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Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: I am grateful for thathe has the final call. My issue relates to subsection (3) of the new section. It is not about seniority of posts but the political sensitivity of posts. A great range of posts within the commission will be politically sensitive at one point or another and it is
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Baroness Gould of Potternewton: First, I should say how much I appreciate the fact that the Government have picked up the point that I made in Second Reading about the level of this flexibility for the chief executive. It is absolutely right that that should happen; I also think that it is right that they have to have that consultation with the Speakers Committee, which, at the end of the day, will no doubt be the body that takes the decision. I have no doubt that the chief executive will listen with care to whatever the Speakers Committee says. I wanted to make that point.
Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, I want to make another point. I accept that if someone is in a politically sensitive post, obviously it might be important that there is a longer term. However, the clause states that in deciding what that period should be, the chief executive shall take account not only of the level of seniority of the post, but
In fact, the clause covers the points that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, made. Perhaps I may say again how grateful I am and, I am sure, how grateful the chief executive of the commission is that he will now have the flexibility to
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My point was not that someone would be in a politically sensitive role all the time, but that people dip in and out of politically sensitive activities. Junior members of staff will have a variety of tasks, perhaps. What I am concerned about is that if someone obtains access to information on a serendipitous basis, that person would not be the subject of the quarantine order, because the chief executive would see it in that way. I was concerned that it may be that some higher basic threshold would be a good idea.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I take that point and I understand that it is always possible for someone to use information that they should not use, or whatever, and they do not necessarily have to be someone to whom the one-year period applies. It could be that
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Lord Henley: Perhaps I may make one or two brief comments. We are sympathetic to these government amendments, but I ask the Minister to deal with one or two points. First, can he repeat what seems obvious to me: that this affects only the staff of the commission and in no way could these amendments at some future stage be used to affect the commissioners in relation to new subsection (3)? It would obviously be ridiculous if they began to be appointed by their party leaders. They could not be treated as if they were staff and found themselves excluded because of their political backgrounds. The noble Lord will obviously have no problem in repeating that.
Secondly, I agree that it is useful that the chief executive has the power to vary the period as he wishes and that he should consult the Speakers Committee. In the end, the final decision will be that of the chief executive. I should be grateful if the noble Lord repeated that. I take it, from my reading of the Bill, that the Speakers Committee has no veto on the chief executive. No doubt, he or she would take appropriate advice if the Speakers Committee had very strong views about what he was proposing.
Thirdly, it would be quite useful if the Minister gave some example of the times when he thought that the chief executive might wish to make use of this power to vary the period. I have some idea of my own, but I should be grateful if the Government gave their views as to when they thought it likely that the chief executive might exercise these powers.
Lord Tyler: I wish to make a brief contribution. We, too, see the logic of clarifying these issues and we very much endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said about the role of the chief executive. It is now easier to follow and clear. It is also important that the chief executive knows what the role is and to whom he or she is accountable on this issue. There was quite a lot of discussion about this at an earlier stage, and I think that this is now probably a sensible consensus and compromise.
However, it is important that those responsible in the commission for any form of enforcement are seen as a particular category. It may be that a longer period will be necessary for them, not just from a practical point of view but, as we have said in debate on other amendments today, from a perception point of view as well.
I listened very carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. I understand his point about quarantine but I fear that, as the noble Baroness said, the length of time is less important than the mindset. You could stipulate that people should not have been involved in active politics for 15 years but the important point is their mindset when they come
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Lord Campbell-Savours: I keep thinking of the Damian Green affair, where a civil servant had come straight from a political party, gone into a department and then acted improperly. I worry that the restriction period is too short and I think that the Government should consider an additional period in relation to employees.
Lord Tyler: Again, I understand the noble Lords point, but whether that individual had been immune from direct party-political influence and activity for one year, three years or 10 years is immaterial. I shall try not to make any generalised comments but it would seem that anyone who takes on a responsible position within any administration, as in that case, or in an important regulatory body such as this and who goes in with a partisan view or with partisan ambitionsa point made very well by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgsonis inappropriate for the task. It is a considerably difficult question, and it concerns recruitment and training as well as a check on previous experience. I give way.
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: I am extremely grateful. The noble Lord raised the question of enforcement. I understand the point about senior enforcement officers but the enforcement case will be heard at quite a junior level. The information and documents will be put together and the case will be assembled not at a senior level but by a series of junior members of the commission. As I understand the drift of what the Minister is saying, some senior people will be picked out and will probably be given a longer quarantine period. I may be wrong but I do not read in the Ministers comments or body language that we are talking about adding to the quarantine period for those who deal with highly sensitive matters at quite a junior level.
Lord Tyler: That is a formidable point and it reflects the one that I made about enforcement. The commission has many other responsibilities but, when it comes to the specific task of enforcement, I think that the chief executive will be well advised to think very carefully about the so-called period of quarantine. However, the marker that I wanted to put down is that we need to be quite sure that we give guidance to those who set out the criteria. I think that we will all have to give that matter more thought before Report, and I hope that the Minister will do so too. However, whether the guidance should be in the form of the time limitations
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Lord Tunnicliffe: I have little to add to what I have said but it is important to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, once again, for her input. She answered the point of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, very well and has completely stolen what I was going to say. But I shall say it again anyway. The issue of political sensitivity is covered by the proposed new sub-paragraph (3)(b) in Amendment 77. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that the issue is about the kind of people who will be recruited. When someone who has been politically active becomes a public servant, that individual has to have a change of mind because he is now a public servant. The restrictions, the varying times and so on are meant to help in that, but it is also about the way people think.
As to the direct route request, yes this applies only to the staff of the commission; yes it is correct that the final decision will be made by the chief executive; and no, I am afraid I do not have any examples at hand. The enforcement point is interesting and we will certainly think on it as a result of todays debate.
Lord Campbell-Savours: Perhaps I may put a scenario to my noble friend. This is a real world question. Imagine a young socialist in a political party who does his 12 months and then joins the Electoral Commission. He is then involved in an inquiry into malpractice in another political partymaybe the Liberal Democrats or the Conservative Partyand has to make a recommendation about penalties or is involved in the making of that recommendation. Surely that is utterly wrong and must be avoided at all costs. So we either have to extend the limits, as proposed in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, or we have to introduce other criteria on the way in which the commission deals with these matters internally. We have to do that in the Bill, otherwise we will have problems in future.
Lord Tunnicliffe: Any member of the commission staff doing any task must act impartially. The power in this clause is to give the chief executive a reasonable and proportionate way of ensuring the impartiality that we all seek. The chief executive in his consultations will sensitively pick the appropriate post and create a structure that will provide public confidence. Over and above that, the essence on which our public life depends is that public officials act impartially in their role of working to their job descriptions and to the standards expected of them.
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: Perhaps I may press the Minister a little further. There are concerns around this issue and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has given a number of interesting scenarios.
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Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I have a problem with the last comment. I know many people who are interested in that aspect of electoral work and would want to join the commission. Therefore I do not think that the noble Lords point is right. I also have a problem with timing. However, I accept the point made by my noble friend that we should consider laying down some criteria. You can be out of a political party for one year, five years or 10 years and still want to be involved; it does not mean that you are no longer involved. You are not active, but you may still have an instinct that draws you to a political party. I accept, after listening to the discussion, that we must think about how we address the points that have been raised.
(a) designate a particular post on the staff of the Commission, and
(b) specify as the relevant period for that post, for the purposes of paragraph 11A(2)(aa), a period of two years or more,
if the chief executive reasonably believes that it is necessary to do so in order to maintain public confidence in the effectiveness of the Commission in carrying out any of its functions.
(a) the level of seniority of the post;
(b) how likely it is that any holder of the post will be required to deal with politically sensitive matters.
(a) has effect from the day on which it is received by the Speakers Committee, and
(b) (subject to sub-paragraphs (6) and (7)) expires at the end of the period of three years beginning with that day.
(a) before the previous notice would have expired, or
(b) at any time after the expiry of the previous notice.
A further notice received by the Speakers Committee before the previous notice would have expired supersedes the previous notice.
(7) If the chief executive of the Commission gives notice (a cancellation notice) to the Speakers Committee cancelling a notice under sub-paragraph (1), the notice under that sub-paragraph ceases to have effect
(a) on the day on which the cancellation notice is received by the Speakers Committee, or
(b) (if later) on such date as may be specified in the cancellation notice.
(a) to assist the Boundary Committee for England in the performance of its functions,
(b) to assist the Commission in carrying out functions transferred to them by an order under section 18(1) of the 2000 Act (transfer of functions of Local Government Commission for England), or
(c) to perform duties including either or both of those.
(1) Where the Electoral Commission makes a report to the Secretary of State under the provisions of section 6 of the 2000 Act, the Secretary of State shall respond in writing within a period of six months from the day of the publication of the report.
(2) If for any reason the Secretary of State is unable to respond within the period stipulated in subsection (1), he shall inform the Electoral Commission of that fact, and the reasons for it, no later than the day on which the response was due.
Lord Norton of Louth: The Electoral Commission is required by Section 6 of the 2000 Act to keep under review and from time to time submit reports to the Secretary of State on matters relating to elections, referendums, the redistribution of seats at parliamentary elections, the registration of political parties, the regulation of income and expenditure, political advertising in broadcast and other electronic media and the law relating to these matters. I mention in passing, following yesterdays debate, that the commission is not required to report on institutions of government or institutions of the European Union. The commission may also be
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The areas covered are clearly important and relate to the commissions areas of expertise. However, Section 6 is silent about what happens to the reports once they have been published. There is no requirement for the Secretary of State to have regard to them, or even to respond to them. My amendment would ensure that, when the commission makes a report to the Secretary of State under the provisions of Section 6, the Secretary of State responds in writing within six months of the day of publication of the report.
The requirement to reply within six months is not onerous. Ministers seek to reply to Select Committee reports within two months of publication. In this House it used to be six months for committees other than the European Union Committee; but the Government recently agreed that it should be two months for all committee reports. The Government seek to respond to Law Commission reports within six months. I have opted for the more generous six-month period. If it is to be a statutory provision, that seems appropriate.
The second part of the amendment seeks to address the obvious objection to imposing a statutory time limit, namely that it may not always be possible to provide a substantive response in six months if the report is highly technical. My proposed new subsection (2) provides that if the Secretary of State is unable to respond within six months, he shall inform the Electoral Commission of that fact, and the reasons for it, not later than the day on which the response is due.
The provisions of the clause are not unduly onerous; indeed, they are open to the objection that they are not tight enough. However, they have the merit of imposing on the Secretary of State a duty to respond to reports from the Electoral Commission. Such a requirement is eminently sensible. It would bring Electoral Commission reports into line with Law Commission reports, and ensure not only that they are taken seriously by the Secretary of State, but are seen to be taken seriouslyan important element of transparency. If the commission believes that a matter is of such weight as to justify a report to the Secretary of State, or if the Secretary of State believes that a matter is of sufficient importance to require a report from the commission, there should be a requirement on the Secretary of State to provide a written response. The new clause imposes no requirement in terms of content; that must be a matter for the Minister, as is the case with responses to Select Committee and Law Commission reports. All that is required under this clause is that the Secretary of State must reply in writing; I believe that it imposes a usefulindeed, a necessarydiscipline. I beg to move.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I support the amendment. It is absolutely right that if, in fact, the Electoral Commission has been asked to do a piece of work, that response must come. I am not sure whether six months is not a bit too long, but I shall go with the amendment. It is important that responses are received
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Lord Tyler: We, too, very much support this amendment, along similar lines to the noble Baroness. I am not sure whether it is not that the present reporting regime has been inadequate as regards what the commission has or has not been doing, or whether it is the response that the Secretary of State has or has not made in a timely fashion that is at the centre or core of the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. Either way, this is obviously an extremely helpful self-discipline, which otherwise is not really dealt with under Section 6 of the 2000 Act. The reviews set out under that section are very important; these are not trivial issues and, as the noble Baroness has said, leaving them too long unreported or unresponded to by the responsible Secretary of State would seem to leave a nagging doubt on whether action is being taken on important issues.
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