Amendment to the Motion

Part of Electoral Commission Strategy and Policy Statement - Motion to Approve – in the House of Lords am 6:45 pm ar 6 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 6:45, 6 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, we are talking about the quality of our democracy and the central role of the Electoral Commission in maintaining that quality. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, for that fascinating and important speech. If I may, I will start by adding a little to it. On Sunday the Telegraph published an op-ed by Mark Littlewood in which in effect he claimed to be the main instigator and motivator for a new group within the Conservative Party, the Popular Conservatives, which is being launched today. The Institute for Economic Affairs is a well-funded think tank which does not publish its funding. We know that some of its funding comes from right-wing foundations within the United States, and other parts of its funding come from American companies. Think tanks are trying to influence directly the way parties and politics operate. Just before Christmas, we had a statutory instrument which was dependent very heavily on a TaxPayers’ Alliance report as the basis for the evidence which the Government had. I regularly read Policy Exchange announcements which tell us how closely particular Bills have followed its recommendations. None of those publishes its funding.

The question of funding and politics, and increasingly foreign funding and politics, needs to be extended. This Government, in their remaining months, or the next Government need to take that on. If the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, will allow me, I will turn to another part of John Pullinger’s letter today, in which he says that

“the issue of foreign interference extends across the system” and that the Electoral Commission is committed to ensuring that political funding is transparent and to preventing foreign money from entering UK politics. He says that

“the Electoral Commission has recommended strengthening the law to prevent foreign funding from being unlawfully used in UK political campaigns, but that the UK Government have told it that they do not intend to act on its recommendations”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said that the Electoral Commission is not sufficiently accountable, because it does not really answer to the Executive. The Electoral Commission is accountable to Parliament and, in our democratic country, Parliament is separate from the Executive, and we all share across the parties an interest in our elections being seen to be fair. Every Conservative considering a proposal such as this should think actively, “What would we say if we were in opposition and there were a Government of a different colour issuing suggestions, proposals and instructions to the Electoral Commission?” I think that, rightly, in opposition Conservatives would be strongly opposed to that. This is an unnecessary statement. The 2022 Act says:

“The Secretary of State may”—

I emphasise “may”—

“designate a statement for the purposes of this section”.

Only if the Secretary of State does so must the Electoral Commission then have regard and follow up and report every 12 months, as it goes on to say. The levelling-up committee of the House of Commons said very clearly that no statement was necessary at this time. I have some sympathy with the Minister on this, as she has inherited something which comes from the Johnson Government, who were furious with the Electoral Commission for its critical comments on election spending in the 2019 election, and as revenge wanted to impose limits on the Electoral Commission or even, as my noble friend mentioned, to abolish it. We now have, we hoped and thought, a different quality in our Conservative Government, but this is a hangover from where we were before.

The statement goes on to say that the commission remains “operationally” independent. That is a weasel word—it should be independent, not independent within limits. The statement seeks to procure greater accountability to Parliament, and you do not ensure greater accountability to Parliament by having the Government give it instructions. Paragraph 4 says:

“We place citizens’ participation at the heart of our democracy”.

However, it then goes on to make no reference to closing the gap between our adult population of citizens and those who are on the electoral register, estimated to be 8 million citizens who are not registered to vote. Paragraph 5 talks about voter ID and makes no concessions on wider acceptable IDs for younger people. Paragraph 9 talks about combating the threat of foreign interference but says nothing about tighter checks on the ultimate origins of large donations from overseas.

The level of public distrust in government in Britain is higher than it has ever been in my lifetime. It is also higher than in any comparable democracy except for the United States. I read in the Times that there is concern among strategists that

“public trust in politics has fallen so dramatically that many people may not bother to vote at all” in the next election. That ought to concern all of us. We should therefore send a clear signal that we regret that the Government are attempting to compromise the independence of the Electoral Commission, the independence of which is central to the quality of our democracy.