As set out in a previous statement to this House (HCWS100), the Government has proposed a series of measures in the Elections Bill that seek to maintain public confidence in the effective and independent regulation of the electoral system by empowering the UK Parliament to hold the Electoral Commission more effectively accountable. As the independent regulatory body charged with upholding the integrity of free and fair elections, it is right for the public to expect that the Electoral Commission should be more fully and duly accountable to the UK Parliament for the way they discharge their functions.
The Electoral Commission are the independent body which oversee elections and regulate political finance in the UK. The Commission are made up of Electoral Commissioners, including a Chair, who are appointed by Her Majesty via an Address in Parliament. The Electoral Commissioners govern the work of the Electoral Commission.
The Commission are already accountable, but to a limited extent, to Parliament via the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. The Speaker’s Committee is a cross-party, statutory committee chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons. The Speaker’s Committee is responsible for:
- determining and overseeing the procedures for selecting candidates to be put forward for appointment or reappointment as Electoral Commissioners;
- examining the Electoral Commission’s five-year plan and annual financial estimates (considering the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and advice from the Treasury) to decide whether they are consistent with the economical, efficient and effective discharge by the Commission of their functions. Following this, the Speaker’s Committee lay the documents before the House of Commons, with or without any modifications as necessary;
- reporting to the House of Commons at least once a year on the exercise of its functions.
It is important to note that the measures in the Elections Bill do not amend the Speaker’s Committee’s current duties nor do they alter the other existing accountability arrangements of the Electoral Commission: the Commission will remain accountable to the Llywydd’s Committee and the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body in relation to financial matters and their Business Plan where it relates to devolved functions. Our proposals will also maintain the statutory role of the Comptroller and Auditor General in his examination of the Commission. The Government’s measures will build on these current arrangements to enhance the Commission’s accountability to Parliament. This is primarily being done in two ways.
Strategy and Policy Statement
We will make provisions within the Elections Bill for the introduction of a Strategy and Policy Statement. The Statement, if approved by the UK Parliament, will set out guidance and principles to which the Commission will have a legal duty to have regard in exercising their reserved and devolved functions. However, that legal duty does not replace or undermine their other statutory duties. It is commonplace for the Government to set a policy framework, as approved by Parliament, which independent regulators should consider.
An illustrative example of a Statement and Policy Statement for the Electoral Commission will be published during the passage of the Elections Bill to aid parliamentarians. We will also be engaging with the Parliamentary Parties Panel and other interested parties on how a draft Statement might be framed.
The role of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission
We will expand the functions of the Speaker’s Committee to give it the power to examine the Commission’s compliance with the duty to have regard to the Strategy and Policy Statement. The Government intends:
- to enable the Speaker’s Committee to perform a scrutiny function similar to that of parliamentary select committees, in that it will be able to retrospectively examine the Electoral Commission’s activities in light of the regulator’s duty to have regard to the Strategy and Policy Statement;
- that as part of its existing yearly reporting requirements on the discharge of its functions, the Speaker’s Committee will be able to draw to the attention of the House any matter of interest relating to the Electoral Commission’s compliance with their duty with regards to the Strategy and Policy Statement;
- that the Speaker’s Committee will also be able to set out its own procedures to outline, if it wishes to do so, its workings under its expanded remit in any way it sees fit;
- that the Speaker’s Committee will have the ability to request information (for instance via a public evidence session) from the Electoral Commission that the Speaker’s Committee may require to discharge its scrutiny function;
- that the Speaker’s Committee will not be expected to examine individual complaints from members of the public and others against the Electoral Commission. Members of the public can already complain to the Commission and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.
It is right that the Commission remain fully operationally independent and that they continue to be governed by their Electoral Commissioners. Therefore, with this new power the Speaker’s Committee will not be able to proactively direct the Commission’s decision-making. Our measures will not affect either the governance structure nor statutory provisions for the Electoral Commission’s Board and Commissioners.
With these two measures the Government will empower the UK Parliament to hold the Electoral Commission effectively accountable - crucial in maintaining public confidence in our electoral system - whilst also respecting the Commission’s investigative, enforcement and operational independence.
I have placed the infographic attached to this statement in the libraries of both Houses.