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Mr. Howarth: I accept entirely your strictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Let me mention some other points which, according to the Minister, the Electoral Commission, which will comprise the six individuals whom we are discussing, will have to consider. It must monitor political parties' compliance with the controls on their income and expenditure; keep under review the law and practice on elections and referendums; promote public awareness of electoral systems; take over responsibility for the review of parliamentary and local government boundaries, and comment on the intelligibility of a referendum question. The final point is extremely important, and I shall conclude by considering it.

Section 104 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 states:

I shall explain why that is important. Many of us who are, broadly speaking, Eurosceptics have been worried about the BBC's treatment of the whole European issue.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying way wide of the mark.

Mr. Howarth: May I submit to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that my point is not way wide of the mark--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman may not do that. He must either address the motion or complete his remarks.

8 Jan 2001 : Column 844

Mr. Howarth: The Government propose that two people who have spent their careers in the BBC should be members of the Electoral Commission, which will be responsible for examining the "intelligibility"--whatever that means--of a referendum question. The whole country knows that, if--and it is a big "if"--the Labour party wins the next election, and the nation is unfortunate enough to have a continuing Labour Government, it has said that it will hold a referendum on whether Britain should surrender its national currency and have it submerged into the euro.

The Electoral Commission, the membership of which we are considering tonight, will be charged with the responsibility of determining the intelligibility of the question. Yet two of the proposed members--a third of the nominees--have served their entire careers in the BBC. Several of us--not only me, but some distinguished Members of this House and the other place, as well as outside observers--have expressed grave concern that the BBC has not been impartial in its treatment of the euro and the whole European issue.

Mr. Maclean: If a Macpherson analysed the BBC nowadays, he would conclude that it suffers from deeply ingrained, institutional Europhilia. In those circumstances, anyone who has had a career in the BBC and is appointed to a commission, cannot, irrespective of other political associations, be regarded as neutral when framing a referendum question on Europe.

Mr. Howarth: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend, who makes a good analogy with the Macpherson report. We are considering an extremely serious matter.

We are entitled publicly to ask those who volunteered to have their names submitted for membership of the Electoral Commission, who have been chosen by a selection committee and whose names are proposed to us tonight, to tell the House and the British people that, if they are charged with the responsibility of dealing with a referendum question on the euro, they will ensure that their personal prejudices do not affect the rigour with which they examine the way in which the Government--if the Labour party is elected--frame the question. That will be crucial to the future independence of these islands.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend is raising important issues. Does he agree with me that it is crucial for us to know in detail about the Speaker's Committee which will supervise the members of the Electoral Commission if they are approved by the House and by Her Majesty in due course? The Speaker's Committee will enable the House to have some responsibility for oversight of the Electoral Commission. It is only through the Speaker's Committee, about which I asked the Minister earlier, that the Electoral Commission will be accountable to this democratically elected House.

Mr. Howarth: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

I shall conclude by expressing my severe reservations on that point, which I think is germane to the motion and is critical to the concerns of the people of this country. I am conscious that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has approved the names. Nevertheless, I hope that the Government will respond to the points that I have made.

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12.51 am

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): I intend to be brief and raise only one issue, because other hon. Members wish to speak.

The selection process may have been impeccable, although the story that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) told us about Government incompetence rings true. These six people may be absolutely splendid, and I have nothing against any of them, but the question is whether they are suitable to do the job to which the Government propose they should be appointed.

One of the jobs of the Electoral Commission is to scrutinise electoral issues. That is a wide remit, and we all know that Committees tend to expand their remit. One of the complaints that I raised with the Prime Minister at column 636 of Hansard on 23 July 1997, and have raised on other occasions with other Ministers, is the disparity between the size of the electorates in Scottish and English constituencies, which I believe defrauds English electors. Bristol, West has an electorate of 85,000, whereas Hamilton, South has only 47,000. They are both inner-city constituencies, so neither of them is a depopulated area, which could give rise to an electoral disparity.

The proposed appointees include Pamela Joan Gordon, who sounds Scottish. Sir Neil William David McIntosh also sounds pretty Scottish. It has to be said that Mr. Singh does not sound Scottish, but Mr. Younger sounds as though he comes from the north of the United Kingdom. Two groups of people are interested in maintaining this disparity between the power of an English elector and that of a Scottish elector--the Scots and the Labour party. These six people include some who undoubtedly sound as though they are Scottish and who may be biased in favour of keeping a system that is unfair to English electors.

From answers that I have been given by Ministers in the past, the Government seem determined not to change a system that includes an Electoral Commission and boundary commissions for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, fossilising disparities which I believe are injurious to English electors. Will the commissioners' remit permit them to propose to the House that we get rid of the separate boundary commissions for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and have one boundary commission for the whole of the United Kingdom? In so doing, they would be ensuring that English electors were not discriminated against by the Government, as they were during the last election and as they will be in future elections under the Government's proposals.

Mr. Maclean: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I beg to move, That the House sit in private.

Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 163 (House to sit in private):--

The House divided: Ayes 0, Noes 19.

Division No. 36
[12.57 am


Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Gerald Howarth and
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed.


Connarty, Michael
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
George, Andrew (St Ives)
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Healey, John
Hendrick, Mark
Heppell, John
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Jenkins, Brian
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Kilfoyle, Peter
Linton, Martin
Michael, Rt Hon Alun
Miller, Andrew
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Pearson, Ian
Savidge, Malcolm
Tipping, Paddy
Wray, James

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Kevin Hughes and
Mr. Tom Levitt.

It appearing from the report of the Division that 40 Members had not taken part in the Division, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.

8 Jan 2001 : Column 846


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

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