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The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Murton of Lindisfarne): In proposing the amendment, I should point out for the purpose of good order that, if Amendment No. 20 is agreed to, Amendment No. 21 would be pre-empted.

7 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Lord has spoken to what he described as a superior amendment--he is very good at moving superior amendments; he has a great deal of experience of doing so. The solution is readily to hand. The answer is not to accept either amendment, and I shall explain why.

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It is the Government's firm intention that the electoral commission should be as independent of the government of the day as our constitutional arrangements will allow. We certainly have no desire--and I should like this to be placed clearly on record--to use the arrangements for setting the commission's budget and approving its five-year plan--that is the role of the Speaker's Committee--to assert governmental control over the commission's activities. That is not our intention at all. The Government have, in that spirit, accepted the proposal made by the Opposition in another place that the Speaker's Committee will be chaired by the Speaker. Great credit has been heaped on the Speaker for her independence and her robust and forthright manner. That is a tradition of the holder of that office.

Amendment No. 21 would require that of the five non ex-officio members of the Speaker's committee at least four should be drawn from parties other than the party or parties of government. The intention is to ensure a balanced committee. That is a laudable objective. The amendment would not, however, necessarily guarantee a balanced committee. The mathematics would be upset in the unlikely event that the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee were not a member of the governing party.

The Government's view is that the appointment of members of the committee, other than those who are members by virtue of their office, should be a matter entirely for the Speaker to determine. The Bill does not require that the Speaker exercise the power of appointment so as to produce a committee which reflects the balance of parties in another place. That is an important point. On the contrary, the Speaker has already indicated that she intends to appoint one government Back-Bencher, three members from the main opposition party and one member from another opposition party. The committee will, as a result, be perfectly balanced. I hope that in the light of the Speaker's clearly stated intentions the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his "superior" amendment.

In approving the commission's budget and long-term objectives, the Speaker's Committee will have strategic oversight of the commission's activities. It seems perfectly sensible that those with responsibility for law and policy in these areas should have a role to play on the committee. That is why the Bill provides for the Home Secretary and the Minister for Local Government to be members of the committee as well as the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee. It is not a question of asserting government control, but a matter of ensuring, importantly, that those with relevant knowledge and responsibilities are able to bring them to bear on the committee's deliberations. The effect of Amendments Nos. 20 and 22 would be to lose that element of the Government's proposals and a degree of accountability.

Finally, Amendment No. 23 concerns what happens if the Speaker is absent and unable to chair the committee. The Bill simply provides that the committee should appoint one of its number to fill the breach. Amendment No. 23 would require the

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committee to appoint a Deputy Speaker of the House to do so. I can see that in the absence of the Speaker it may be desirable that her place is taken by someone who is similarly neutral. On the other hand, Members of the Committee may consider that it is equally desirable that the committee is presided over by someone who is familiar with its business and its rationale. For that reason, I should prefer to retain the existing provision.

The noble Lord, with his usual wit, commended his "superior" amendment. I hope that in his genuinely superior way he will feel able to be persuaded by my comments and in a sense the government commitment to make sure that the committee is constituted in the way it is and is balanced and helps to ensure that those with the right expertise are on the committee. I invite him to withdraw his amendments.

Baroness Fookes: I yield to no one in my admiration for the present Speaker of the other place, having worked directly under her as a Deputy Speaker in the other place in the previous Parliament. However, the principle remains valid that this provision will remain on the statute book beyond the period of time of the present Speaker. Therefore, it would be more prudent to have on the face of the Bill an absolute guarantee that there would be a proper balance. For that reason, I warmly support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Mackay. I urge the Minister to think again about this point of principle.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I am not certain that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, will be fully satisfied with the explanations that he has received from the Minister. I am not complaining, but I get an uneasy feeling that much of this design is based on personalities as we know them. It is not certain that that happy relationship will exist in three to five years' time.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, I should welcome--perhaps not this evening but on some future occasion--a clearer explanation as to what exactly the committee will do and what its exact relationship will be with the commission. The outline is there, but I am afraid that before we can be entirely satisfied we should like a further explanation.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The Minister may want to respond to those points after her has heard what I have to say. I am trying to find out whether the Neill committee advocated a Speaker's Committee. Perhaps I may put that question to the Minister.

If the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, were present, she might say that if we need a committee of politicians to give a strategic oversight and look after the budgetary requirements, that removes some of the political neutrality argued by the Minister when we discussed the members of the electoral commission. His noble friend asked him whether there was not some sense in having some people who had at least been involved in politics and who might therefore be expected to know a little about the way in which

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elections and political parties work. Quoting my honourable friends in the other place, the noble Lord was rightly determined to stand with them against that proposition, and I understood his argument.

Regarding the Speaker's Committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, said, I do not think that I received a very good answer as to exactly what it would do. "Strategic oversight" could be construed as doing a bit of checking to see how it is working. If seven politicians are to sit down to decide whether or not it is working, one begins to introduce politics into it, which is what one seeks to avoid.

I can understand that it should look after the budget. I certainly do not want the Treasury to do that. The Treasury would probably try to keep the budget as low as possible and tell the body to make 10 per cent cuts, or whatever, and justify every move that it made. That would be even worse--dare I suggest--than political control. I am content that a properly balanced Speaker's committee should look at the budget, but I remain a wee bit uneasy about "strategic oversight".

As to my amendment, I accept that in certain circumstances if the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee is a member of the Opposition there will not be a balance. Like my noble friend Lady Fookes, I accept absolutely the assurances of the Speaker about the composition of the committee. However, she will not be Speaker for ever. While that is fine as a start, I believe that the Government should contemplate how the Speaker's ruling can be put on a statutory basis. There are possible ways to do it. I do not want to write an amendment on my feet. However, if the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee is not a member of the governing party, or parties, there will be one less additional member from the opposition parties. I do not believe that it is beyond anyone's wit to draft an amendment to deal with this, and I suspect that it will not be beyond mine when we come to Report stage. I intend to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, for inviting me to make further reference at a later stage to the role and purpose of the Speaker's Committee. I am content to set out in greater detail exactly how we see that working, but it is a matter for further discussion. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, asked about the Speaker's Committee in relation to the report of the Neill committee. Lord Neill's committee makes the case for the Speaker's committee in the following terms:


    "11.11 One of the main prerequisites of the independence of the Commission would be its independence of budget. A body whose budget was determined through a government department and which consequently had to fight for resources against competing priorities in government could never be perceived as truly independent. We therefore believe it is essential that a mechanism should be developed for setting the Commission's budget which stresses the Commission's independence while at the same time"--

I believe this to be the critical point--


    "retaining a degree of accountability to Parliament for the proper expenditure of public funds".

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The report goes on to suggest that one possible model is the mechanism to set the budget of the National Audit Office. As I am sure the noble Lord is aware, the NAO's budget is approved by the Public Accounts Commission, which is established by Section 2 of the National Audit Act 1983. That is what we seek to mirror by creating a Speaker's Committee, and we hope that that proposal meets with the Committee's approval.

I take the point about the importance of balance which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes. The Government believe that the preferred model set out in the amendments that have been tabled could lead to a situation in which there was an imbalance. However, in setting up the commission and seeking to establish a mechanism for further parliamentary accountability we must proceed on the basis of trust. Surely, the declaration of the Speaker is one to which we can all sign up. While we cannot fetter the discretion of future governments--that is neither possible nor right--there should be an acceptance by the parties that this is the way in which it should proceed in future. It would be unfortunate if we were forced to place that on the face of the legislation.

I shall reflect carefully on what the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, has said. Without commitment, I shall give the matter further thought. At the moment we are content with the way in which the Speaker has conducted the matter and set out her views about the future. I am pleased to note that at least this evening the noble Lord is prepared to withdraw his amendment.


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