Debates between Baroness Noakes and Lord Foulkes of Cumnock during the 2019 Parliament

Thu 10th Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage: Part 1

Elections Bill

Debate between Baroness Noakes and Lord Foulkes of Cumnock
Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, this is the most extraordinary debate that I have ever taken part in, with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, first disowning the amendment in her name on the supplementary list of amendments and then moving it formally but not explaining what we are debating. I hope that the noble Baroness remains to withdraw her amendment at the end. Otherwise, we may be in a little trouble.

I was unable to take part at Second Reading on this Bill because I was not in the country, but I have of course read Hansard on that debate and I hope to take part in the remaining stages. I will not range as widely as the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, because I hope to say more about Clause 14 generally when we get to the stand part debate, where I think it would be most appropriate. But I will say a couple of things about the two amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, because neither of them is necessary.

Amendment 4A states that the Electoral Commission only needs to comply with the strategic and policy statement if it conforms with its own objectives. The amendment is unnecessary because the only requirement in new Section 4B in Clause 14 is for the commission to “have regard to” the statement. Nothing compels the commission to do anything specific as a result of the statement being published, and nothing in Clause 14 changes the requirement for the Electoral Commission not to do anything which conflicts with its statutory duties. In short, its regulatory independence is already protected by Clause 14.

I was somewhat mystified by Amendment A1 which removes the role and responsibilities from the strategic and policy statement. These strategic and policy statements merely set out what the Government’s priorities are and what the Government see as the role and responsibilities in relation to those priorities. It does not override the commission’s independence but gives guidance as to the Government’s priorities and of course those priorities will be approved by Parliament. Public bodies do not exist in a vacuum; they exist in a political context. The strategic and policy statements just give that context—nothing more, nothing less. Clause 14 does not impact on the independence of the Electoral Commission.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, this is an astonishing Bill. I understand why there was confusion at the start; I do not blame the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, in any way and I hope no one else will, given what we are facing today.

This is an outrageous Bill in almost every way: a 171-page compendium of political bias. In the case of the Electoral Commission, I can understand why the Government are embarrassed. As I understand it, the commission pointed out the kind of money that the Conservative Party was getting and where it was getting it from. Given that we are now in the middle of a war in which the Russian state—Mr Putin and his cronies—are invading Ukraine, the fact that some of the money was coming from Russian sources must be an acute embarrassment to the noble Lord and his cronies. That is why they do not like the Electoral Commission.

We just have to look at what is in the news today about the Charity Commission. The story is that the Government are about to put in a Tory placeperson—a placeman, as it happens—as the chair of the Charity Commission, as they have done before. This is what they do, and it is happening throughout our public system. A Member of this House, who used to be a Labour MP, has been appointed to post after post because they supported the Government in the last election and supported the Vote Leave campaign. It is cronyism squared—cubed, probably.

The Liberal Democrats mentioned the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in a speech earlier. I used to be a board member of that foundation and am now on the executive of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. We are about to have a seminar, with representatives from all around the Commonwealth, at which we will be talking about good governance. How on earth can we try to put forward the idea that this so-called mother of Parliaments is an example of good governance if this Bill becomes an Act? We must do everything we can, not just to amend it but to scupper it.

Look at today’s amendments: after the two from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, we have over 100 government amendments. What on earth is going on with this legislation? We will soon be moving towards Prorogation and the Queen’s Speech. This Bill should be totally abandoned. In many ways we are wasting our time going through amendment after amendment; I do not think there is any prospect of the Bill moving forward.

I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly. We go around monitoring elections in other countries and we see what happens. If there is no effective independent electoral commission in a country then we criticise that and say it is not a proper democracy. How can we properly participate and show face in these countries if this Bill becomes an Act? It is just outrageous.

I know the Minister has an impossible task. Those of us who have been in the House of Commons know the kind of debates that take place there. Regrettably, the House of Commons these days is not taking the time—it does not have the time—to examine 171 pages and all these amendments in detail, let alone their implications for our democracy. We are dealing here just with the Electoral Commission but there is a whole range of other issues, such as identification, which will make the opportunity for ordinary people to vote much more difficult.

As I say, the House of Commons has not given this legislation the kind of scrutiny that its Members ought to have done. They understand elections more than we do; they take part in them year by year, so they understand the implications of the Bill. We have a responsibility to go through the Bill line by line, but there is no way we can do that in the next couple of months. I hope that at some point—even if not now, it is inevitable that this is going to happen—the Minister will throw in the towel and say, “This is just not going to proceed”. If not, I warn him that we on this side of the House—and I think the Liberal Democrats are filled with the same kind of enthusiasm and determination, as are the Greens and, I suspect, a huge number of Cross-Benchers—will do everything we can to undermine and thwart the Bill and make sure that this abortion—no, that is not the right word.