Amendment to the Motion

Part of Electoral Commission Strategy and Policy Statement - Motion to Approve – in the House of Lords am 6:30 pm ar 6 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Ceidwadwyr 6:30, 6 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I shall try to confine my remarks to the policy statement that is the subject of this Motion and not go off-piste into various aspects of election funding, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, did.

I welcome the Government’s Electoral Commission Strategy and Policy Statement, and I am completely mystified by the fuss about it. For several years, the Government have been issuing strategy and policy statements to public bodies. This is one way of correcting a serious imbalance that unelected quangos have created in our constitution. Over the years, more and more public bodies have taken over functions once carried out by the Government, but the accountability mechanisms that acted as checks and balances on those bodies were often weak.

Where bodies such as the Electoral Commission have operational independence from the Executive, such independence must be accompanied by strong accountability —precisely because the Executive have few powers in relation to such bodies. For example, there is no power of direction over the Electoral Commission, for good reasons. Its independence increases, rather than diminishes, the need for effective accountability. The statement is aimed at this accountability.

I am sure that all noble Lords value the work of the Electoral Commission in ensuring that there is full confidence in the electoral system. It is not, however, a perfect institution—as my noble friend Lord Pickles laid out in his 2016 report on electoral fraud. The Electoral Commission was in denial about its failure to deal with electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets. My noble friend recommended—rightly, in my view—that the commission’s accountability mechanisms should be improved.

Many of us still feel aggrieved that the Electoral Commission appeared to treat organisations which campaigned for Brexit in a manner that can at best be described as high-handed. The Electoral Commission was found to be at fault in the case of Mr Darren Grimes, who won his appeal against an improperly imposed fine.

So let us not pretend that this is a body that does not need to be accountable, or that the system originally set up involving the Speaker’s Committee was perfect. The strategy and policy statement, together with a widening of the role of the Speaker’s Committee, was the Government’s chosen course of action. It was debated extensively, in particular in your Lordships’ House, when the Elections Act 2022 was passed. To a large extent, the negative responses to this statement are rerunning those debates. But the plain fact is that Parliament has already decided to give the Government a wide power to issue the statement. The statement in no way changes the statutory remit and duties of the Electoral Commission. It merely sets out the Government’s priorities for the electoral system, which are in themselves uncontroversial. The Electoral Commission merely must have regard to them and report against them.

The Government have been clear that the language of the statement, including the word “should”, does not impinge on the Electoral Commission’s operational independence. They have been clear throughout and have added considerable clarification to the final version of the statement to secure that.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of your Lordships’ House rightly drew the attention of the House to the draft statement on the back of the views expressed by the Speaker’s Committee and the chairman of the Levelling Up Committee in the other place, during the Government’s second consultation. It is important to note that the meeting at which the Speaker’s Committee reached its views was somewhat unbalanced. There are 10 members of the Speaker’s Committee, including Mr Speaker himself. Of the remaining nine members, five are Conservatives, three are Labour and one is SNP. Three of the Conservatives are DLUHC Ministers, and they recused themselves—so the report comes from a body with an unusual political balance. In addition, the chairman of the Levelling Up Committee is a member of the Speaker’s Committee, and so seems to have counted twice in the balance of opinion.

I urge noble Lords to support the statement. The Government have a legitimate role in setting out policy priorities for our electoral system. Opposing the statement would create an accountability void around an important public body.