It is always challenging when people who have significant influence and indeed power in our nation make a range of statements that are clearly disconnected from the others they have made. Sadly these folk shown here are willing to change the public mechanisms that they are supposedly responsible for because it suits them to do so. The key person in this image is Peter Bone, the Conservative MP for Wellingborough and Rushden in Northamptonshire. He has been a Conservative Member of Parliament for that area since 2005. On the 11th April 2016, two months before the EU referendum was due to take place he stated in Parliament
“The independent, highly respected Electoral Commission says that the Government are wrong”
So at that time he was clearly very supportive of them, primarily because they were criticising the Conservative Government for the way they were handling the EU Referendum. He has made a number of Parliamentary questions or statements about the EC from when he arrived. His first one occurred just before Christmas 2005 when he asked his Conservative colleague Peter Viggers who represented the Commission this question regarding their involvement:
“Whether the Electoral Commission has recently been consulted on changing the method by which hon. Members are elected”
In the following year he asked 3 further questions regarding the assessments by the Commission before on the day after Guy Fawkes Night he asked Peter Viggers
PB: What the expenditure by the Electoral Commission on promoting public awareness of electoral and democratic systems was in 2005-06; and what the estimated expenditure is for 2006-07.
PV: The Electoral Commission informs me that, for the financial year ending 31 March 2006, the total amount spent on promoting public awareness of electoral and democratic systems was £7.1 million. For 2006-07, the current forecast expenditure on public awareness is £6.3 million.
PB: Does the hon. Gentleman think that, with the falling turnover year by year, the Electoral Commission is giving the taxpayer good value for money?
PV: The Electoral Commission was created by the House, and one of the duties laid on it was a statutory one to promote public awareness of electoral systems and systems of government. As the commission set out in its evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, it is considering focusing its efforts more heavily on promoting voter registration and information about elections and democratic institutions, and less on seeking to encourage voter turnout. I suspect that that would inevitably result in some reduction in expenditure by the commission. The commission will consider the matter further once the Committee on Standards in Public Life has reported.
Then in early 2007 he asked a couple more EC questions before July when he referred to them in a question on the context of fixed term Elections. Now of course he was in the Opposition Party at that time but his discussion with two of his colleagues included the comment
That is rather disappointing. Former Prime Minister Blair promised the electorate in 2005 that if he was re-elected he would serve for a full term. The current Prime Minister has not called a general election, despite that promise. Would it not be appropriate to note that, with a fixed-term Parliament, that sort of political deception could not occur?
Cleary if he genuinely believes that a fixed-term Parliament is vital, he would not have voted for the 2019 General Election on 28th October 2019 which he did and as we will see shortly he has also changed his mind regarding his attitude towards the EC. He asked another question about it in October 2007 but then went silent until 2009 when he asked two more questions in the first half of the year and then in January 2010 he asked a question prior to the General Election. After his Party took over the Government albeit in a coalition he asked a couple more questions and again it went quiet until early 2012 when he raised a concern about the levels of pay that the executive members of the organisation were receiving. Three years later he raised another question in January 2015 and then towards the end of that year on Guy Fawkes Day he asked Gary Streeter who represented the EC “what plans are in place for monitoring the EU referendum” The next question he asked was the one at the top of this document in April 2016 and a year later he asked another basic question in July 2017 and then he was silent until 2020. This is when he began to reverse his opinion because all of sudden he was angry that they were now challenging his colleagues in the Brexit campaign. Firstly he had submitted two written questions that appear here and they were both answered by Chris Matheson on the 11th May. This is one of them
PB: To ask the hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, how much the Electoral Commission levied in penalties on (a) leave and (b) remain campaign organisations that participated in the 2016 EU referendum.
CM: The Commission is responsible for regulating political finance in the UK. This includes making assessments of evidence of possible offences and, where there is evidence that an offence may have been committed, conducting investigations and imposing penalties. In relation to the EU Referendum, The Commission conducted 34 investigations relating to leave campaigners and imposed fines on 19, totalling £149,450 after appeal outcomes. It conducted 19 investigations relating to remain campaigners and imposed fines on 15, totalling £67,600.
This response was clearly part of the red rag to the Wellingborough Bull as within 2 days when the Prime Ministers question session took place on 13th May he asked
PB: Last week, the arrogant, incompetent and vindictive Electoral Commission suffered its final humiliation. For four long years, it has investigated and hounded four people from four different Leave organisations, making their lives and their families’ lives hell. Last week, the police said that they were totally innocent and had done nothing wrong. Prime Minister, for the sake of democracy, will you ensure that that politically corrupt, totally biased and morally bankrupt quango is abolished?
BJ: As ever, I hear what my hon. Friend says about the Electoral Commission. What I can say is that, for the people who were investigated, I hope that all those who spent so much time, energy and effort drawing attention to their supposed guilt will now spend as much time and energy and ink and air time drawing attention to their genuine innocence.
Then on the 19th May he asked another question and as part of his response to the first answer he stated
it is about the way that the Electoral Commission has hounded leave campaigners. There have been 34 investigations, eight court cases, and at least four people referred to the police for criminal investigation—and it has all come to nowt. Would the hon. Member support a review by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee?
Two months later on 9th July he raised this question with Jacob Rees-Mogg
PB: The Committee on Standards in Public Life has just started a full investigation into the Electoral Commission to see whether it complies with the seven pillars of standards in public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. It is clear to me that the Electoral Commission complies with none of them following its political pursuit of leave campaigners after the EU referendum. May we have a debate on the Electoral Commission? Such a request would normally be for Westminster Hall, so is there any chance that we can get back to Westminster Hall and have a debate on the Electoral Commission?
JRM: My hon. Friend raises some serious concerns. The Electoral Commission should clearly be like Caesar’s wife: it should be above suspicion, and there should be no stain on it or fear of partiality of any kind. If there is any question, it is right that it is raised in this House in the way that he has done. Time for a full-length Government debate will be difficult to provide. However, any appointments made to the Election Commission do come before this House, so there are occasions when we are able to consider matters relating to the commission.
A week later he raised another question, this time directed to Michael Gove. Sadly the question was almost inaudible as he was online
PB: [Inaudible.] the Home Secretary [Inaudible.]. The chairman of the [Inaudible.] has raised concerns about its lack of [Inaudible.] and the Leader of the House has [Inaudible.] to be impartial. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Electoral Commission should be scrapped and replaced by [Inaudible.] that the people [Inaudible.]?
MG: The technology may have been faulty, but my hon. Friend’s judgment is not. Questions have been raised about how the Electoral Commission operates, and those are matters that the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission will investigate with appropriate consideration.
On the 10th September 2020 there was this brief debate under the title of Electoral Commission: Independence and it began with a question from Peter Bone which was responded to by Chris Matheson and here are their comments:
PB: What assessment he has made of the independence of the Electoral Commission.
CM: The Electoral Commission’s independence is established in statute. It is a public body independent of Government and accountable to Parliament through the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, which I represent here today. Its independence is a vital part of ensuring that it is able to deliver the vital functions allocated to it by Parliament. The Speaker’s Committee seeks to uphold that independence when it fulfils its statutory functions in reviewing the Commission’s estimates and plans and overseeing the appointment of electoral commissioners.
PB: I thank the hon. Member for that response, but will he tell me whether he agrees with the eminent QC, Timothy Straker, that the Electoral Commission has made “gross errors”; that it “always has its own interest to protect”; that in legal terms, it had committed “a gross error which would not have been committed by a first year law student”; and that it should be stripped of its existing enforcement powers? Or does he just agree with me that it is time to scrap the Electoral Commission?
CM: The hon. Gentleman has always made his views in the House very clear on this matter, for which I am always grateful. I have seen the reports of Mr Straker’s comments, which have been made to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and we await its report on the evidence from Mr Straker and others coming to it. The commission’s record of having had about 500 adjudications, only five of which have been challenged, and only one of which has been upheld in the courts, is a record that I think the commission can be proud of.
A month later on 15th September 2020 Peter Bone took part in another brief discussion under the heading of Chair of the Electoral Commission. Chris Matheson was unwell and so most of the responses came from Owen Thompson of the SNP although Lindsay Hoyle the Speaker of the House also entered into the discussion briefly
PB: What discussions the Committee has had on whether to recommend the reappointment of the chair of the commission.
OT: As required under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Speaker’s Committee put in place and oversees the process for selecting candidates for appointment as electoral commissioners, including the chair. The Committee’s duty encompasses the recommendation of candidates for reappointment. There is no presumption in the statute either for or against reappointment. At its meeting on 16 July, the Committee took the decision to commence recruitment for a new chair to replace Sir John Holmes, whose term comes to an end in December. That recruitment process will begin shortly.
PB: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response and I pass on my best wishes to Christian Matheson, who would normally be here but I think is unwell at the moment. I congratulate the Speaker’s Committee on what it has done; it has effectively fired the chairman of the Electoral Commission. Does Owen Thompson agree that one of the reasons for firing him was the fact that he oversaw the persecution of innocent people whose only so-called crime was wanting to take part in the democratic process and to ensure that the UK left the European Union?
LH: He was not fired; he just was not reappointed.
OT: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Yes, it is not unusual for public appointments to end after one term. The Committee is grateful to Sir John for his four years of service in this very important role. The chair, and all commissioners who are appointed by Her Majesty the Queen following a recommendation from the House, work under a strict code of conduct during their time as commissioners. That requires and ensures impartiality and fairness, and is policed assiduously.
There have since that point been two occasions this year so far when Peter Bone has either taken part in a discussion on the theme of Electoral Commission or asked a question about it. The first was in January when there was a debate taking place for one of the Commissioners to be appointed to replace the DUP Commissioner who had resigned. The replacement was an SDLP member. The discussion covered a range of issues but Bone managed to include a theme that he has become passionate about but which had no bearing on the debate. He also managed to ‘inspire’ Ian Paisley Junior who joined in the comments. The reality is this is a very short amount of the words and the debate is worth a full read.
PB: I suppose the question I would have most wanted to ask, and which I hope the Leader of the House can shed some light on, involves the wicked behaviour, political corruption and nastiness of how the Electoral Commission dealt with people who were involved in the details of the 2016 referendum. It has been widely reported, and it will not come as any surprise to the House, that the Electoral Commission tried to persecute people who were heads of the leave campaign—the directors of legal organisations, like myself. I was a director and founder of Grassroots Out, along with my hon. Friend Tom Pursglove. There was widespread coverage of this, and perhaps the most well known and vicious attack was on Mr Arron Banks. In the end, the Electoral Commission had to fight a law case and lose. During that period, Mr Banks suffered malicious attacks in the media. His reputation was damaged: commercially, bank accounts were closed because of the ongoing investigation, and press leaks from the Commission occurred. This was done by the Electoral Commission, whose electoral commissioners are responsible for its actions, yet they used the power of the state, the money of the state, to persecute people who had headed up leave campaigns. I would like to ask Mr Attwood what his view is on that and what he would do in future to stop it happening again.
IP Jr: On a wider point, I believe that there is very little public confidence left in the Electoral Commission by many of the larger parties in this House, which is why the decision must be examined. The commission wrongly reported three individuals to the National Crime Agency after the 2016 referendum, and it largely made that recommendation after a Twitter campaign against those individuals.
The final aspect so far came on Thursday which was another question and answer session, once again involving Peter Bone and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
PB: I was first elected as a councillor to the County Borough of Southend-on-Sea, so I am glad to hear that it is moving towards becoming a city. I am also delighted—I give the Government great credit for this—that the Government are pushing ahead with the elections on 6 May, when we are going to have local elections, police and crime commissioner elections and now a parliamentary election, and are allowing campaigning to be carried out during the period up to those elections. That is the cornerstone of our democracy and the Government should be credited. However, the regulator of those elections is the Electoral Commission, which is inefficient, arrogant and politically corrupt. It is not fit for purpose, so could we have a debate in Government time about a new regulator that would be acceptable to people of all political persuasions?
JRM: Serious concerns have been raised about the Electoral Commission, not least by my hon. Friend and, as he knows, I was very concerned about some of the points he raised when this was last debated on the Floor of the House. With a modicum of ingenuity and with a benign Speaker or Deputy in the Chair, there is a debate on Monday on a motion relating to the appointment of the chairman of the Electoral Commission, which being a motion under an Act lasts for up to 90 minutes, where I think my hon. Friend may be able to say a few words of this kind. I have a feeling that I may be responding to that debate, so I may well say a few words in response.
My own view is that the Electoral Commission, whilst it is perfectly capable of making some mistakes is much more trustworthy than some of the people who have been speaking about it over the last 16 years. For one man to say “The independent, highly respected Electoral Commission says that the Government are wrong“ in April 2016 which he clearly agrees with and four years later he then states in reference to its behaviour that took place less than six months after his earlier comment “the arrogant, incompetent and vindictive Electoral Commission suffered its final humiliation….Prime Minister, for the sake of democracy, will you ensure that that politically corrupt, totally biased and morally bankrupt quango is abolished?” demonstrates that there are some real challenges outside of the Electoral Commission. Let us find out what Bone and Rees-Mogg have to say next week.