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Baroness Fookes: I speak to Amendment No. 28 in this grouping. It is on the same lines as the amendment suggested by my noble friend although a simpler one. It relates to the chairmanship of the commission; namely, that the chairman should either be a member of the senior judiciary or a retired member. This is along the lines suggested by my noble friend for chairmanship. I can do no better than refer to comments made by the Lord Chancellor earlier today in answer to a Question. He gave a most eloquent exposition of why judges were so suited to head inquiries or commissions of an important nature. This stems from their legal training in impartiality and the ability to sift evidence. It seems to me that all he said today could be applied equally to the chairmanship of the commission. I hope, therefore, that the Government will be minded to accept this amendment, or a similar provision, in view of the great endorsement given by the Lord Chancellor.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, a couple of specific questions. First, he makes the point about increasing the size of the commission to 11; and under Amendment No. 27 we have some criteria. Does the noble Lord believe that the size should be increased irrespective of those criteria? Does he argue that the size should be increased because of the large volume of work that the commission will undertake? Alternatively, is he increasing the size because he believes that these people should be added to the commission?
Secondly, does the noble Lord agree that all electoral matters would benefit from coming under one commission? Have not local government and parliamentary boundaries been something of a farce? They have overlapped, causing problems. Is there not an argument for putting the Boundary Commission into the electoral commission? Given the volume of work for the commission, is it not sensible first to sort out such matters as the finances and donations and let the commission become established before we bring the Boundary Commission into play?
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, will be good enough to deal with the principle. For example, Amendment No. 27 could provide for three rather than four members, and that the Lords Justices of Appeal and the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary could be retired. For practical purposes that could be a relevant consideration. Also, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public
Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I support the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, may find that it is far more significant than he realises. I think that what I am about to say will shock and stagger all Members of the Committee.
It was generally believed that the Speaker of the House of Commons chaired all four Boundary Commissions. In all parts of the United Kingdom, some of that work was delegated, naturally, to a distinguished judge. However, there was a most astonishing development almost at the end of the last Boundary Commission in regard to Northern Ireland. I speak about the Boundary Commission for the whole of the United Kingdom.
The commission produced a report which was widely acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland--both sides of the so-called community. There came the most astonishing development. I know that the Committee will find it difficult to believe. The Irish Government asked for and obtained a copy. They made representations not to the Speaker of the House of Commons but the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland saying, "This will not do. We have an alternative." The alternative, as they saw it, was to give an advantage to the nationalist community in Northern Ireland. I do not quarrel with that. They have been given a right and an opportunity on many occasions to represent that community. That is not the point.
The Northern Ireland Office immediately turned tail, directed the Boundary Commission--the so-called impartial, neutral commission--to go back to the drawing board and recast the plan for constituencies in Northern Ireland. In doing so, they made the unfortunate mistake of shooting themselves in the foot. They caused the loss of the SDLP nationalist moderate Dr Joseph Hendron who represented in another place the West Belfast constituency. As a result of this bungling and interference by a foreign government, he was replaced by one Mr Adams, who is now the Member of Parliament for Belfast West.
I know that noble Lords will find it difficult to accept that it was not the Boundary Commission which turned tail and changed its mind; it was directed and influenced to do so by the Northern Ireland Office to comply with the wishes of a foreign sovereign government. That raises this question in future. If any other European Union government decides that the output of the new commission is not to their liking, will they, too, be granted the same facilities by a department in Her Majesty's Government to do what they did in the case of Belfast--and in particular West Belfast?
I say with great respect that we have to take the amendment very seriously. We have to ensure that all future boundary commissions are what they are said to be: that they operate, and operate solely, under the authority of the appropriate officers of government responsible to both House of this Parliament. They have to be insulated and protected from outside interference by any foreign sovereign government, particularly as, in the example I gave, they do not understand what they are doing and they disadvantage the very people whom they are trying to help.
Lord Goodhart: I begin by declaring an interest. I am, and was when the report was declared, a member of the Neill committee. I therefore believe that it is inappropriate for me to speak or vote in any way which is inconsistent with the report which I signed. However, subject to that qualification, I regard myself as free to speak and vote on these issues.
I am unhappy with Amendment No. 27. I have been a practising barrister for some 40 years and as a result my regard for the judiciary is great but not unlimited. I believe that members of the electoral commission need a wide variety of experiences and expertise.
The effect of Amendment No. 27, even with the increased numbers proposed in the earlier amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, would be that between 36 and 50 per cent of the membership of the commission would have to be members of the judiciary. I do not believe that that constitutes a commission which would be appropriate for the job it has to do.
I have no objection to Amendment No. 28 because there is a strong case for saying that a senior or retired member of the judiciary should be a chairman of the commission, as is de facto the case with the Boundary Commission in which the chairmanship is purely nominal. However, the minimum number of four is inappropriate.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: Perhaps I may deal with what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I do not suggest that I have an unreasoned admiration for the judiciary. That is not the point; the point was taken by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. However one regards the judiciary, it is a bastion against that form of disposal. I had not known of that until the noble Lord mentioned it and I am deeply shocked. It is important that the judicial element, however one, as a member of the Bar, may regard it, is seen by the public, and as they would operate in public office, free from any form of pressure.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I now feel duty bound to declare an interest. I am not a lawyer, but I live with a lawyer. Therefore, my views of lawyers must be carefully phrased. I live in reverence of them and have great respect for them.
I turn to the issues raised in this short but enlightening debate. The first point that we must remember is that the electoral commission is a regulatory body. It discharges functions which are vital to it and it must be seen as independent and impartial in its dealings with the supervisory organisations; that is, the political parties. The key criterion for membership of the commission is that it is composed of persons of proven independence and impartiality.
I can see why Members of the your Lordships' House, particularly with its strong judicial element, would be drawn to conclude that that must mean that many such people are involved in the business of the new commission. However, I take to heart the observation made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that we need to have commissioners of wide experience. That is an important point for reflection. Later we shall no doubt debate the association between the commission and membership of political parties. We have made our views clear on that.
I want to draw on some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, about the commission. He was trying to tease us out on the nature of its composition and whether we believed there was a case for going against part of what the Neill committee stated, although not strongly; that is, the need to bring greater co-ordination between the four separate parliamentary Boundary Commissions.
That argument was well made by the Jenkins commission and we are reflecting on its views in order to try to bring together those organisations under one umbrella. We want to bring that work to bear more closely on the regulatory role that the electoral commission will be taking on. That is part of the thinking behind this particular move.
There is no doubt that members of the judiciary have served us well in their work on the Boundary Commission. I do not believe that anyone is arguing against that. No doubt, when we consider further the composition of the expanded commission, as it will be when we bring in the Boundary Commission functions, those people will be in the forefront of our minds in considering who may be selected to carry out this important work.
At this stage, we do not say that they should be the sole beneficiaries of that part of the commission's work because we do not want to rule out anyone at this stage. We believe that it is best to keep an open mind. However, they will clearly have a leading and important role to play and will be active in our consideration when the criteria are drawn up.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, asked why not immediately give boundary matters to the electoral commission. It was a fair question to ask at this stage. We must look at practicalities and we believe that it would be impractical to do that. After all, the work of the Boundary Commission is ongoing. It is into its fifth general review and we do not want to disrupt its important work. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that point.
He also made the point that this position could go on for ever. We do not want that to be the case and we believe that we are likely to see the transfer of the Boundary Commission's functions to the electoral commission within the next five years, when its work on the current fifth review is complete.
The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, made an important and valuable point about avoiding outside interference. It is important that when we reflect on who will be on the commission we ensure and protect it from that interference. Furthermore, important comments were made about the value of retired judges and the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, prayed in aid comments made by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor earlier today. We do not rule them out, but we need to have a broadly based commission. That is the kernel of our argument. I am confident that we will have an appointments process that is transparent and non-partisan and which can draw on a wide field of candidates.
I trust that with those comments, which may have been helpful in responding to the points raised, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
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