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Session 2000-01
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Remuneration and Expenses of the Electoral Commissioners, and Remuneration and Expenses of the Chairman of the Electoral Commission

Second Standing Committee

on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 22 March 2001

[Dr. Michael Clark in the Chair]

Remuneration and Expenses of the

Electoral Commissioners, and Remuneration and Expenses of the Chairman of the Electoral Commission

9.55 am

The Chairman: As the Minister is stuck in traffic, I have decided with the agreement of all those concerned to wait up to 10 minutes for him. If he is not here within that time, I shall invite the Whip to speak on his behalf and we shall commence the debate. I am sorry for the delay.

Sitting suspended.

10 am

On resuming—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I beg to move,

    That the following provision shall be made with respect to the remuneration and expenses of the Electoral Commissioners (``a relevant Commissioner'') other than the Chairman of the Electoral Commission:

    (1) In respect of remuneration a relevant Commissioner shall be paid £275 for each day on which he performs functions as such.

    (2) A relevant Commissioner shall be paid the actual amount of his expenses incurred in connection with the discharge of his functions as such on travel, accommodation and subsistence.

    (3) This resolution shall take effect from 19 January 2001.

The Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to take the motion in respect of the remuneration and expenses of the chairman of the Electoral Commission.

Mr. O'Brien: It is a great pleasure to serve on this Committee under your chairmanship, Dr. Clark. I am sure that you will keep us in order and ensure that business is progressed speedily.

The Chairman: And on time.

Mr. O'Brien: I offer my apologies for being delayed by traffic.

The two motions before us deal with provisions that arise from schedule 1 to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The remunerations and allowances payable to the electoral commissioners must be determined by a resolution of the House. That arrangement is one of a number that we put in place to ensure that the Electoral Commission is independent of the Government of the day and accountable directly to Parliament.

The commissioners were appointed with effect from 19 January. Therefore, we need to settle the matter of their remuneration as soon as possible. Indeed, I know that one or more of the commissioners are somewhat perturbed about the time it has taken to settle the issue, which has been delayed because a particular hon. Member took the view that such matters should not be progressed quickly.

The first motion deals with the remuneration of the chairman of the Electoral Commission, Sam Younger, and the second deals with the remuneration of the five other part-time members. The first provides for an annual salary of £120,000. The salary in the first year is slightly reduced to reflect the fact that for a few weeks after his appointment, Sam Younger continued to work on a part-time basis for the Red Cross while he served out his period of notice. He is now working full-time as chairman of the commission.

The salary is within the advertised range for the post, which reflects the advice that we received from our recruitment consultants, PricewaterhouseCoopers, on the rate needed to attract candidates of the highest calibre. The salary will be uprated each year in line with the percentage increase awarded to High Court judges. The motion also provides for Sam Younger to receive, on his retirement, a pension that is based on the principal civil service pension scheme.

The other members of the commission, who will work four to six days per month, will receive a daily fee of £275. Given the low level of inflation, the motion makes no provision for an annual uprating of that per diem fee. Instead, the level of fee will be reviewed every three to four years and, as necessary, a fresh motion will be placed before the House.

Both the chairman and the other commissioners will also be entitled to be reimbursed any travel and subsistence costs incurred in the discharge of their duties. I commend the motions to the Committee.

10.3 am

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I join the Minister in welcoming you, Dr. Clark, as Chairman of our proceedings. Having dealt with the matter of the election commissioners in our debates on the Floor of the House, I think that the Minister is being slightly inaccurate in suggesting that only one hon. Member was concerned about the issue. Many of my hon. Friends expressed concern about the way in which the Government deal with such matters. I stress that there was no criticism of the individuals concerned, and Conservative Members entirely accept that it is proper for people performing this important function to be properly remunerated.

Although we are dealing directly with the salary issue, I should like to mention one other important matter, and I hope that you, Dr. Clark, will consider it to be in order. Earlier this week, I was involved in a discussion with parliamentary colleagues on how boundary commissioners, who will be under the supervision of the new Electoral Commission, operate. Anxiety was expressed that a problem could arise when senior members of the Bar are appointed as boundary commissioners, but have appeared previously before hon. Members as advocates on private Bills. I ask the Minister and the officials who advise him to bear that issue in mind.

Specifically, if a particular hon. Member were Chairman of a private Bill Committee, as happens occasionally, and he or she ruled against an advocate's submission, it would seem rather inappropriate for that member of the Bar subsequently to be the election boundary commissioner who adjudicates on the boundaries of that hon. Member's constituency. I understand that that has happened in the past, and I think that it is important to flag up the issue.

When the electoral commissioners and the Minister's officials read our proceedings, they should bear in mind that such situations should be greatly deprecated and avoided in future. Anyone whom the Home Office proposes to appoint as a boundary commissioner should be told that, if he has ever appeared as an advocate before hon. Members, he should automatically disqualify himself, or be disqualified, from acting as a boundary commissioner in matters affecting those hon. Members. Otherwise, there is the danger that a real or perceived conflict of interest could arise. As all hon. Members will appreciate, justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done. That is especially so in a matter as important as the way in which the election boundary commissioners operate.

Mr. Mike O'Brien indicated assent.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the Minister for his assent, and to you, Dr. Clark, for allowing me to make that point.

Opposition Members do not oppose the motions. We hope that the electoral commissioners will be successful. We are rather worried about the complexity of the procedures, but we may return to that issue in future. Nevertheless, the Electoral Commission has been established, and we do not want to oppose proper remuneration for those who will do such important work.

10.7 am

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): I should like to make one or two points on the second motion.

Liberal Democrat Members have supported the Electoral Commission proposals in principle and practice throughout. We believe that the commission is the right way of taking forward the next stage of regulation of the electoral process. We also welcome the appointment of the electoral commissioners and wish them well in their work. They seem to have some learning to do about how the electoral process works, but I am sure that they will quickly get up to speed and provide us with an excellent service.

Paragraph (6) of the second motion deals with the chairman's pension arrangements. It states that the chairman's pension

    ``shall be broadly by analogy with the pension scheme of the staff of the Commission''.

Far be it from me to criticise the Home Office for loose wording, but ``broadly by analogy'' leaves quite a bit to the imagination. Will the Minister say a little more about that?

The motion is also entirely silent on whether the chairman will contribute any of his salary to the pension scheme, or whether it is a wholly non-contributory scheme. It would be useful for the Committee to be told precisely—although perhaps only in outline, as pensions, precision and brevity do not go well together—the definition of ``broadly by analogy''.

Paragraph (1) specifies the chairman's salary. I believe that the Minister said that the salary was based on the recommendation of PricewaterhouseCoopers and is intended to stay in line with that of High Court judges. Will the Minister confirm that and tell us whether the Review Body on Senior Salaries was consulted when the salary was determined? That will be a matter of interest to hon. Members.

Liberal Democrat Members do not seek to delay the motions. The delays that have occurred so far were unnecessary and did not achieve a practical objective. I hope that the motions, subject to satisfactory answers to my questions, will be resolved.

10.11 am

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) will know that we intend, in due course, to merge the role of boundary commissioners and that of the Electoral Commission. Consequently, the chairman of a boundary commission must be an electoral commissioner. The Electoral Commission will also approve the members of a boundary commission. The concerns that hon. Gentleman expressed will be taken into account, to avoid conflicts of interest when making appointments. For the sake of clarity, I should say that, earlier, I nodded to indicate that I would consider his point, and not necessarily that I agreed with everything that he said. I shall consider the issue that he raised and write to him to give him a clearer view of the Government's position. However, I thought that there was substance to the point.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) asked why we have included the phrase ``broadly by analogy'' in relation to the chairman's pension scheme. Mr. Younger's pension will deliver him the same benefits as a civil service pension. The wording of the motion reflects the fact that he cannot be a member of that scheme and our objective is to give him an outcome that is broadly analogous to that which he would achieve if he were a member of the scheme.

I understand that Mr. Younger will pay 1.5 per cent. of his salary towards a widow's pension, as do civil servants. There will be negotiations on precisely how the new pension scheme will achieve the objectives because, no doubt, he has his own pension arrangements. The wording of the motion allows us to hold discussions with him on how the pension arrangements will be made, and gives Parliament a clear indication of our objectives.


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