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Mr. David Taylor: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will you rule on the relevance to the motion of the number of Members participating in Divisions last night?

Madam Deputy Speaker: That is purely a factual matter, which is well reported in Hansard.

Mr. Forth: It is also why we are here tonight, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I am not at all satisfied with the list of people, but the Minister now has a chance to satisfy me. I shall sit down now so that he can reply to the debate, but he will have to work pretty hard to satisfy me that the list of people is suitable for the very important responsibilities that we have given the Electoral Commission.

3.29 am

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I hope that I will not have to work hard, because I know that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) holds in high regard the views of the leader of his party, who endorsed the names of the members of the commission on 2 November. Unless he entirely ignores the views of his party leader, he will spare me the job of working quite so hard to convince him.

We have had a useful debate, informed by some interesting contributions. Last night, we heard an outstanding and erudite speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), who enlightened us not only on how the commissioners would operate here, but contrasted our system with his knowledge of Canadian circumstances. We all found that very helpful.

I take comfort from the fact that the proposed nominees for appointment as electoral commissioners have broadly the support of both sides of the House, with only one or two voices of dissent. However, there has been no indication that anyone is likely to oppose the nominations in the vote. It is important that the commissioners, both individually and collectively, command the confidence of all the main political parties. Despite the huff, puff and general blather from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) today and yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition supports the nominees and I am grateful for the indications of support that have come from him as the leader of the Conservative party. The Liberal Democrats have also signalled their support for the nominees.

Several Members raised pertinent points and I shall endeavour to respond to as many of them as I can in the time available. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath made great play of events shortly before the Christmas recess. As he is aware, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already indicated his regret to the Speaker for the premature release of a Home Office press notice announcing the names of the electoral commissioners- designate. No discourtesy to the House was intended. Indeed, the press notice made it clear that the appointments were entirely subject to debate and approval by the House.

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The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Speaker's Committee that will liaise and oversee the commissioners. It was established by section 2 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and it will provide the appropriate mechanism for parliamentary scrutiny of the work of the Electoral Commission. In particular, the Speaker's Committee will be responsible for approving the commission's annual budget and five-year corporate plan.

The appointment of five of the nine members of the Committee is a matter entirely for the Speaker. He will no doubt make an announcement about this in due course. The other members are the Speaker himself, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), in his capacity as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, and a Minister responsible for local government who will be appointed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The latter appointment will be made shortly. It will be a matter for the Speaker, as Chairman of the Committee, to convene its first meeting. I understand that this is likely to be some time in February to enable the Committee to consider the Electoral Commission's draft budget for the next financial year.

Yesterday, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked about the timing of the disclosure of donations to political parties. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 requires political parties to report donations worth more than £5,000 to the Electoral Commission on a quarterly basis. Part IV of the Act will come into force on 16 February, so the first reporting cycle will cover donations received and accepted between that date and 31 March inclusive. Parties then have 30 days to submit their donation reports to the commission.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall try to deal with the points raised in the limited time that I have left. If I have some time left later, I will give way to him.

Parties will have 30 days to submit their donation reports to the commission, so we can expect the publication of the first donation reports on, or shortly after, 30 April. In addition to the quarterly reporting cycle, parties will also have to report donations on a weekly basis during a general election period. That will ensure that information about donations is in the public domain before people cast their votes on polling day. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Mr. Hawkins: Which civil servant came up with that phrase?

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman asks where that comment comes from. If he had read it, he would have seen that it appears in the Home Affairs Select Committee report that was the start of the process of considering the way in which parties are overseen. That was well before the Neill report appeared. Indeed, that comment was made by a former Chairman of the Committee, Sir Ivan Lawrence.

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The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey wanted the commissioners to consider a cap on donations, but I remind him that such a proposition was rejected by the Neill committee, and by this House and another place during the passage of the Bill. That does not preclude the Electoral Commission from revisiting the issue at some stage. When it does so will be a matter for the commission.

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) reminded us of the provisions of section 3(4) of the Act which debars certain persons from being appointed as members of the Electoral Commission by virtue of past party political activity. He pointed out that while an electoral commissioner could not be a current member of a political party, past membership was no bar to appointment. That subsection was debated at some length during the passage of the Bill. Suffice it to say that in enacting that provision in its current form Parliament has decided that previous membership of a political party is not sufficient on its own to rule someone out of contention. To impose a 10-year bar on party membership would run the risk of excluding from consideration a great number of otherwise qualified candidates.

The appropriate test for the Neill committee, which we have adopted, is that the members of the commission should not

That accords with paragraph 11.8 of the Neill committee report. The individuals named in the motion pass that test. The time to impose a stronger test, if the hon. Gentleman wanted one, was during the Bill's passage. However, I seem to recall that there was a great deal of debate about that, and at least some Opposition Members expressed concern at the time that we should not exclude people who have taken part in political activity from the commission, rather than saying that they should be excluded because of their party political membership.

The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) asked about people who had in the past had a party political affiliation. He suggested that once one is a member of a party, one tends to remain in that party. Well, I remind him that three Members rejected the right-wing lurch of the Conservative party and joined Labour on these Benches.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) asked how the number of candidates was whittled down in the selection process and whether Sir David Omand was involved in that. A standard process was used for the selection panel, with assistance from PricewaterhouseCoopers. In the first sift, the candidates were divided into three bands according to their suitability. The first banding was reviewed by all members of the panel, which then collectively decided which candidates ought to be invited for an interview. The Home Secretary was informed of the shortlist but played no part in drawing it up. Nor did he suggest which candidates should be finally selected. As far as I am aware, there was no political involvement in that process.

The hon. Member for Aldershot also asked why there is no Northern Ireland commission. The Electoral Commission is a collective decision-making body with a UK-wide remit, so there is no question of having separate commissioners--

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It being one and a half after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 16.

Question put:--

Madam Deputy Speaker: I think the Ayes have it.

Hon. Members: No.

Division deferred till Wednesday 10 January, pursuant to Order [7 November 2000].

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