Electoral Commission (Limit on Public Awareness Expenditure) Order 2002

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The Chairman: It is whether it is in order that matters.

Mr. Cash: Touché, Mr. Atkinson. The question is not only whether it is in order, but one of cost. The question of whether raising the amount by 400 per cent. is enough to increase public awareness is a severe one that will test all right-minded people. The corporate plan says:

    ''The systems and structures of our democracy may themselves require modernisation to adapt to changing public expectations.''

As the Electoral Commission has been given those duties, for which I do not blame it, it must carry them out in a way that will enable our democratic system to perform better. We must also eliminate spin, increase trust and deal with the reform that is needed, not through the Electoral Commission but through Parliament. We should ensure within its precincts—on the Floor of the House, through good policy making and through our commitment to our electorates—that we increase public awareness. We should ensure that orders such as this are not necessary.

5.7 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Atkinson. It is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship. I welcome the Minister, too. We were intrigued to discover that she has responsibility for such matters, and we hope that that responsibility is not ephemeral. The Prime Minister did not seem to be aware that the function had been transferred to DTLR, as he revealed at Prime Minister's questions. I trust that he is a little more sighted now as to where responsibility for referendums and electoral matters lie, and where I hope they will remain, as continuity is necessary in such matters.

The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) made some important points. Towards the end of his remarks he

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had a little fun at the Electoral Commission's expense. Were I sufficiently august, wise and impartial—I am none of those—to serve as a member of the Electoral Commission, I, too, would want to distance myself from total responsibility for turnout and the deficiencies of the electoral system. The commission can accomplish only so much within its parameters. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that much of the responsibility must lie with us in this place and with political parties, according to the way in which we conduct ourselves and proceed with political argument.

The order does not consider whether the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was proper legislation and was aimed at achieving the correct ends. It has been enacted, and it is not for us to debate its consequences now. Nor is it for us to consider in the round the difficulties of voter turnout and all that that entails. However, we should consider the Electoral Commission's role in increasing voter awareness of the mechanics of the systems that are in place, so that people who wish to participate are not deterred by ignorance of the multifarious systems that are used in different parts of the country and in the various legislatures within the country. The hon. Gentleman is correct to draw attention to the substantial increase that is being demanded through the order. He is right that, as Members of Parliament with responsibility in this area, we should know why such an increase is considered necessary and how it can be justified.

In the Minister's response, I hope that she will confirm that this increase was requested by the commission. Will she tell us as much as she can about the consideration that the Speaker's Committee gave to the matter? The hon. Member for Stone referred to that, and I agree with him entirely. That Committee was set up under statute, and, if not directly accountable to the House, is necessarily a creature of the House, yet we have no access to its deliberations in the form of a record. That is entirely unsatisfactory. It is not the first of the Committees that are part of the Speaker's domain to which that applies, and it is not the first of those bodies that are appointed directly by the Prime Minister. Under section 2(d) of the 2000 Act, the Prime Minister has responsibility for appointing the Opposition Members who serve on it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) serves on the Speaker's Committee with distinction and answers to the House on its behalf. He did so a little over an hour and a half ago. There is a degree of accountability, but its deliberations do not involve matters of state security, unlike some other prime ministerial Committees. It does not deal with matters of confidentiality. There is no reason why the debates that take place in the Speaker's Committee should not be properly recorded and the reports made available not only to Members of Parliament, but to the general public. I hope that the Minister can pass on that message to those responsible for the conduct of that Committee.

It is also important that we understand the purposes for which the increase is requested. It

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would help us if we understood on what basis the original ceiling was determined. I do not know whether the Minister is party to that information, as it was obviously decided before she was appointed to her present position. Nevertheless, it seems odd that there is such a disparity between years. There must have been a rationale for the original ceiling. The responsibilities of the Electoral Commission have not changed in the meantime. Therefore, there must be a reason why the commission feels that it cannot perform its work within that original ceiling. Equally, we need to be sure that the new ceiling will be adequate for the task for a reasonable period at least. It is not in anyone's interest to have repeated requests for an increase.

Mr. Cash: I have terrible news for the hon. Gentleman. The increase this year under the corporate plan is minuscule compared with the increase that is proposed for the next few years. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) has the details, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is vast. It is up from £7 million to about £20 million, and it will rise again thereafter. This is just the beginning of a progressive increase.

Mr. Heath: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. That projection is contained in the future programme of the Electoral Commission. It has not been agreed by the Speaker's Committee, which may have a different view. It is precisely because of that that it is important to know whether setting a budget will be an annual event. If that is to be so, why on earth should the Speaker's Committee bother to consider the matter? Why not instead let a Committee of the House have direct control of the commission's budget? I had hoped that, within the terms of the legislation, we would be able to set a maximum within which the Electoral Commission could reasonably work, at least for a number of years until that amount became wholly inappropriate because of any change in circumstances. I hope that the Minister can give us some information on that.

I would be interested to know whether the provisions in section 13(7) to (11) relating to Scotland contain a similar request to the Scottish Parliament or Scottish Executive for further funding, and whether that is proportionate to the increase being asked of the British Parliament. I do not know whether there is any link between the two; clearly the work that is commissioned for Scotland is directly applicable to what takes place there. It may be felt in Scotland that the problems there are not identical to those experienced in the rest of the country, but I would still be interested to know the answer to my questions on that matter.

The most important point that I want to make is that I am willing to be persuaded that the commission and the Minister have good reason to introduce the order, and that it will enable the commission to do more effectively its job of explaining this country's electoral arrangements to a wider audience. That is desperately important. I would always argue that education is better than compulsion. As we know, there are voices suggesting that we need to move to a compulsory voting system in this country, but mine is

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not one of them. I think that it is important that as many people as possible understand how and why they vote, and the way in which the voting system works. Anything that genuinely achieves that objective will have my support.

It is unfortunate that we have so many variant voting systems. It is not helpful that the previous Home Secretary, now the Foreign Secretary, thought it necessary to think up a new wheeze every time a new franchise was constructed to produce a different system. However, that is what we have, and it is important that voting systems are understood by the electorate who use them.

What is the system for appraising what the Electoral Commission is doing, so that we can judge whether the money is being spent wisely? The hon. Member for Stone rightly mentioned the role of the National Audit Office, but that is a mechanistic role of counting and checking that pennies have not been misappropriated, and have been used with appropriate and effective economy and efficiency. I am more interested to know whether, in the education process that the commission is providing, we are getting our bangs for our bucks. I do not make a simplistic linkage between money spent and turnout in an election. I do not think that that is possible, but it is reasonable to ask what objectives the Electoral Commission has set for itself, how well it is achieving those objectives, how well it has done within the budget to date and whether, with a substantially enhanced budget—although still not huge, considering the task that it has been set—it is achieving proper results for its expenditure.

I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that there is a mechanism whereby not only the commission but the Speaker's Committee and thereby the House—I hope that the Speaker's Committee will be persuaded to be a little more transparent in its operation—can know whether we are getting what we are paying for and how effective the commission has been in its work.

5.19 pm

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