Clause 1 — How an MP becomes subject to a recall petition process

Part of Bill Presented — International Trade Agreements (Scrutiny) – in the House of Commons at 6:15 pm on 27th October 2014.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome 6:15 pm, 27th October 2014

It is difficult, and as the right hon. Gentleman probably knows, the common law offence of misconduct in public office has been subject to scrutiny over recent years. Indeed, the Law Commission is studying it right at this moment to see whether it could be put on to a statutory basis, which might provide a better definition. Curiously enough, however, one of the attractions of the offence for this purpose is its lack of definition, because all I am trying to do is define the things that fall short of fraud, assault and battery or whatever, but that nevertheless clearly constitute improper behaviour in the conduct of a Member of Parliament.

What I am seeking to do is put the matter in the hands of the public, not MPs, so that there is a third trigger in the process. I am trying to ensure an objective test, which is applied in two ways. First, misconduct in public office is a recognisable offence. Notwithstanding what Kevin Barron said, it is one that the English courts understand—I will come back to the problem with the other jurisdictions in a moment. Then, using a court that is understood—the election court, which is established under the Representation of the People Act 1983, which provides for two High

Court judges in England and Wales, two judges of the High Court of Northern Ireland or two judges of the Court of Session in Scotland—the matter would be assessed.

That would put Members of Parliament in the same position as other public servants, which is an important signal in itself. Notwithstanding the need for protection under the Bill of Rights, I do not see why we as Members of Parliament should not be in a different position from other public servants in other respects. I have also drafted my amendments so as to automatically provide a filter for claims that are trivial, vexatious or clearly simply party political in nature, rather than genuine claims of misconduct.

What are the difficulties with my proposal? There are two really big drafting difficulties that I encountered in trying to put it together. I think I am reasonably adept at drafting parliamentary amendments, but I have to say that these were significant problems. One problem is exactly the point that Lady Hermon made. We are talking about English common law and there is not a directly comparable offence of any kind in Scotland. I looked in vain for a common law offence in Scotland, and the nearest I could find was breach of duty, which is not the same as the common law offence in England. That is why there has to be a slightly, I would say, circumlocutory approach—perhaps that is not the right expression, but it is certainly complex—in that the courts would be asked to adjudicate on the offence as though it were committed in England, irrespective of where it was committed by the Member. I accept that that is a difficulty, and I would like better constitutional lawyers than I am to have a look and find a more elegant way of achieving the same objective.