature, be senior people in public life or former senior members of political parties—and perhaps even Members of your Lordships’ House—what degree of transparency will there be in the deliberations and the process? It is important that some reassurance is given to senior members that, if they are put forward and rejected, their dignity will to some degree be protected. Other than that, the amendments are to be broadly welcomed.

My Lords, I welcome these amendments to Clause 5, which seem to be pragmatic and sensible. It is quite some time since some of us argued that there was a need for a minority of the commission members to have hands-on political experience to facilitate the effective working of the commission, and of course we now feel somewhat vindicated on this issue.

At earlier stages, my noble friend Lord Tyler and I argued that party leaders making nominations should have regard to the need for diversity in the appointment of commissioners. However, I must admit that when we looked at our own amendment, we thought that it would be somewhat difficult if the party leaders were not themselves willing to consider jointly how to address this issue of diverse representation when they made only one nomination each for membership of the commission. Therefore, the suggestion that each of the leaders of the three main parties should make three nominations is very sensible. It will help to ensure that the commission continues to have a diverse membership, and I hope that the Speaker’s Committee will ensure that there is a proper and professional process for appointing political candidates from among those nominated. They should have regard to the need for the composition of the commission to be balanced and effective. I hope that in the first instance the party leaders will refrain from considering nominations simply on the basis of seeking to reward long-standing supporters in the belief that they must have some sort of grandee status. Under the process, commissioners should be found with real hands-on experience of winning election campaigns, the nominations process and the election expense rules, and a good working knowledge of election law should be required to add significant value to the commission’s work.

Finally, I hope that all those concerned will recognise that there cannot be two levels of commissioner. Appointments may be made by different processes but there should be no question of a different status at different meetings for existing members and politically appointed members of the commission. I believe that the amendment will strengthen the valuable work of the commission and fulfil more of the hopes of those who feel that the body is very necessary in the attempt to modernise and clean up our electoral processes.

My Lords, before the Minister replies, perhaps I may say how grateful we are that he clearly paid much attention in bringing forward these last-minute amendments. We congratulate the Government on that.

To pursue the point made by my noble friend Lord Rennard, given that the commission will now have more political representatives, we hope that they will pay a little more attention to what was said in this House on 17 June and in the Moses Room yesterday in the debate on the Scottish order about the difficult question of descriptions of parties appearing on the ballot paper. It is clear that the word “description” is being misused and we are seeing slogans on the ballot paper from the British National Party and others. When the Minister replied to our debate on 17 June, he said that this matter would be kept under review. I hope that it will be taken seriously and that, with the new commission, there will be discussion about how to stop the ballot paper being abused and turned from the neutral document that it should be into a propaganda document, which it should not be.

My Lords, I am very grateful for the support from around the House, and particularly from the Front Benches, for these amendments. I have very little to add. The Speaker’s Committee is content, and the new Speaker in another place has written confirming the committee’s agreement to the amendment.

I take on board the noble Lord’s point about protecting the dignity of those who may not be successful. As I understand it, the position concerning transparency—which I think is what his question was about to some extent—will be up to the Speaker’s Committee. The names will be put forward to the committee and will not necessarily be made public unless the committee determines that nominations should be made publicly transparent. I think that we can remain fairly confident that those who make up the Speaker’s Committee, from the Speaker himself onwards, are experienced and skilful enough to ensure that embarrassment is not caused.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and thank him for his comments. I certainly praise him for his consistency on this issue over what is now almost a decade—a long time in politics indeed. I think that the position we have reached today is one that is generally accepted. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Steel. I had not forgotten what he said in the debate we had. We will very much keep under review and treat seriously the matters that he raises.

Amendment 1 agreed.

Amendments 2 and 3

Moved by

2: Clause 5, page 4, line 23, leave out “a person who” and insert “persons one of whom”

3: Clause 5, page 4, leave out lines 30 to 32

Amendments 2 and 3 agreed.

Clause 9 : Declaration as to source of donation

Amendment 4

Moved by

4: Clause 9, page 7, line 25, leave out “that section” and insert “section 54A”

My Lords, this amendment makes a minor technical change to Clause 9 by clarifying that the reference to “that section” at the end of new Section 54(1)(aa), which is inserted by Clause 9(1) of the Bill, actually means Section 54A. In doing so, it corrects a minor error in the drafting of the current print of the Bill. I emphasise that this amendment does not in any way alter the policy on which the House is in broad agreement; it merely ensures that the drafting is correct. I beg to move.

Amendment 4 agreed.

Clause 38 : Transitional provision

Amendment 5

Moved by

5: Clause 38, page 40, line 25, leave out from “reference” to “is” in line 26 and insert “in this Act to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months (including any such reference inserted in any other Act)”

My Lords, Amendments 5 and 6 are minor technical amendments which make sure that the transitional provision in Clause 38 works for offences created both in the Bill itself and by amendments made by the Bill to other Acts, in particular PPERA. The effect is to ensure that any offence committed before Section 154(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 came into force—which increased the maximum term of imprisonment that could be handed down by magistrates’ courts from six months to 12 months—should remain subject to the six months’ maximum. I beg to move.

I am so sorry, my Lords; it is my fault. This group includes Amendments 5 and 6, both of which I hope I have spoken to. Perhaps I may now speak to Amendments 7 to 11 and then invite the noble Lord to speak. I am grateful to him for the way in which he has dealt with this.

I turn to Amendments 7 to 11. I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, in his place. These amendments take forward the substance of an amendment successfully moved on Report by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, which required that the commission obtain a warrant from a magistrate before entering premises to inspect documents. In addition, it ensures that the amendment is workable in practice by making clear the matters on which a magistrate would have to be satisfied before granting a warrant. We have also taken this opportunity to clarify the scope of the entry power.

Government Amendment 6 seeks to amend paragraph 2(2) of new Schedule 19B, which sets out the commission's powers of entry and inspection in relation to regulated individuals and organisations listed in paragraph 2(1). This supervisory power allows the commission to enter premises, at reasonable times, to inspect documents relating to the income and expenditure of those to whom the power applies. This is not a power for use in connection with investigations; rather, it is for use where the commission needs access to the financial and related documentation of political parties and other regulated entities in connection with its regulatory role.

The effect of our amendment is to place a requirement on the Electoral Commission to obtain a warrant from a magistrate before it can enter the premises of a supervised individual or organisation to inspect documents relating to their income and expenditure. A warrant will not be issued automatically. Before a justice of the peace may issue an inspection warrant in relation to premises occupied by any organisation or individual listed in paragraph 2(1), he or she must be satisfied, following information provided on oath by the commission, of three things: first, that there are reasonable grounds for believing that on those premises there are documents relating to the income and expenditure of the organisation or individual; secondly, that the commission needs to inspect the documents for the purposes of carrying out functions of the commission other than investigatory functions; and, thirdly, that permission to inspect the documents on the premises has been requested by the commission and has been unreasonably refused.

An inspection warrant will be valid for one month from the date of issue and will authorise a member of staff of the commission to enter the premises specified in the warrant to inspect documents relating to their income and expenditure. The person executing the warrant will be required to produce the warrant and documentary evidence that they are a member of the commission staff.

The amendment also retains the existing safeguards on the use of this power. So the power must be exercised at reasonable times and cannot be used to enter premises and inspect documents in connection with an investigation by the commission of a suspected offence or contravention. Additionally, the power is confined to financial and related documents. In practice, the power generally underpins the commission's ability to visit parties co-operatively to verify information provided by them, such as claims for policy development grants.

Amendments 8 to 11 are consequential amendments to Amendment 7. I hope noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, will be content with this amendment, which takes forward the principles of his amendment on Report. I beg to move Amendment 5.

My Lords, Amendment 5 having been formally proposed, I assume the House would now like to debate Amendment 5 and, indeed, the other amendments in the group.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister and to the Government for the way in which they have carried forward the intention behind my amendment. I am very happy with what they have done. I very much hope that this is the beginning of a series of much closer restrictions on powers of entry in all matters in new legislation. I also hope that we shall be able in due course to have proper restrictions on powers of entry in some older legislation on the statute book. I thank the Government and the noble Lord.

My Lords, I ought to declare an indirect interest in that my wife is not only a magistrate but currently chairman of the Bench and therefore has a very considerable interest in what is laid down as the responsibilities of justices of the peace.

Schedule 1, dealing with the investigatory powers of the commission which is now substantially improved by these amendments, has to be seen in the context of the full discussion on the Bill. Before I turn to the amendments, I want to put on the record, as it is probably the final opportunity to do so, our gratitude on these Benches to the Minister and his team for the exemplary management of the Bill and for the very considerable trouble which they have taken to consult us at all stages, not just on this issue but on all issues, inside and outside this Chamber and throughout the Grand Committee proceedings. In particular, I thank the Minister for the assurances that he was able to give us on Report on 17 June. I will not go into any detail as that would be inappropriate but, in col. 1101 of the Official Report, he made some very helpful suggestions about ways in which further considerations could be given to eligible expenditure.

We are coming to the end of a very interesting and useful exercise but I detect, on many sides of the House and perhaps also from the Minister, a recognition of something of a damp squib in the Bill. It is certainly not fulfilling the hopes of a thorough clean-up with a full implementation of the Hayden Phillips agreement. The Minister has been quite frank that that was never on the cards as far as the Government were concerned. We are certainly not taking big money out of politics. The Minister and Labour colleagues in the other place may share my disappointment that it would appear that Mr Straw will ask them to restore the rights of tax exiles and tax millionaires, who live abroad and who do not pay UK taxes, to fund Conservative candidates—a curious situation. Therefore, the context of Schedule 1, which is now before us, is still unsatisfactory. This is unfinished business, and I hope that we will see more substantial change in due course because, if the context is not appropriate, the sanctions and the enforcement procedures with which this group of amendments is concerned are clearly of only secondary value.

The inspection warrants and the process that the Minister has now set out are a considerable improvement. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for his amendment, which we supported successfully, but we are all indebted not just to him but to the Minister for responding so effectively. I am sure that justices of the peace will be much more encouraged by the clarity with which this issue is now approached. The seriousness of the potential offences is better dealt with in the way that it is now set out. I believe that the solution that the Minister has come up with is more accessible, more intelligible, much tidier and comes together in one section, which is a great improvement on what was there before, and therefore, on behalf of my noble friends, I warmly welcome this improvement to the Bill.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the amendments he has brought forward and, in doing so, pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Marlesford for bringing forward these important checks and balances on the potential for an overzealous application of the powers of investigation granted to the commission under the Bill.

As this will be my final opportunity to speak on the Bill, I also extend to the Ministers my thanks and the thanks of my noble friend Lord Henley for their courtesy in the way that they have dealt with us. We also thank the members of the Bill team for engaging in correspondence with us in a timely and thoughtful way. We appreciate that.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Bates, for what they have just said. This has been an interesting Bill—there were moments of great interest—which may not yet be finally resolved, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, hinted. However, in its own modest way, the Bill advances the cause of making our way of doing politics that little bit better. No greater claims have been made for it. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bates, very much on behalf of the members the Bill team. In my opinion, having experienced a few Bills, they have been quite outstanding. In addition, I also thank noble Lords from the Back Benches and the Cross Benches who have taken part in the Bill. During the Committee stage, I was sometimes surprised, and sometimes just a little concerned, to see so many noble Lords in the Moses Room at the start of an afternoon session, but everyone contributed very helpfully to the Bill and, in all but one regard, I think it leaves this place in a better form than it came in, which is the test for us.

Amendment 5 agreed

Amendment 6

Moved by

6: Clause 38, page 40, line 29, after “for” insert “a term not exceeding”

Amendment 6 agreed.

Schedule 1 : Investigatory powers of Commission: Schedule to be inserted into the 2000 Act

Amendments 7 to 11

Moved by

7: Schedule 1, page 43, leave out lines 17 to 28 and insert—

“(2) A justice of the peace may issue an inspection warrant in relation to premises occupied by any such organisation or individual if satisfied, on information on oath given by or on behalf of the Commission, that—

(a) there are reasonable grounds for believing that on those premises there are documents relating to the income and expenditure of the organisation or individual, (b) the Commission need to inspect the documents for the purposes of carrying out functions of the Commission other than investigatory functions, and(c) permission to inspect the documents on the premises has been requested by the Commission and has been unreasonably refused.(3) An inspection warrant is a warrant authorising a member of the Commission’s staff—

(a) at any reasonable time to enter the premises specified in the warrant, and(b) having entered the premises, to inspect any documents within sub-paragraph (2)(a).(4) An inspection warrant also authorises the person who executes the warrant to be accompanied by any other persons who the Commission consider are needed to assist in executing it.

(5) The person executing an inspection warrant must, if required to do so, produce—

(a) the warrant, and(b) documentary evidence that the person is a member of the Commission’s staff,for inspection by the occupier of the premises that are specified in the warrant or by anyone acting on the occupier’s behalf.(6) An inspection warrant continues in force until the end of the period of one month beginning with the day on which it is issued.

(7) An inspection warrant may not be used for the purposes of carrying out investigatory functions.

(8) In this paragraph “investigatory functions” means functions of investigating suspected offences under this Act or suspected contraventions of restrictions or requirements imposed by or by virtue of this Act.

(9) In the application of this paragraph to Scotland—

(a) a reference to a justice of the peace is to be read as a reference to a justice of the peace or a sheriff;(b) a reference to information on oath is to be read as a reference to evidence on oath.”

8: Schedule 1, page 44, leave out lines 18 to 21

9: Schedule 1, page 47, leave out lines 14 to 18

10: Schedule 1, page 49, line 11, leave out “exercise their power” and insert “apply for a warrant”

11: Schedule 1, page 49, line 36, after “under” insert “a warrant issued under”

Amendments 7 to 11 agreed.


Moved by

My Lords, to save time, I have agreed not to table an amendment but to speak for two minutes on the Question that the Bill do now pass. I had thought of tabling at Third Reading an amendment to Clause 5 of the PPER Act to require the Electoral Commission to report on elections within a set period of time; say, four months. That seems generally sensible, but it would have specifically ensured that the commission reported in a timely fashion on the problem of badly folded ballot papers, which resulted in the UK Independence Party losing many thousands of votes in the European elections on 4 June. I propose instead to report that I have since spoken to the commission’s chief executive, who has assured me that the commission will indeed report in October on the European elections and particularly on UKIP’s ballot paper problem. Since 17 June, I have become aware that the problem was even worse than I thought then, particularly in Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire. I sincerely trust that the commission will report what happened in depth and make some estimate, however inexact, of the votes lost to my party.

Finally, I know that it may now be against our modern bureaucratic school rules, but I, too, would like to place on the record my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and to his team, for his endless clarity, patience and courtesy throughout the progress of the Bill. How he managed it while also taking through the Coroners and Justice Bill and answering a good share of Oral Questions, I simply do not know.

Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.