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Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Electoral Commission (Limit on Public Awareness Expenditure) Order 2002

First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 24 June 2002

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Electoral Commission (Limit on Public Awareness Expenditure) Order 2002

4.30 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Electoral Commission (Limit on Public Awareness Expenditure) Order 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 505).

What a pleasure it is, Mr. Atkinson, to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. I trust that you will find the proceedings interesting.

The order increases the amount available to the Electoral Commission from £1.5 million, which was set by the previous order of 2001, to £7.5 million—an increase of 400 per cent. That sum is intended to promote public awareness of current electoral systems in the United Kingdom, current systems of local and national government and institutions of the European Union. The provisions are specified in section 13 of the empowering Act—the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

It is appropriate to begin with a quote from the then Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Neill—a man of consummate distinction, who carried out his functions with great integrity and judgment—who commented in debate on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill in the House of Lords:

    ''My opinion is that it is a wholly inappropriate role to give to the electoral commission as we conceived it. I cannot see how it could carry out the duties conscientiously . . . without being drawn into political controversy. How does one explain the electoral systems of this country in a wholly neutral way?''

He continued:

    ''Could the electoral commission teach one how to achieve tactical voting?''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 October 2000; Vol. 617, c. 196.]

It is clear from what Lord Neill said that, like me, he regards the objectives that are sought under the 2000 Act as not only difficult to achieve, but wholly inappropriate. However, we acknowledge that Parliament decided in its wisdom—or otherwise—that the Act should be passed including such provisions.

As I look across the Room, I see some distinguished Government Members, and one in particular who has extremely strong political views which, irrespective of whether I agree with them, he is never afraid to express. I suspect that lurking somewhere in the back of his mind is the thought that perhaps we do not need such public awareness provisions to get across the kind of ideas in which he believes and which he puts across with such fervour. It could even be said that there are Members on the Opposition Benches who would regard it equally unnecessary to be prompted to

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explain purely political matters such as the paraphernalia in the Act.

Having acknowledged that the Act has been passed, I shall leave my strictures on it to be considered when we get another opportunity—as I imagine we will—to observe how it operates. None the less, much of the Electoral Commission's corporate plan for 2002–03 to 2006–07, of which I have a copy, is worrying.

The Chairman: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I remind him that the order is fairly narrow. I would be grateful if he would keep off the subject of the corporate plan.

Mr. Cash: I hope that you will have no problem with my reference to the corporate plan when I have explained why I mentioned it, Mr. Atkinson. The plan details the breakdown of how the money that is specified in the order will be allocated. It also relates the amount of money that is sought by the commission to the functions that are prescribed under the Act and the order. We are properly considering whether, for example, the National Audit Office, which has functions under the Act, will be able to justify the public awareness strategy in appendix B of the plan, and the increase from £1.5 million to £7.5 million that the commission seeks to justify.

The key assumptions set out in the corporate plan lie at the heart of the matter. They are set out in section 10 of the plan, which is entitled ''Resource implications'' and deals with expenditure plans. In the plan for 2001–02, the net cash required, which is the amount prescribed by the order, is £7.941 million. That is slightly more than the £7.5 million that the commission seeks under the order. Some £400,000 seems to be adrift—perhaps the Minister can explain that. In one year, the current expenditure increased from £654,000 to £5.35 million. By any standards, that increase is monumental.

Furthermore, grants are specified as permissible under the provisions of section 13(4)(b) of the Act, which states:

    ''The Commission shall perform their functions under subsection (1) in such manner as they think fit, but may, in particular, do so by-

    (a) carrying out programmes of education or information to promote public awareness of any of the matters mentioned in subsection (1); or

    (b) making grants to other persons or bodies for the purpose of enabling them to carry out such programmes.''

According to table C in section 10 of the corporate plan, the amount spent on grants increased from £41,000 in 2000–01 to £2.424 million for 2001–02. I notice some astonished looks on the faces of some of my colleagues, and on the faces of Government Members. It may not be their duty to oppose a Government order, but I hope that they are taking those astonishing figures on board. We are entitled to know the reason for that enormous jump. Furthermore, to whom are those grants being given? I ask the Minister to comment on that.

The Electoral Commission says in its key assumptions that the net resource requirement is larger because of the increase in its functions. I have compared amounts sought for 2001–02 and 2000–01,

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but presumably the same would apply for this year alone. It continues:

    ''This is primarily because of a request to increase significantly the expenditure of promoting awareness on electoral systems, as prescribed by s13 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.''

Will the Minister tell me by whom that request was made? Was it by the commission, or perhaps the Government?

The real problem is that we do not have any details. We know what the aims are—I will discuss those later—because they are specifically stipulated in the resource implications. In other words, the Act gives the commission functions, and there is power to make an order, but the manner in which those functions are to be carried out is open-ended. It includes the words:

    ''in such manner as they think fit.''

The aims are set in relation to an issue as broad and wide and deep as who governs us, how we are governed, what kind of electoral system we are to have, and what sort of public awareness is required—that is what section 13 is about—in order to increase the awareness of the electors. It might therefore easily be possible for the commission, by operating in such a manner as it thought fit, to spend an inordinate amount of money—subject, thank heavens, to the possible intervention of the National Audit Office. Indeed, I suggest that the increase is already beyond that threshold.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Will my hon. Friend comment on the role of the Speaker's Committee, as established under section 2 of the Act? The Speaker's Committee has been given direct responsibility for overseeing the work of the commission. In putting forward the order it has had to satisfy itself, in accordance with the commission's duties under section 13 of the Act, that the request for further expenditure has taken account of and met the requirements of the five-year plan published by the commission. Has my hon. Friend had sight of any determination by the Speaker's Committee that would assist us in holding the Government to account in scrutinising the order?

Mr. Cash: As my hon. Friend aptly points out, the Act is part of the problem of public awareness. I have sought copies of the report of the Speaker's Committee, and there are none available. Apparently, no minutes are kept, so we do not know on what basis the decision was taken.

The members of that Committee are distinguished and eminent Members of Parliament. It so happens that they include the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, and the erstwhile Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), so perhaps we have some reason to wonder how they arrived their decision. None the less, the Committee is chaired by the Speaker and its members include distinguished Ministers. The question of whether the Committee's deliberations should be available to us when we are trying to make this kind of decision is highly relevant. I would be glad to have

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more information on that. Perhaps the Minister can help us.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): Will my hon. Friend confirm, on behalf of the Opposition, that it is our view that such information should be put into the public domain? It is extraordinary that such a huge increase should be made on the basis of a decision about which we have no background information whatever.

Mr. Cash: That is precisely why I got in touch with the Library of the House of Commons with a view to its trying to find out whether the information would be made available. To the best of my recollection, I was told that minutes were not kept. That struck me as rather odd.

Members of the distinguished Committee include not only the former Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, but the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, and the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sports Committee, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). It also includes other Members, but I have made my point.

I return to how and on whom the money will be spent. On resource implications, the corporate plan states:

    ''Some staff are being seconded to the Commission from other organizations where they have specialist skills—this forms over half of the provision for agency and seconded staff.''

Here I am, speaking in the House of Commons to people who might think, by any reasonable standards, that they have ''specialist skills'' when it comes to public awareness and to explaining, from their point of view, what they think should be suggested to the electorate.

I have a problem with the manner in which the Electoral Commission is supposed to function. Perhaps the Minister will tell us about low turnouts. Many young people have not turned out for elections and there are grave problems concerning those who have disabilities or who are from ethnic minorities. I have no doubt that she will tell us all that, but whether what she says will be tinged with an element of political correctness is another matter. The real issue that concerns me is the assumption that increasing the amount of money to sustain the functions that are prescribed under the Act will—somehow or other, through the systems described in the corporate plan—increase involvement in British politics. That is a much bigger question.

I am a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, which has just published a report relating to one of the functions prescribed in section 13 of the Act. That section relates to public awareness of, among other things, the institutions of the European Union. Our 101-page report deals specifically with national Parliaments, accountability and democracy. We took evidence for six months on those issues. We came up with some important conclusions—I will not go into them now—about reconnecting the citizen to the system. That is one of

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the aims specified by the Electoral Commission in its corporate plan, for which we are expected to justify the vast increase in funding. We have recommended—and I plead guilty to moving the amendment to the European Scrutiny Committee's report, which was accepted by the Labour-dominated Committee—that party-list systems be removed and replaced with a first-past-the-post system.

In voting terms, the Labour party dominates the European Scrutiny Committee, on which Parliament confers a function to look into such questions as public awareness of European institutions. On that issue, the Committee concluded that the party-list system should be substituted by first past the post. I would be interested to know whether the Electoral Commission comes to the same conclusions. If it does not, there will be a serious division of opinion between those elected to promote the idea of public awareness and the agency operation, which is dealt with by a commission.

The Electoral Commission continues:

    ''Administration costs have increased to take account of additional staff . . . The plans include provision for a small team to carry out preparatory work for a referendum but no provision for the conduct of a referendum . . . if one is called''.

It anticipates that this year a national referendum may well be held on the single currency.

The plan continues:

    ''We will incur major expenditure on promoting awareness of the Commission and its role through events and leaflets and providing services such as training.''

It goes on to discuss the promotion of research through grants. It specifies that of this year's total of £7.5 million, such grants will amount to £250,000. It continues:

    ''This expenditure is conditional upon the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, with the consent of the Treasury, making an order specifying''

the amount.

I am not clear whether there has been a transfer of functions order. Perhaps the Minister could illuminate that for me. The corporate plan says

    ''with the consent of the Treasury'',

although the expenditure is also conditional on the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions making the order. The then Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) made the order. I wonder why he is not here today. Perhaps the Minister can clear up that small point.

 
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