Clause 9 — Recall petition to be made available for signing

Recall of MPs Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 24th November 2014.

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Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge 5:45 pm, 24th November 2014

I beg to move amendment 9, page 6, line 30, leave out subsections (4) and (5) and insert—

‘( ) The Minister may, by regulations, having consulted the Electoral Commission, prescribe or amend the wording which must be included on a petition signing sheet.’.

This amendment allows for the Minister to bring forward detailed wording for the petition-signing sheet after having consulted the Electoral Commission.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 10, page 6, line 40, leave out

“a by-election will not be held, as a result of the petition” and insert

“therefore no by-election will be held.”.

This amendment clarifies wording prescribed for the petition-signing sheet.

Amendment 11, in clause 19, page 13, line 7, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

‘( ) If a relevant circumstance arises, the functions of the Speaker under or by virtue of this Act (“the Speaker’s functions”) are to be performed by the Chairman of Ways and Means or a Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means’.

This amendment clarifies that only a post-holder elected by the House will be able to exercise The Speaker’s functions under this Act.

Amendment 12, page 13, line 12, leave out second “or” and insert—

‘( ) a recall condition has been met in relation to the Speaker, or’.

This amendment provides for circumstances where The Speaker meets a recall condition.

Amendment 13, page 13, line 14, leave out subsections (3) and (4).

This amendment is consequential on the clarification that only a post-holder elected by the House will be able to exercise The Speaker’s functions under this Act.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

After all that excitement, I will try to be brief in presenting these minor and technical amendments. Amendment 9 seeks to deal with some of the awkward wording throughout the Bill on what is required for a recall petition. It simply states that the Minister should talk to the Electoral Commission and then come up with the wording. That would make for a much more flexible approach. I hope that the Government will agree that that is a cleaner and better way forward.

Amendment 10 deals with some particularly ugly wording. The current wording on the petition signing sheet states:

“If less than 10% of eligible registered electors in the constituency sign the petition, the MP will not lose [his/her] seat, and a by-election will not be held, as a result of the petition.”

Perhaps it should state

“and therefore no by-election will be held.”

The amendment seeks to turn what is on the petition signing sheet into something approaching the English language. Again, I hope that is not controversial.

Amendments 11, 12 and 13 deal with some errors that were pointed out in Committee—[Interruption.]

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Other Members should not be standing and speaking in the Chamber. Dr Huppert is making important points about important amendments and must be heard.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I thank all the Members in the Chamber.

Clause 19 deals with the performance of the Speaker’s functions by others. The Speaker has a critical role in the recall process. The Bill, as currently drafted, states that the Speaker can appoint somebody to perform those functions. That seems very strange for a number of reasons, so amendment 11 proposes that, rather then the Speaker being able to appoint somebody, the Chairman of Ways and Means or a Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, such as you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would be the obvious person to take on those responsibilities.

Amendment 12 picks up on the point, made in Committee, that one of the exceptions would be if the Speaker was subject to a recall. In such circumstances it would be odd to expect the Speaker to set in train the process of recalling him or herself, and that raises the question of what would happen if they refused to do so. Would another recall petition be sought against them for failing to fulfil the first?

Amendment 13 is entirely consequential on the other two amendments. I hope that all five amendments will not prove controversial and that the House will support them unanimously. In the interests of time, I will not push any of them to a vote if there is dissent within the House. However, I hope that the House will agree to them so that they can be made to the Bill as minor, technical and corrective measures.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I, too, will be relatively brief. Amendment 9 relates to an issue we discussed in Committee. The Government gave a clear indication to the Committee that they recognised that it would be inappropriate to place wording in primary legislation on which they had not consulted the Electoral Commission. I hope that the Minister will confirm when he responds whether the Government have now consulted the Electoral Commission, as they undertook to do in Committee.

I agree with Dr Huppert that, having had a hat trick of wins earlier this evening, we should not press our luck tonight. However, we are clear that we do not believe that it is appropriate to have wording in primary legislation that has not been agreed by the Electoral Commission. We will expect the other place to remove that wording if the Government are unable to satisfy this House that they have consulted the Electoral Commission.

Amendment 10 simply rewrites the wording set out in clause 9, as the hon. Member for Cambridge said, and I do not think that it requires further explanation. Amendments 11, 12 and 13 relate to a point that was made during our line-by-line consideration of the Bill. He is absolutely right that it is inappropriate to have ambiguity about what would happen if the Speaker was subject to a recall petition—not least for the benefit of the Speaker. We think that it is correct to state explicitly that the Chairman of Ways and Means or the Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means are the appropriate post-holders in the unlikely event that a recall petition affects the Speaker.

That point was raised with the Government informally, so we hope that the Minister has had a chance to consider it. His previous answer was that the Chair would be vacant because the Speaker would be serving a custodial sentence. However, we have just agreed by an overwhelming majority to make an amendment that will apply this to non-custodial sentences, so that argument no longer holds water. Also, if an MP received a very short sentence, they could be out of custody by the time the recall procedure was initiated.

This is purely a tidying-up exercise and we do not see the point in detaining the House. We are sure that the Minister will have reflected on our previous discussions and will agree to make these minor but necessary changes to the Bill.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I intend to make a satisfyingly and commendably brief contribution: these amendments are not controversial.

Amendment 9 would remove from the Bill the wording of the petition signing sheet and the ability to amend it by regulations. This would be replaced by a power enabling the wording to be prescribed or amended by regulations following consultation with the Electoral Commission. The wording of the petition signing sheet currently appears in the Bill and can be amended through regulations. This aligns with the power that exists in the Representation of the People Act 1983 that allows for the ballot paper for UK parliamentary elections to be amended through regulations, although the form of the ballot paper itself appears in the Act.

Amendment 10 seeks to amend the wording to appear on the petition signing sheet by making it easier for the elector to understand that the MP will not lose his or her seat and a by-election will not be held if fewer than 10% of the registered electors in the constituency sign the petition. I remind hon. Members that this wording has been developed in conjunction with the Electoral Commission to ensure that it is balanced and fits with the commission’s guidance on referendum questions.

I can see the intention behind the amendments. The first amendment addresses concerns expressed in Committee that if any user testing takes place—I can confirm that we do intend to user-test the wording of the signing sheet—it might be clearer to remove the wording from the Bill and accept that the final form of words will appear in regulations. It is important that the wording is approved by Parliament, whether on the Floor of the House or in a delegated powers Committee. I agree with my hon. Friend Dr Huppert that proper consultation should be part of the process of developing the wording. That is why we have worked on it with the Electoral Commission and are now looking to test it further to ensure that it is right. Either the power in clause 9 or that proposed in amendment 9 would allow the wording to be adapted or set should changes flow from the user testing. Amendment 10 demonstrates that there is no single way to word the signing sheet, and that is why we are committed to undertaking user testing. The views of the public will provide us with a clearer picture on where improvements can be made not only to the signing sheet but to the notice of petition.

As for the wording of the petition signing sheet, there is a specific purpose behind the use of the words,

“as a result of the petition.”

If the petition is successful, it is right that a by-election will be held. However, if the petition is unsuccessful, it is not necessarily the case that a by-election will not be held. A by-election could be held because the MP decided to resign his or her seat, or otherwise lost his or her seat. The use of the words,

“as a result of the petition”, seeks to ensure that the public understand that the effect of an unsuccessful petition is not necessarily to prevent a by-election. The question for the House is whether the wording should be retained in the Bill or be replaced with a power to prescribe the wording in regulations. If the wording is to be retained, the question then is whether we accept the proposed amendment to clarify that a by-election will not be held or leave this to user testing.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

A small but very important point is that those signing a petition should know of the percentage that is required and the consequences that the Minister has outlined. Will he shed some light on the sequence of the wording in subsection (4)? Why are the two paragraphs in that order and not in the reverse order, which would be much more helpful to those signing the petition?

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 7:15 pm, 24th November 2014

As I said, this has been discussed with the Electoral Commission, which has been very careful to ensure that the wording is as clear as possible. I will have to get back to the hon. Lady on whether there was a specific reason why the paragraphs were put in that order, but I suspect that it was felt that that was the clearest way of presenting the information, rather than the alternative she suggests.

Amendments 11, 12 and 13 would amend clause 19 regarding the role of the Speaker. Under the Bill, certain functions, such as giving notice to the petition officer in the relevant constituency when one of the recall conditions has been met, are performed by the Speaker. As currently drafted, clause 19 allows for the Speaker to appoint a person to perform the relevant administrative functions, including giving notice of the opening of the recall petition process, if the Speaker is unable to perform these functions or there is a vacancy in the office of the Speaker. If no such person is appointed by the Speaker, there is a provision that the Chairman of Ways and Means or a Deputy Chair of Ways and Means will perform the functions. The provisions in clause 19 as originally drafted replicated those found in other legislation such as the Recess Elections Act 1975.

During the debate in Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Heath pointed out that as the Chairman of Ways and Means and Deputy Chairs are now elected rather than being appointed by the Speaker, the functions of the Speaker should automatically be carried out by the Chairman of Ways and Means or a Deputy Chair of Ways and Means in the event that the Speaker cannot perform them. The amendment would ensure that if the Speaker was indisposed and unable to perform the relevant functions, the functions would be performed by the Chairman of Ways and Means or a Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means rather than giving the option to the Speaker to appoint someone else. In addition, Thomas Docherty expressed concern about who would perform the Speaker’s duties in the event that the Speaker was the person whose behaviour had triggered the recall conditions. The amendments put it beyond doubt that in such a situation the functions relating to the recall petition process would be carried out by the Chairman of Ways and Means or his deputies.

Some matters of detail will need to be addressed, but if my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge is content not to press his amendments I am totally confident that those matters can and will be addressed in the House of Lords. I hope that the House will consider the full range of points made in the debate when considering these amendments.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

This has been a brief and fairly agreeable debate. I hear what the Minister has said. I said that I would not press any proposal that was criticised in the House, and I will not do so. In particular, I should listen carefully to what the Electoral Commission has said, especially because my predecessor is one of the commissioners, so I would not challenge his wisdom. I accept the Minister’s commitment to address these matters in the House of Lords, although I do have a concern about the habit of this House to wait for the other place to fix things. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Third Reading

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 7:19 pm, 24th November 2014

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

As you can tell, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am very keen for the Bill to be read a Third time. I will start by thanking my colleagues, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend Greg Clark and the Deputy Leader of the House, for the role they have played in the debates so far. I also thank Opposition Front Benchers—I can say this with confidence—for the constructive and non-partisan way in which they have approached the Bill.

I thank those who have tabled amendments, particularly my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith for his principled arguments and the passionate way in which he and others have advanced their case. As on Second Reading, I reiterate my thanks to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for its pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill.

The coalition’s programme for Government made a commitment to establishing a recall mechanism for MPs who have been found guilty of wrongdoing or misconduct. The Bill fulfils our coalition commitment to delivering a practical recall mechanism to hold MPs to account when they have done something wrong.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

Does the Minister understand why so many of the people who are following this debate are so incredibly disappointed by the recall Bill we have ended up with? It is a sham and bogus, because essentially it means that most ordinary people are not going to be able to hold their MPs to account in the way that they expected.

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. As I have said, the Bill delivers on our manifesto commitments. There was also a free vote on the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park and, as the hon. Lady knows, they were heavily defeated.

Today’s Report stage has rightly given Parliament the opportunity to listen to and vote on a range of proposals to amend the Bill. It has been open to the House to make further amendments and they have been subject to free votes. This is a continuation of the approach the Government have taken throughout the Bill’s passage through this House. The purpose of the Bill remains to give the public their say on whether an MP who has been found guilty of serious wrongdoing should retain their seat in this House.

We considered in depth, both on Second Reading and in Committee, the option proposed by some hon. Members of implementing a recall system that would allow the recall of MPs on any grounds and at any time. However, we continue to believe that that approach would leave MPs vulnerable to constant challenge at the public’s expense, which is not compatible with our system of representative democracy. We believe that the principle of linking recall to wrongdoing strikes the right balance between holding MPs to account while making sure that they can do their job.

I will not reiterate the triggers for recall nor the process by which a petition is run. I believe that the constructive way in which all contributors have approached the issue, whether during pre-legislative scrutiny or through the parliamentary debates, has resulted in a high-quality and in-depth discussion of the proposals, which I very much hope will continue as the Bill continues to be considered. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales) 7:22 pm, 24th November 2014

I rise to make a brief contribution, primarily to say that this Bill is a missed opportunity. It could have genuinely empowered people and I was very happy to support the amendments tabled by Zac Goldsmith, but instead we have a Bill that empowers Westminster.

Of more interest to me is the fact that this Bill could have given us the opportunity to empower the devolved Administrations to introduce their own recall mechanisms should they wish to do so. It is disappointing that my new clause 4 was deemed out of scope in Committee. It would have given powers over recall to the devolved Administrations. It would have been an empowering amendment, not a prescriptive one, that would have given power to the devolved Administrations to introduce whatever recall mechanism they wanted.

I had hoped that we would build some sort of political consensus on the issue. Prior to the Bill coming to the House, the Secretary of State for Wales told the Welsh Grand Committee:

“The recall of MPs Bill, which we will introduce later in the Session, will put in place a mechanism by which MPs can be recalled in certain circumstances, and I am exploring with the Presiding Officer whether such a mechanism is desirable in the Assembly.”—[Official Report, Welsh Grand Committee, 16 July 2014; c. 14.]

On Second Reading, I raised that exact point with the shadow Minister, Stephen Twigg, who said that,

“in principle, if this House has a reserve power, it should give it up so that it becomes a matter for the devolved bodies themselves to decide”.—[Hansard, 21 October 2014; Vol. 586, c. 786.]

I thought that that represented progress. Indeed, during that debate, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, Greg Clark seemed to indicate that he would be open to my proposals should there be a request for the powers from one of the devolved Administrations.

Alas, the Bill has not been strengthened to give the devolved Parliaments those powers. Plaid Cymru fully supports the principle of enabling the National Assembly to make those decisions. Indeed, we support devolving all powers over electoral arrangements. It is interesting to read some of the leaks from the Smith commission on Scotland, namely that electoral arrangements will be devolved fully to the Scottish Parliament. We will wait to hear what is announced on Thursday.

In Wales during the past few weeks, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Assembly, Kirsty Williams, called, with much fanfare, for powers over recall for the National Assembly. Indeed, she called for an open recall similar to that proposed by the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Richmond Park. Unfortunately, however, it is obvious that she has not liaised with her colleagues in the UK Government, because the National Assembly for Wales has no power to introduce such a recall mechanism as it has not been included in this Bill. That is a further reflection of the disjointed way in which the Unionist parties work in Wales.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the reluctance of other Members to adopt a genuine recall mechanism reveals their distrust of their own electors and that that speaks volumes?

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that genuinely vital point. The Bill as drafted further empowers a Committee in Westminster to decide who should be recalled. It will further disfranchise people on the ground and reduce trust in Westminster—not that it is my job, of course, to try to encourage trust in Westminster.

In closing, I believe that this is a missed opportunity on two grounds. First, the Bill should have been used to genuinely empower people. Secondly, its scope should have been widened to enable the national Parliaments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to introduce their own recall mechanisms should they wish to do so.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Conservative, South Cambridgeshire 7:26 pm, 24th November 2014

I want to express my support for the Bill as it finishes its passage through this House. In particular, I want to repeat the point made by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that the Bill was introduced on the basis that the principal parties in this House went into the last general election with manifesto commitments to a form of recall, and that is substantially reflected in the Bill.

Some Members have attempted to wear the cloak of democracy and say that we should have passed a completely different Bill that said something radically different and that would have rewritten, on the back of a day or two’s debate in the Chamber, the relationship between MPs and their constituents. Thomas Docherty was rightly critical of that proposal and made it clear that it would change us substantially from being a representative democracy to being a more direct democracy whereby the electorate, notwithstanding their decision at the general election, could reach into the Chamber of the House of Commons, pull out Members and try to eject them on whatever grounds they chose, and at a time of their choosing, between one general election and another.

For that reason, I do not think the Bill is friendless. The Bill has merit and the fact that it will be relatively sparingly used in practice will, I hope, reflect the changed climate of behaviour in this House. It is important to note that during this Parliament the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has not referred anybody to the Standards Committee to be sanctioned for breaching the expenses requirements of this House. The Standards Committee has been acting in relation to events that took place before this Parliament, not during it. We have changed since 2009-10. We have introduced proper independent scrutiny and we have a structure of sanctions.

Contrary to the points made on Report by my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith, I do not think that the Bill’s second trigger simply hands the issue to a committee of parliamentarians upstairs. I hope that when the House of Lords considers the Bill, we in this House will continue to consider how to make the work of the Standards Committee more independent and transparent. I know that the Standards Committee, and its Sub-Committee led by its lay members, is now looking at that matter.

I will not repeat all that I said on Second Reading, but it is important that the Committee does its job in the right way. When I was the Leader of the House, I put to the Committee my view that it should enhance the role of the lay members, and I made it clear not only that they should not bring forward a report without the support of the lay members, but that if they did, my successors as Leader of the House, whoever they were, would see it as their duty to ensure that the lay members’ views, including any contrary views, were put to the House for a decision. The truth of the matter is that, constitutionally, only the House itself can determine the sanctions applied in relation to membership of the House as a consequence of the actions of Members as Members of Parliament.

I hope that the House of Lords will recognise that the second trigger is not a cosy example of parliamentarians exercising judgment on parliamentarians. I hope that the Standards Committee, following its scrutiny, will propose in its report that the process should be led by lay people as much as by parliamentarians.

Parliamentarians and lay people should act on the basis of proven investigations. Much of what we have heard in the debate has concerned the idea that Members of Parliament should be subject to recall in relation to allegations, which they have to reply to, with no proper investigation and with no proven outcome from any investigation. That is where the Standards Committee, with the benefit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, should deliver a sound basis for deciding whether a Member of Parliament has been found guilty of any wrongdoing. That is a sound basis on which to proceed with recall.

It is a perfectly legitimate view of the nature of our democracy for people to want, as some clearly do, to have a much more open recall system, in which Members can be pulled out of the Chamber by their constituents at any time, but that view should be tested at a general election by being proposed in a party manifesto. I will not be standing at the next election, so it is not for me but for future MPs to make such a decision. For now, it is right and proper to deliver on the pledges we made to our constituents in our manifesto at the last election. We should not be in the least bit hesitant about saying that that is the right and proper step to take.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 7:32 pm, 24th November 2014

When the Minister moved the Third Reading, he thanked several people, and I associate myself with the thanks he gave them all. In particular, I thank my hon. Friend Thomas Docherty, the members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and Members on both sides of the House and on all sides of the debate. At various stages, we have attempted to reach agreement with Ministers, the Liberal Democrats, and Zac Goldsmith and his cross-party group.

This debate is of real importance to our politics. We all know that many members of the public feel disconnected from this place and disenchanted with the political process. The principle of recall is just one way in which we can give more power to our constituents to hold their representatives to account. As has been said throughout the debate, all the three main parties committed themselves to recall in the manifestos in 2010. The Labour manifesto stated:

“MPs who are found responsible for financial misconduct will be subject to a right of recall if Parliament itself has failed to act against them.”

We maintain this position today: we support recall, but we accept that in designing a system there is a careful balance to be drawn between one that allows constituents to recall their MP if they are guilty of serious misconduct, and one that allows constituents to do so simply because of a disagreement with their MP’s views or policy decisions.

As was said earlier, the Government chose to table no amendments on Report. The Opposition sought to strengthen the Bill, and I am delighted to say that our attempts were successful, with three amendments being carried. I welcome the passing of amendment 14, which lowers the suspension threshold for recalling an MP. As a result, MPs such as those who received cash for questions in the 1990s would now, under the lower limit, be subject to recall. As we promised in our last manifesto, amendment 24 means that any MP convicted of financial misconduct under IPSA legislation—the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009—will be open to recall. I am delighted at that, because putting it into law will instil greater public confidence in MPs’ financial prudence in the wake of the expenses scandal. By approving amendment 16, the House has ensured that the Bill covers MPs convicted of offences that were not public knowledge when the electorate voted them in. I am pleased that that sensible amendment was adopted by a substantial margin.

We have worked to improve this Bill, and we will seek to explore further options in the House of Lords, including for a robust independent mechanism to enable citizen-based recall. We must tread with care when involving the courts in democratic processes. The amendments tabled by Dr Huppert have been very clearly rejected, but they were real risks, because of the specific contents of their proposals. The Opposition believe that a robust independent mechanism to enable citizen-based recall is desirable, if an achievable and effective way can be found of doing so. I hope that a cross-party solution can be agreed in the other place.

The Bill is an important statement about our commitment to accountability and democracy. Throughout its passage, the Opposition have worked to strengthen it. We will continue that work in the Lords so that the Act ensures that the public have confidence both in this place and in the recall process so that there is greater accountability of Members of Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.