Elections Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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At the end of the day, there is a requirement for Parliament to agree. That is an important part of the framework. It is not something the Executive can do alone. It would need to become a parliamentary approved statement and, as we discussed earlier, it must be approved by both Houses of Parliament.

My second point is that we should be absolutely clear that strategy and policy statements are not directions. No power of direction exists for the Electoral Commission, and Clause 14 does not create one. Noble Lords would be rightly concerned if Clause 14 created a power of direction in relation to the Electoral Commission. I think that the Electoral Commission was just plain wrong, in its written briefing, to claim that it would be subject to government direction as a result of Clause 14.

I regret to say that the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, for whom I have the highest regard, was also wrong, when he spoke on the first group of amendments, to assert that this statement amounts to a direction. It does not. Directions are very clear in what they can force public bodies to do. This does not force anything. The only requirement, as we have heard, is in new Section 4B for the Government to “have regard to” the statement. We discussed that in the first group of amendments, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, has made some comments on the ineffectiveness of that, because it does not refer to other things which it could “have regard to”. It does not trump the commission’s statutory objectives; it does not compel the commission to do anything at all, or to take account of anything else.

We must keep all this in proportion. It is an additional thing for the Electoral Commission to take into account; it does not replace all the existing law relating to the commission. This is the formulation used for all existing regulators, and I believe it is the right approach to protect regulatory independence. As I said, no concerns have been expressed to date about the independence of any of the regulators subject to statements.

The important thing is that the commission has to report on what it has done in consequence of the statement. In practice, as we will see from the way in which the statements tend to align with what the independent regulators are doing, statements generally reinforce what those bodies are doing, and relatively new information beyond what would be included in the annual report comes as a result of those statements.

However, it is important that the independent regulator explain any divergence from the Government’s priorities as approved by Parliament. For example, if the Government said that their priority was to improve democratic participation, not just generally but for particular groups, we would want to know what the commission had done about that and whether it had had any impact. That really does not threaten independence.

I believe that transparency and accountability are what the strategic and policy statements are really all about, and why they are useful. One element is for the Government to be transparent about their policies and priorities, because they have to set them down, get them consulted on and then have them approved by both Houses of Parliament. The regulators then have to be transparent in reporting on what they have done in respect of those priorities—or whether they have done nothing at all. That allows them to be held to account by Parliament—in the case of the Electoral Commission, through the Speaker’s Committee. I hope noble Lords will see that this legislation is not the monster they have created in their own minds. In fact, it can be seen as a very positive development for improving transparency and accountability. I hope we will allow these clauses to stand part of the Bill.

Lord Eatwell Portrait Lord Eatwell (Lab)
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My Lords, I regret that, like the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, I was unable to attend the Second Reading debate. At the time I was on an aeroplane returning from work in the United States. However, I have read the full proceedings in Hansard with great care and I feel appropriately informed.

Moreover, some time spent in the United States has also given an added perspective on some of the measures in the Bill, for there is about it a definite odour of the Donald J Trump playbook. There is the whiff of voter suppression in the extra requirements being added for access to the franchise. There is a distinct stench of the politically partisan in the measures that undermine the independence of the Electoral Commission. But perhaps the strongest stink arises from changes in the franchise being imposed by the current majority party, without pre-legislative scrutiny or a Speaker’s Conference. This strikes at the foundations of our constitution, written and unwritten.

I predict that in due course, much as the late Enoch Powell predicted, Mr Johnson will be defeated in an election—and then there will be a, perhaps minor but none the less significant, online campaign claiming that the election was stolen or rigged. While it would be unfair to claim that the noble Lord, Lord True, had planted the seeds of such a threat to our democracy, he will have added a little natural fertiliser. In his speech introducing the Bill at Second Reading, he made much of the precautionary principle, and of taking steps to protect the integrity of elections from potential, if as yet hypothetical, threats. He did not, however, extend his precautionary principle to the measures in Clauses 14 and 15 that, as the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee stated, risk undermining public confidence in electoral outcomes by diminishing the independence of the Electoral Commission, both in perception and in reality.

As the late Lord Hailsham famously observed, this country is governed by an elected dictatorship. A Government with a substantial majority in the other place can do virtually what they please. That is why this House, with its, let us say, peculiar composition, has a particular responsibility to protect the constitution, written and unwritten, against partisan proposals by the governing party. Here, the discussion by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, of statements for regulators gives us a valuable insight, because, in this case, the statement is made by the regulated entity. It is as if one of the broadcasters could have a statement telling Ofcom to what it should have regard. The Secretary of State is a political figure. In the electoral arena, he is a regulated entity. He should not be in a position to provide advice of any sort to the regulator.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said at Second Reading,

“there is a constitutional necessity, in a system of democracy based on universal suffrage, that any electoral commission should be wholly and totally independent”.—[Official Report, 23/2/22; col. 239.]

By rejecting these clauses and affirming the independence of the Electoral Commission, this House will make a vital commitment to free and fair elections.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, in considering the Government’s plans to take more direct control of the Electoral Commission, we should go back to considering the consensus that existed when it was established. In 1998, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, then chaired by the late Lord Neill of Bladen, proposed the creation of an

“independent … Election Commission with widespread executive and investigative powers”.

Introducing the resulting legislation, the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, explained how the commission would

“undertake its key role at the heart of our electoral arrangements”.

He emphasised that

“the commission must be as independent of the Government of the day as our constitutional arrangements allow, and it must be answerable directly to Parliament and not to Ministers”.

On behalf of the Conservative Opposition in the other place, Mr Robert Walter, then said:

“The Opposition have always made it clear that we support the recommendations of the Neill committee and that we shall support the legislation that implements the report”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/1/2000; cols. 42-109.]

In this House, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, introduced the legislation. He said that

“the commission will need to be seen to be scrupulously independent both of the government of the day and of the political parties”.

The consensus about the essential independence of the Electoral Commission was backed on that occasion by the late Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, a greatly respected Member on the Conservative Benches at the time. He said that

“there should be an electoral commission”,


“There must be no possibility of the commissioners being \ As currently drafted the provisions in Part 3 of the Bill are not consistent with the Electoral Commission; cols. 1088-95.]

This principle of the Electoral Commission’s independence from the Government of the day survived five general elections. No previous Government before this one sought to change that principle. So I ask why, if we could not have “Tony’s cronies” overseeing the work of the Electoral Commission, we should then have Michael Gove overseeing it? To have any government Minister of any political party setting the overall strategy and policy for the Electoral Commission effectively ends its independence.

Since the last general election, the Conservative Party has been subjecting the Electoral Commission to undue pressure. In August 2000, the then Conservative Party co-chair Amanda Milling wrote in the Daily Telegraph that, if the Electoral Commission failed to make changes,

“then the only option would be to abolish it.”

That sounds pretty much like a threat to me. An independent election watchdog should not operate under such threats—not in a democracy.

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Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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Yes, my Lords, new Section 4A(3)(b) allows the statement to contain—I am repeating what the noble Lord has just read out for the Committee; I am trying to help the Committee by doing so—any information considered appropriate, such as information

“about the roles and responsibilities of other persons.”

This could include other bodies with which the EC has relations, for example. The commission cannot be held responsible for the functions of other bodies which might be mentioned. New Section 4B(2) is disallowed from the commission’s duty to

“have regard to the statement when carrying out their function.”

New Section 4B(3) says:

“Subsection (2) does not apply to information contained in the statement by virtue of section 4A(3)(b).”

It is therefore intended specifically, for the reasons that the noble Lord puts forward, for that provision in the Bill.

The Government are clear in their submission that a statement will not undermine the commission’s other statutory duties. It could be used to provide guidance in areas where the commission is exercising the significant amount of discretion it is afforded, and will continue to be afforded, in terms of activity, priorities and approach.

More generally, statutory consultation in applicable circumstances, and the required approval of the UK Parliament when a statement is created or revised, will ensure that the Government consider the UK Parliament’s views and will give Parliament, including your Lordships’ House, the final say over whether the statement takes effect. This measure will improve the commission’s accountability to this Parliament and ensure that Parliament remains firmly in control of approving any statement.

I turn to the amendment relating to Clause 15. The purpose of Clause 15 is to expand the remit of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, a statutory committee which is chaired impartially by the Speaker of the other place. Its existing remit is limited to overseeing the commission’s finances, its five-year plan and the appointment of Electoral Commissioners. In expanding the committee’s remit, so that it may examine the commission’s performance of its duties to have regard to the statement, the Government are seeking to extend Parliamentary accountability of the commission to the Speaker’s Committee. This will enable the committee to perform a scrutiny function similar to that of Parliamentary Select Committees, allowing it to retrospectively scrutinise the commission’s activities in light of its duty to have regard to the statement. This power will sit alongside the committee’s existing statutory duties, which we are not amending in any way.

For clarity, Clause 15 will not enable the committee, any more than the Government, to direct the commission’s decision-making. The commission will remain operationally independent and continue to be governed by the commissioners. For completeness, this clause also gives the Speaker’s Committee powers to request relevant information from the commission

“in such form as the Committee may reasonably require”,

while ensuring that the commission is not required to disclose information that

“might adversely affect any current investigation”

or that

“would contravene the data protection legislation.”

This is important in protecting the commission’s ability to investigate, and also the interests of those who may be under investigation. For the reasons that I have set out, we contend that this clause will actually improve the commission’s accountability to Parliament, while respecting the regulator’s operational independence.

Those are the reasons why the Government think that these clauses are proportionate and reasonable, and I urge that your Lordships do not seek to remove these clauses from the Bill.

Lord Eatwell Portrait Lord Eatwell (Lab)
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My Lords, the Minister suggested that he did not use the precautionary principle in his speeches at Second Reading. At col. 314, he drew a direct analogy between the need for photographic evidence to vote and locking a door to prevent burglars. Is not that the precautionary principle?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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No, it was a humorous remark for the Committee. The precautionary principle is one that the European Union applies in considering legislative activity; it is not a principle that I espouse and not one that I endorsed in the speech.