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Lord Rennard: My Lords, I welcome the amendments in this group which were tabled by the Government and which concern the relative powers of the electoral commission and the Secretary of State in relation to local government boundary reviews. That relationship is, of course, subject to Amendment No. 38 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord McNally.
As originally drafted, the Bill was inconsistent in giving the electoral commission powers over parliamentary boundaries, but leaving the Secretary of State with responsibility for local government and ward boundaries. It is generally agreed that the electoral commission is intended to have substantial independence. Its role will be supervised not by the Government, but by the proposed Speaker's committee. It would therefore have been somewhat incongruous for the committee to be subject to the direction of the Secretary of State with regard to its local government electoral functions.
In the previous Parliament we witnessed manipulation by the Conservative government of local government boundaries in Scotland in a vain attempt to secure for the Conservative Party control of at least one Scottish council and perhaps the parliamentary seat if parliamentary boundaries were then to be redrawn along the lines of local government boundaries.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I am happy to do so. There was a great deal of controversy about the local government boundaries in Scotland prior to the previous general election campaign and the creation of the new unitary councils in Scotland, and the one based largely around the Eastwood constituency was clearly being created by the then Conservative government to try and create one council which the Conservative Party might be able to hold. Indeed, it failed to do so in the Scottish councils elections, despite the fact that the boundaries had been arranged in such a way as to favour the Conservative Party.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I notice that the noble Lord is introducing a party-political slant to this debate. But will he accept that that particular local authority was already a district council authority and therefore the provision was not as illogical or as politically motivated as the noble Lord seems to think?
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I believe that it is right that at the time there was a suggestion that the Conservative government were interfering with the boundaries in a way that would be improper and it is only right that in future the electoral commission should deal with those issues rather than a government of any party. It would not be right if the commission did not have such powers and it continued to be responsible to the Secretary of State for these matters.
At present the Secretary of State has considerable powers over the local government commission. At present he has the power to direct the commission to undertake reviews and to have regard to guidance he or she may issue, and has the ultimate power to approve, reject or amend the commission's proposals without reference to Parliament. The new commission, established with a wide remit over electoral matters, should not have its work on local government reviews subject to the direction of, and approval by, the Secretary of State.
The Secretary of State does not have such powers in relation to the Parliamentary Boundary Commissions. So if modifications to the Parliamentary Boundary Commission proposals are proposed by the Secretary of State, for which there is no known precedent, he or she must not only explain the reasons for them, but also the draft order must be debated and approved by both Houses of Parliament. The same principle should now apply for local government.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken. As to the issue between them, the Government could not possibly comment--or chooses not to on this occasion. Indeed, it is something of a relief for the Government not to have to comment on such an issue.
I am grateful to both noble Lords, with their experience of local government and elections generally. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, will be heard and read in Scotland; and we are grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, we discussed in Committee and agreed that the electoral commission should be and should be seen to be independent of political parties. The whole House will agree with that proposition. That is why in Committee the Government inserted provisions into the Bill which disqualify a person from being appointed an electoral commissioner if he is a member of a political party, or if he is, or has recently been, an officer of, or a large donor to, a political party.
Schedule 1 extends those disqualifications to the chief executive of the commission, who will be the senior paid public official in charge of elections in the whole of the United Kingdom, and to members of the commission staff. The post of chief executive will be significant and will carry significant powers and responsibilities. It is right that whoever holds those posts should be politically neutral, as should the staff of the commission.
However, that extension of the disqualifications to the chief executive and the staff is incomplete. It does not include first and arguably the most important element which will apply to the commissioners; namely, current membership of a political party. In this Bill, we are placing restrictions on the electoral commissioners as to their membership of political parties but are not applying the same rule to members of the commission's paid service. That seems strange. My amendment would apply to the chief executive and the staff of the commission the full range of restrictions which will apply to the commissioners.
To what extent will the staff of the commission be barred from act of involvement in politics? That seems to me to be the main question. It would appear that under the Bill the staff will be able to be members of a political party. Will that allow them to engage in campaign activity or are they to be barred from doing that? It would be preferable for them to be--and, crucially, seen to be--above involvement in party politics.
I hope that the Minister can tell us that during the past six months the Government have given detailed consideration to these issues, as I was promised they would. There is little precedent for the powers that the
I do not believe that it would be perceived as fair by the political parties if they discover that they are giving detailed confidential and privileged information about their finances to people who are members of rival parties and who therefore may be seen to be possibly biased, even if they are not biased in practice.
There is a compelling reason why the analogy drawn by the Minister on 11th May is invalid. In no other area of the public sector service are such sweeping powers of investigation into and regulation of political parties given to officials who may be members of rival parties. That is what the Bill does. The electoral commission will regulate political parties. It will not be doing other work; it will be directly regulating political parties.
I am sure that Ministers agree that this is uncharted territory. It seems to me crucial that the officials of the commission, as well as the commission itself, are seen to be above party politics. I believe that if they are not seen to be above party politics, confidence in the working of the commission will be reduced. The situation which could be created by the Bill as drafted would be very difficult. I hope that the Minister, from his thoughts since the matter was first raised last May, can give me reassurances. However, I am concerned that without the amendment standing in my name, and even with the Minister's reassurance, it will be a distinct possibility that a political party could be giving confidential information to an official of the commission who is a member of another political party. I do not believe that that is a satisfactory position and I commend my amendment to the Government and the House. I beg to move.
Lord Sanderson of Bowden: My Lords, I had not intended to speak in the debate but I want to support my noble friend most strongly. The most important point is that if the electoral commission is to have respect, it must be, and be seen to be, above reproach. I should have thought that my noble friend's amendment does just that. It will not be popular with the public if, as has happened in the United States, there are seen to be political affiliations which can have a bearing on the result of an election.
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