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Mr. O'Brien: The periods were recommended and it is right that we have a rolling process of appointment to commissions. These days, by and large, that is how we operate. It means that we are not trying to replace people all at once and that we are able to introduce new blood to a public body while retaining an element of experience. If some retire slightly earlier than others, we can bring in new blood, if appropriate, or renew the contracts for the posts, if appropriate.

The hon. Gentleman also asks why these particular people were chosen. I am acting on the recommendations of those who carried out the selection procedure. Because of the sensitivity of the posts, I have taken the approach that the less a political hand is involved--although obviously we are all responsible--the better. I have by and large accepted the recommendations of those who have advised me.

Mr. Forth: The Minister is trying to say, "Not me, guv", but it is he who has presented the list of names to the House, so I am sure he will be prepared to accept responsibility. He will also accept that it is now a House of Commons matter and the fact that party leaders have signed up to the list need not bind any independent- minded Member of Parliament.

Is it a coincidence that two BBC people have turned up on a list of six? Is not that strange, given that there are nearly 60 million people in this country? Will the Minister explain that?

Mr. O'Brien: The right hon. Gentleman rightly holds Ministers and the Government to account. BBC experience is not the criterion by which we judge the acceptability of candidates. If that were the case, many Members of Parliament would have something to say about it. The candidates were considered individually and interviewed properly. The selection panel was as reasonably non-partisan politically as we could make it. It so happened that two of those who came through the process have some background in the BBC. It is a matter more of chance than anything else. The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt express his own views on it.

I hope that the House will support the motion.

Madam Deputy Speaker: For the avoidance of any doubt, I confirm that if my opinion as to the decision on the question of the Electoral Commission is challenged, the matter will be subject to a deferred Division.

11.58 pm

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The Minister's tone of sweet reasonableness would lead the House to suppose that nothing had ever gone amiss with this

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procedure, that everything had been straightforward up to now and that there was nothing in the motion to trouble the House, but that is far from the case.

My right hon. and hon. Friends will be interested to hear the small saga of what occurred just before Christmas. The sequence of events makes the position rather less happy for the Government than the Minister has just led us to believe. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) tabled a question on 30 November asking when the commissioners were to be appointed following the enactment of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The reply was:

It was therefore with considerable surprise that we discovered that the Home Office issued a press release the following morning announcing the names of the commission members. No reference had been made to an imminent press release in the written answer given to my right hon. Friend only the day before, yet that press release listed the names that the Minister has put forward this evening--the names on the Order Paper--and said that they had been recommended for appointment; there was no question of the matter coming before the House. The Minister has said tonight that the appointments are a matter for the House, as indeed they are. Unfortunately, however, it appears that the Home Office had more than somewhat jumped the gun.

My right hon. and hon. Friends will be particularly interested in what happened next. In a letter, of which I have a copy, dated the following day-- 15 December--none other than the Home Secretary himself had to write what I can only describe as a grovelling apology to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). Indeed, he also sent a copy to the Leader of the House and to Mr. Speaker.

The Home Secretary's letter began:

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): Stinking fish.

Mr. Hawkins: As my right hon. Friend says, stinking fish indeed.

The letter goes on:

So there was a very rapid volte face by no less a person than the Home Secretary, trying to cover the tracks of his Department's press release.

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The right hon. Gentleman sent a further letter to the Government Chief Whip on 19 December, saying:

it should say "the Electoral Commissioners", but no doubt the Home Secretary was in such a hurry that he referred to them as "Electoral Commissions"--

Why was there all this panic? Why were the grovelling apologies made so quickly--within a day? Why, four days later, was a letter--which subsequently came into my hands--sent by the Home Secretary to his own Chief Whip?

All that happened entirely because of the perceptive interventions at business questions by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. On 14 December, she wisely asked:

It is interesting that my hon. Friend picked out the question of donations, which has recently brought the Government into such great disrepute, as early as 14 December. She continued:

However, matters were worse still because the written answer received by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald was entirely misleading as no mention was made of the fact that a press release was about to be issued.

The Leader of the House tried to respond to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. She said:

However, that was not thought good enough because, as my hon. Friend said in a point of order at the end of business questions on 14 December last year, the Government had already promised a debate. The Government had apparently forgotten what they had

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promised in their own Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. During that point of order, my hon. Friend asked the Leader of the House

In response, the Leader of the House said:

That was said despite the fact that the Government's own legislation clearly stated that such a debate would have to be held and that the House would have to scrutinise the names.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) was right to describe this saga as a shambles. This is yet another example of the Government not knowing their own legislation, rushing ahead with press releases before any debate has taken place and showing utter contempt for hon. Members and the normal, proper constitutional requirements.

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