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Viscount Astor moved Amendment No. 9:


The noble Viscount said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 10, 11 and 12. Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 address what appears to be an inconsistency in drafting between Clause 3 and Schedule 1. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House that it is an unintended inconsistency rather than anything more sinister.

Paragraphs (a) and (d) of Clause 3(4) provide that a person cannot be appointed an electoral commissioner if he is or has been at any time within the preceding 10 years an officer of a registered party or accounting unit. However, paragraph 3 (3)(b) of Schedule 1 states that an electoral commissioner shall cease to hold office if,


    "he takes us any office or employment in or with ... a registered party or any accounting unit".

The distinction is made in the schedule between the terms "office" and "employment" but it is not made in Clause 3.

There is certainly a distinction between being an officer of a party, which presumably means someone who holds a quite senior post--perhaps one mentioned in the party's constitution and indeed unpaid--and being an employee. If the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, were in her place, I might say that in the past she had been an officer of the Labour Party whereas Mr Alastair Campbell and Mr Charlie Whelan could have been described as "employees" when the party was in opposition. Under my reading of the Bill, the noble Baroness would therefore be disqualified from appointment to the commission, but Mr Campbell and Mr Whelan, despite their highly political roles, would not be. Are we to conclude that an electoral commissioner may be forced to resign if he takes up employment with a party, but it is all right for him to be appointed a commissioner if he is a party employee, even one with an overtly political role, at the time of his appointment or if he has been employed by a party in the recent past?

I hope that this is just poor drafting and that that is not the Government's intent. I hope that my amendments will be accepted as they seek to make the Bill clearer and more acceptable.

There are other inconsistencies in the Bill which I trust the Minister will address. In the schedule, the list of things that will terminate a commissioner's appointment includes his taking up office or employment with a recognised third party or a permitted participant in a referendum. However, in Clause 3, the disqualification from appointment in the first place applies only to office held in registered

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parties and their accounting units. Are we to read into that that a commissioner can hold or can have held office with a third party or a referendum participant on his appointment, or is that what I would describe as inconsistent drafting? What about officers of members' associations? Should not they be included in both definitions as well?

Again, the schedule provides that a commissioner's appointment ends if he becomes a candidate at an election. However, there is nothing in Clause 3 to prevent his appointment if he has been a candidate in the recent past; only if he was actually elected would he fall within the provisions of subsections (4)(c) and (4)(d). I should be grateful for clarification from the Minister as to whether he considers that the drafting is correct or whether he considers that there is a loophole.

Amendment No. 11 would extend the disqualification which applies to past political activity to membership of a political party, as well as to that of holding office or donating. We suggest that someone who is a member of a political party should not be appointed, unlike the other criteria for disqualification which do not extend all that far back into the past. The current drafting suggests that it is not necessary for someone to hold office in a party to have a significant political profile, either locally or nationally. For example, someone might be the head of a members' organisation such as the Fabian Society or the Tory Reform Group; that person would not in fact hold office within the party itself. Perhaps the Minister will consider the matter a little further. This amendment is of a probing nature. I wish to understand the Government's thinking here and I seek reassurance that they have drafted this part of the Bill correctly.

I shall turn now to Amendment No. 12. This would provide that no person could hold office as an electoral commissioner for more than 15 years. I accept that that is an arbitrary figure and that commissioners could be appointed for up to 10 years in the first instance in order to achieve the security of tenure intended by the Neill committee. My amendment seeks to establish how long the Government intend that a commissioner should serve and how often he could be reappointed. As the Bill stands, a person could be reappointed for three full terms and thus would serve for 30 years. I am sure that the noble Lord would agree that that is rather a long time for anyone to undertake one job. Obviously we need commissioners who have gained experience, but it is equally important to make available to the commission opportunities to introduce fresh talent and expertise at reasonable intervals.

It is important, when we consider the Bill as a whole, to ensure that the role of the commissioners is properly fulfilled. To that end, Amendment No. 12 seeks to clarify the Government's thinking in this important area. I beg to move.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend in these amendments. In particular, I wish to add my support to Amendment No. 12, which deals with the length of service of

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electoral commissioners. The Bill concerns freshness and transparency. To that end, we should like to receive a clear statement from the Government as regards how long they anticipate that electoral commissioners should hold office.

Given that the Government have refused to accept the cogent arguments put forward by my noble friend on the previous amendment, on which we have just divided, we wish to be able to distinguish clearly the lines drawn between those operating within the commission and outside the commission; namely, what they can and cannot do. I look forward to the Minister's response.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Bach: My Lords, in Committee we discussed the question of whether people should be debarred from being commissioners or members of the commission's staff by reason of political affiliations. The restrictions now contained in subsection (4) of Clause 3, which has been referred to by the noble Viscount, were added to the Bill at our instigation at that stage. Some reservations were expressed about what we are proposing here. However, those reservations seem now to have disappeared.

I shall work through the amendments and explain to noble Lords the Government's thinking on these matters. First, I should say that there is no great gulf between the Government and the Opposition Front Bench as regards the issues raised by these interesting amendments. I shall be suggesting that the majority of the amendments--or perhaps half of them--are unnecessary or mildly undesirable. However, I note that those amendments are of a probing nature in order to establish the Government's point of view on the issues raised. Indeed, it may be that, once he has heard my reply, which will not be overly long, the noble Viscount might not feel the need to press them further if he achieves most of what he seeks here.

Amendment No. 9 would prevent a person from being a commissioner at the same time as being an employee, and not merely an officer, of a registered party. Here, we can change our tune. If I wanted to advise the House to reject the amendment, I would have to explain the difference between an officer and an employee and why one of these things was compatible with being a commissioner but not the other. Both those tasks are well beyond me and therefore I recommend to the House that it should agree with the noble Viscount's amendment.

Amendment No. 10 would make it impossible for a person to be appointed as a commissioner if he or she had been an employee and not merely an officer of a party within the previous 10 years. We have thought a little longer about this amendment because it could be argued that some kind of employment, perhaps as a manager in information technology, for example, would not necessarily connote any real association with the party's political position. However, bearing in mind the generous nature of the Government Front Bench this afternoon, I am not minded to oppose this amendment either.

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However, as regards Amendment No. 11, I am afraid that the honeymoon is over and I must revert to type; namely, to the posture of the Government defending the Bill--probably rightly so here. The amendment would make it impossible for a person to be appointed as a commissioner if he or she had been a member of a party within the previous five years. We think that that goes too far. We accept that, as the Bill already requires, a commissioner should have to resign from any membership of a party on appointment. We think that that requirement is quite justifiable, for commissioners as opposed to staff members, so as to avoid the possibility of any enduring conflict of interest. But we do not think that previous membership, unaccompanied by the holding of any political office, need be an absolute bar. We think that it would require a great deal of justification to impose a stiffer test in this regard for membership of the commission than, for example, for appointment as a High Court judge, where the same rule would not apply. For that reason, I would ask the noble Viscount not to press his amendment.

I shall turn finally to Amendment No. 12. This would impose an overall limit of 15 years on the period for which a person could serve as a commissioner. I shall say again that there is no great gulf between our attitudes on this point. The Government agree that very long service as an electoral commissioner would be undesirable in most cases. We shall ourselves be following that principle when we put forward those selected for initial appointment. Indeed, if we were to set a statutory maximum--although I should state that we do not support setting such a limit--it might be open to question whether 15 years was not in any event on the long side, as the noble Viscount suggested when he spoke to the amendment. In our view that would certainly send the wrong signal if, as sometimes happens, the maximum came to be regarded as the norm.

On the other hand, there may be cases in which someone has become a lynchpin of the commission and it was agreed all round that it would be of benefit for them to serve longer. We feel that this is a matter best left to the good sense of the government of the day. However, that would apply not only to the government, but to the judgment of another place. I should remind noble Lords that another place has to agree on a reappointment to the commission. Thus, having explained briefly to noble Lords our thinking on this issue, I am sure that it is clear that we are not all that far apart here. However, we do not feel that it is necessary for the maximum period to be set down in law. Given that, I would ask the noble Viscount not to press his amendment.


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