149. The case for an Electoral Commission was the
central thrust of the evidence submitted by Dr Butler. He argued
that there should be a "permanent independent commission,
not only to oversee all aspects of electoral administration, but
also to suggest reforms whenever they are needed". He felt
that there "has been a dangerous ad hoc approach to
the manifold electoral problems inherent in the present government's
reforming programme" and went on to state that "Experience
in other countries, notably Australia and India, has shown the
value of a permanent body in charge of electoral matters ... [and
that] independent electoral commissions have proved effective
in insulating procedures from partisan intervention and have helped
to preserve confidence in the democratic process".
Professor Blackburn took a similar line, calling the issue of
establishing a commission the "largest issue of reform facing
electoral administration" and suggesting that such independent
commissions, with a range of responsibilities, were viewed in
western countries where they existed "as being essential
bulwarks in the democratic process".
He laid emphasis on the way in which the "review of our election
law and administration needs to be a continuous, on-going exercise,
not least because of the now rapidly changing social and technological
environment in which elections and electioneering are conducted".
150. Both Dr Butler and Professor Blackburn argued
that a commission should have a wide remit to look at all aspects
of the electoral process. Indeed the sheer number of issues which
a commission might address formed one of the arguments for an
electoral commission. The list included not only the issues discussed
in this Reportways of encouraging turnout, the registration
system, voting mechanisms, the franchise, fraud, candidatesbut
a wide range of other even more important issues: the voting system,
rules governing referendums, operation of any new rules on party
funding and party expenditure (at national and local level) emanating
from the Neill Committee, constituency boundaries, the broadcasting
rules and so on. Bringing all these issues together within the
responsibilities of one body would, it was suggested, reduce any
risk of improper influence on the process for the advantage of
individual parties and ensure that issues were continually kept
under review. It could also allow a more coherent view to be taken
of the electoral process as a whole, since these issues were at
present looked at by a variety of different bodies (such as national
and local government, the House of Commons itself, the Boundary
Commissions and the broadcasting authorities). Professor Denver
also supported the establishment of a commission, noting that
in addition to the other roles mentioned above it would have a
useful role in compiling definitive statistics on electoral developments.
151. The Association of Electoral Administrators
supported an electoral commission, listing ten functions for which
it might have responsibility.
The Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors said there
was a "need for a body at arm's length from government charged
with responsibility for overseeing the conduct of electoral matters
and for making recommendations on changes to electoral law".
152. The Labour Party's submission, in line with
the conclusions of the Plant Report, also supported the establishment
of an electoral commission, proposing a wide remit for it.
Mr Gardner, in amplification of this, stated that "At the
moment we have no body which acts to promote democracy and promote
civic education. We have no body which lays down minimum standards
for electoral registration and access to voting .... We have no
body which can act as an arbitrator" and concluded that "there
is a growing case for an independent body of experts that will
undertake that whole brief and will be seen, at all times, to
be independent of government".
He noted also that advice to emerging democracies always included
a recommendation for an independent electoral commission.
The Liberal Democrats too supported a commission, with a wide
remit to cover such matters as party funding and boundaries, as
well as more purely administrative matters, which would "replace
the political role of the Home Secretary in advising Parliament
on changes to election law".
153. The Conservative Party made clear that if there
were to be an electoral commission it would play a full part in
working with it; any such body should be "independent of
interference from Government, answerable to Parliament and open
to challenge through the courts".
Lord Parkinson was however less convinced that one was necessary
or that it would be desirable, suggesting that there was a danger
of seeing a commission as a panacea even though in practice there
was not "a great deal of evidence that suggests that the
countries with an electoral commission have solved their electoral
He also suggested that it would not necessarily be easy to find
people with all the required qualities to run a commission while
retaining the total neutrality which would be necessary.
154. The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives
also was uncertain about the need for an electoral commission.
They suggested that there was a need to bring together the different
bodies currently responsible for reviewing electoral boundaries,
but that beyond this and the (relatively) infrequent job of organising
elections it was unclear what a commission might do.
The Society was also cautious on the grounds of the possible cost
of a commission and on the relationship between a commission and
those organising the elections on the ground. Mr Morris explained
the problem in this way: "The present system, however organised,
is heavily dependent on thousands of local staff .... at thousands
of separate premises, the great majority of which are owned and
controlled by local government ... [There] is not the resource
or capability at the centre that is likely to be able to deliver
that in any other way than through local agencies".
The AEA, in response to these points, argued that the cost implications
should not be great since most of the functions were being carried
out by other bodies at the moment and there should be some compensating
savings through greater efficiency in the system; local authority
staff might continue to be involved, at local level, perhaps as
agents of a commission.
155. A number of important issues have arisen or
are about to arise in areas connected with electoral law and administration
which might benefit from the control or guidance which an independent
electoral commission would give. These include the introduction
of new voting systems, the greater use of referendums, and registration
of political parties. More important still may be the need for
an independent body to regulate party funding and expenditure,
if the Committee on Standards in Public Life so decides.
156. We conclude that an electoral commission
should be established, whether or not one is recommended by the
Neill Committee. The responsibilities of the Home Office would
be correspondingly reduced. One of the tasks of the commission
would be to ensure that the electoral process is continuously
monitored and discussed and kept up to date.