Elections Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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I appreciate that I am surrounded by Labour noble Lords who object to what I am saying. One of the great advantages of votes for women was that occasionally we get to say the odd thing that does not go with the grain.

I am raising the problem that the Electoral Commission is not necessarily all good. I want to say this about it. There was a great deal of dissatisfaction about the Electoral Commission’s lack of independence in its response to the 2016 referendum, which I referred to in my Second Reading speech. Such were the concerns about the bias of the Electoral Commission in that period that it had to apologise for the bias of many of its members. This is not me saying it—I am quoting the Electoral Commission, which we are all told we have to listen to.

The bias led to many voters feeling that the Electoral Commission was not fit for purpose and was in fact biased against their wishes as an electorate in that referendum. Many of those people were not Tory cronies but Labour voters—Labour voters who may no longer be Labour voters because they became disillusioned by the fact that the Labour Party told them they had got it wrong, they were duped and they needed to think again. While the Labour Benches are very keen on democracy, they were less keen on the democratic decisions of many of their voters in 2016 and subsequently.

At the very least, therefore, it is important that we look at the role of the Electoral Commission critically and seriously. I do not think the way the Government have gone about reforming it will clarify or help things. I will make those points another time. But to say, as has just been said by a number of noble Lords, that we have a responsibility to take the Bill and thwart it, scupper it, throw it out and all the rest of it, seems to me rather to fly in the face of democracy. A little humility is maybe needed to remember that the plans for the Elections Bill were in the Conservative Party manifesto—which noble Lords will be delighted to know I did not vote for, before they all start.

Nevertheless, I clocked that they were there. We in this House are unelected legislators and need to take at least a smidgen of note of what the electorate might consider priorities. Not everything is a Conservative Party plot but one reason many people voted for the Conservative Party in 2019 was that they felt abandoned by the opposition parties.

Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D’Souza (CB)
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My Lords, I wonder whether noble Lords are fully aware that this is Committee and not Second Reading.

Lord Beith Portrait Lord Beith (LD)
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My Lords, I want to make a Committee point, if I may. Even though I agree with the general statements that have been made about the deep undesirability of Clauses 14 and 15, and the danger they represent to the reputation of this country as a guardian of democracy, my noble friend made quite clear that we would want to see those clauses removed but also indicated his support for the noble Baroness’s amendments, which would ameliorate those clauses slightly if the Bill were to retain them. I am very keen that the Bill does not retain them.

The amelioration has its limits and, in that context, I want to remind the Committee of the report of the Constitution Committee on the Bill in this respect. Paragraph 39 says:

“We are concerned about the desirability of introducing a Government-initiated strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission. The proposal will open up to risk the independence of the Commission … it would be dangerous if the perception were to emerge that the Commission is beholden to the Government for its operation and delivery.”

The weakness of the noble Baroness’s amendment, which I know is well intentioned, is that the statutory status of the statement remains and she creates a rather interesting situation, which I had not seen in legislative form before, in which the commission can carry out what the Government suggest if it already agrees with them, which would be a new kind of statutory position. The fact is that there would still be a statement that had some degree of statutory authority behind it.

Governments and governing parties can always criticise what the Electoral Commission says and does and have shown little hesitation about doing so over the years. There has never been a limit on the ability of the Conservative Party to say what it disagrees with in the Electoral Commission’s work. But to create a statutory process, even with the consultation involved, and produce from that a statement which explicitly or implicitly appears to bind the Electoral Commission is highly dangerous. I see that statement as addressing priorities of the commission. Is the commission spending too much time on political finance and donations? Is it spending too much time trying to register groups of people in this country? Should it spend more time trying to find more overseas voters? Such issues are not things on which we want to see the Electoral Commission steered by a statement that has any authority from statute. Let parties both in government and outside it continue to express their views and, indeed, their criticisms, but do not build into our statutory system that kind of statement.