Amendment to the Motion

Part of Electoral Commission Strategy and Policy Statement - Motion to Approve – in the House of Lords am 6:06 pm ar 6 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Khan of Burnley Lord Khan of Burnley Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 6:06, 6 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I apologise to the House for my slight delay in getting here; there was an emergency that I had to deal with. I thank the Minister for her introduction and for meeting me and my noble friend Lady Taylor of Stevenage ahead of this debate.

I point to the fundamental issue sitting at the heart of this debate. We have tabled the amendment because this statement is unnecessary and the Government have provided no evidence for why it is needed. Unfortunately, nothing we have heard from the Ministers in the other place or here today proves otherwise. I pay tribute to the much-missed Lord Judge for his work in this area during the passage of the Elections Act. He tabled amendments seeking to remove Clauses 15 and 16, which provided for the policy statement we are discussing today. The amendment enjoyed overwhelming support. There was cross-party agreement that the commission’s independence is vital to the health of our democracy. In moving the vote, Lord Judge said:

“I really do not think that anyone in your Lordships’ House can have the slightest doubt about the constitutional imperative that the Electoral Commission should be politically independent—independent of all political influence, whether direct or indirect, over the electoral process”.—[Official Report, 25/4/22; col. 23.]

Clauses 15 and 16, now Sections 16 and 17, are repugnant to that foundational principle. They require the commission to have regard to—at the very lowest, to pay close attention to—the strategy and policy principles and to follow the guidance of the Government of the day. The House benefited hugely from Lord Judge’s wisdom and expertise on this issue, and we are poorer for not having his thoughts in today’s debate.

Following the passage of the Elections Act, the Government’s strategy and policy statement has been the subject of consultation. This includes statutory consultation with the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee, the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Commission itself. The Select Committee found that the statement assumes that

“Government priorities must automatically also be Commission priorities, and for the most part reads as though the Commission was an arm of Government”.

The Speaker’s Committee reported that the

“uncertainty, confusion, and new legal risks” being introduced

“are likely to reduce the Commission’s … effectiveness, in return for no material benefit to the democratic process”.

In addition, the Scottish Government said that the statement was

“an unwelcome and unnecessary interference with the independence of the Electoral Commission”,

with a risk that its impact

“could read across to devolved elections”.

The Welsh Government said that the statement

“will undermine the Commission’s successful adaptation to devolution” and represents

“a backward step for the Commission and wider governance of the UK”.

The draft statement does not appropriately reflect the complexity of the commission’s existing accountability to each of the UK’s legislatures. While the statement excludes the commission’s devolved functions, some cross-cutting areas of the commission’s work are funded jointly by the three Parliaments. The statement does not properly reflect this, creating a risk that the UK Government’s guidance on the statement could affect work undertaken for the other legislatures to which the commission is accountable.

In 2000, the previous Labour Government set up the Electoral Commission to act as a guardian of our democratic system. At the heart of that decision was a need for a central pillar of independence within our politics, a body that the public could trust and that would not suffer interference from the Government of the day or from future Governments of any colour. An independent body must be allowed to work independently and without interference from any political party. As my honourable friend Florence Eshalomi MP said:

“Handing Ministers in the government the ability to set the agenda of the independent Electoral Commission is a dangerous politicisation of the watchdog”.

It seems that the commission is not legally bound to follow the strategy and policy statement, only to have regard to it. What does that mean? What happens if the commission finds itself conflicted between the statement and the statute? Can it be challenged in the courts, and if so by whom—by political parties, by non-party campaigners or by the Government themselves? If it is not law, how is it to be enforced? Who decides whether the commission is compliant? This statement in effect sets priorities for the commission. That has not only operational but budgetary consequences. What are the implications for the commission if it thinks that the Government’s statement is unnecessary and completely ignores it?

We agree with the Electoral Commission’s strongly held view that the introduction of a strategy and policy statement enabling the Government to guide the work of the commission is inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a healthy democracy. This statement has no precedent in the accountability arrangements of electoral commissions in other comparable democracies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. If made law, these provisions will enable a future Government to influence the commission’s operational functions and decision-making. This statement will seek to guide the priorities of the commission, including its enforcement work, with a requirement to regard the Government’s view.

The draft statement is currently neither necessary nor likely to assist the commission in its pursuit of the aims and objectives already approved by the Speaker’s Committee and adopted by the commission. As the Speaker’s Committee has said, in its view

“the Electoral Commission generally performs its role effectively” and the draft statement is

“likely to hinder, rather than enhance, the Commission’s work”.

In light of the scathing consultation responses and feedback in relation to this statement, I hope that the Minister and the Government will think again. I ask all noble Lords to support our amendment to the Motion to help the Government to think again.