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My Lords, the Bill fulfils a coalition commitment to deliver a practical recall mechanism to hold MPs to account where they have been found guilty of wrongdoing. The three main parties in their 2010 manifestos committed to establishing such a recall mechanism, and this commitment was again made in the coalition programme for government. Where an MP has been found guilty of serious wrongdoing, the Bill will give constituents their say on whether their MP should remain in office.
The Government have sought to steer a sensible middle course in developing proposals to deliver those intentions. The other place was clear that the Bill should not change the position where MPs act as representatives of their constituents and not as delegates. In this regard, the Bill preserves the ability of MPs to take decisions on difficult policy issues without the fear of losing their seat as a result.
I will remind your Lordships of the progress of the Bill to date. The Government published their White Paper and draft Recall of MPs Bill in 2011, and pre-legislative scrutiny was conducted by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on those proposals. The committee made some valuable recommendations, the majority of which were accepted and incorporated into the Bill for its introduction. The Government believe that there is a gap in the current disciplinary measures affecting MPs which needs to be filled, which will provide assurance that where an MP has been found guilty of serious wrongdoing they will be held to account.
The Bill has been considered in detail in the other place. That scrutiny included full consideration of the Bill in a Committee of the whole House. It was open to Members to listen to the arguments presented on a range of proposals to modify the Bill. The Government felt it was important that MPs could vote freely on these proposals, as they concern their own conduct and disciplinary arrangements. MPs agreed a number of amendments, and the Bill before this House reflects these changes.
The central tenet of the Bill is that recall petitions must be based on wrongdoing, and that parliamentarians must, in the absence of wrongdoing, be free to express their views on matters of policy without fear of losing their seat. The heart of the Bill relates to the three conditions under which a petition would be opened. On those conditions, the first “trigger” for a recall petition is that an MP is convicted in the UK of an offence and receives a custodial sentence. MPs imprisoned for more than a year are already automatically disqualified from Parliament, but there is no such measure for those who receive a sentence of 12 months or less or a suspended sentence. Therefore, this trigger will fill that gap. As noble Lords will be aware, the imprisonment of an MP is likely to cause constituents to question their faith in that Member of Parliament. Under those circumstances, therefore, it will be up to constituents to sign a petition to decide whether there should be a by-election. As is the case under all three triggers in the Bill, a by-election will be held where at least 10% of constituents sign that petition.
The Bill as introduced to Parliament provided that only those offences committed after the Act came into force would be caught. However, Members of Parliament in the other place voted on a change to allow offences that were committed before the Act came into force to be caught as long as the conviction took place after this time. For the purposes of the Bill, it does not matter whether the offender became a Member of Parliament before or after the offence, only that he or she did so before the relevant conviction.
The second trigger for a recall petition requires that an MP is suspended from the House, following a report from the Standards Committee, for a length of 10 sitting days or more. The length of such a suspension, which is deemed to follow wrongdoing serious enough to warrant a recall petition, was reduced from 21 sitting days following an amendment accepted on Report in the other place. The second trigger has been designed to work alongside the House’s existing disciplinary processes. For this reason, there is no specification of the grounds on which the committee, or the House, should consider a suspension of this length.
The third trigger for a recall petition is a new trigger, the result of an amendment made on Report in the other place. Under this trigger, a recall petition will be opened when an MP is convicted of an offence under Section 10 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, where an MP knowingly provides information in relation to parliamentary expenses that is false or misleading. This trigger is similar to the first in that it involves a court finding an MP guilty of an offence. However, in adopting this additional trigger MPs clearly felt that expenses fraud should be treated particularly seriously. Therefore, any conviction under this offence will trigger a recall petition, regardless of whether the sentence imposed involves detention in custody or the issuing of a fine. All three triggers have been developed to work alongside existing arrangements. The Bill as drafted steers a course between the accountability of Members of Parliament and the sovereignty of Parliament in regulating its own affairs.
I turn to the conduct of petitions which will be held when a trigger is activated. The procedures that have been laid out in the Bill have been designed to fit with the high standard rightly expected by the public of an official democratic election in this country. They will be run by the petition officer, the same person who fills the role of returning officer at UK parliamentary elections in the constituency. The signing period will last for eight weeks. If at the end of this period the 10% threshold is met, the MP will lose his or her seat and a by-election will be held. There will be no legal barrier to the Member of Parliament standing in this by-election. I will not set out the process in detail here, but I assure noble Lords that the necessary safeguards have been put in place to ensure that the process is robust, fair and open.
The Government believe that the Bill strikes the right balance in delivering a sensible and robust recall mechanism that meets the commitment made by the coalition Government at the beginning of this Parliament. As I have described, it has been shaped through pre-legislative scrutiny and by consideration in the other place. The Bill is about the conduct of Members of the other place, and those Members have examined this in detail. We should therefore approach its consideration in this House with sympathy to the debates that have already been had and the conclusions that have been reached.
The Government intend to table largely technical amendments to the Bill in Committee which will give effect to the amendments made in the other place, as tabled by the Opposition. These amendments are necessary to ensure that the changes endorsed in the other place can work effectively. These amendments will be tabled early, which I hope will be of benefit to your Lordships’ consideration of the Bill in Committee. I look forward to the debate, to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Cooper of Windrush and to the further stages of the Bill in this House.
I am sorry to interrupt, but does the noble Lord mean that the Government will be tabling amendments relating to the 10 days under the second trigger? Will the amendments deal with the 10-day question?
My Lords, my noble friend may be helpful in his concluding remarks, but I think that these are technical amendments which give effect to the amendments agreed in the other place, rather than amendments addressing the noble Lord’s point. Perhaps, by the time of winding up, the precise point that he raises will have been considered.
We should be mindful of the conclusions of the other place in relation to the discipline of its Members. For these reasons, I commend the Bill to the House and I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill so clearly. Like him, I look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cooper of Windrush, in which he will bring his experience not just from No. 10 but from the SDP—so he will have some insights for us, I think.
This is a significant Bill and its heart, I believe, is in the right place. We support constituents having the power to recall their MP for serious wrongdoing. Perhaps I can surprise your Lordships’ House by quoting with approval Andrew Lansley, who said:
“When the public see instances of gross misconduct that result in … a court sentence or a … period of suspension … they say that in any other … profession people would lose their jobs … This Bill puts Members in that position when it might not have happened otherwise”.—[Hansard, Commons, 27/10/14; col. 130.]
We concur with that aim.
The Bill introduces an entirely new process which, in the words of our Constitution Committee,
“affects a fundamental principle of the … constitution: representative democracy. In particular, it arguably runs counter to the long-established Burkean principle that Members of Parliament are not delegates”.
First, as the Minister said, it will see a recall petition triggered, either by a court or by a vote in the Commons on a recommendation from the Standards Committee; secondly, a gathering of signatures from those who want the MP to stand down; and, thirdly, if 10% sign, a by-election that the MP would be free to contest. We support the Bill’s intention; we want the highest standards in public life and agree that an MP sentenced to prison or who has misused their expenses should be held to account by the electorate.
However, I have to ask why the Government have taken so long to produce this Bill. The 2010 coalition agreement said:
“We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall”.
The draft Bill was published 18 months later and now here we are three years later finally with the Bill. As the Minister in the Commons admitted,
“we have not rushed into this reform”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 21/10/14; col. 770.]
More seriously, after all this time and that delay, why have both the principles and logistics not been better thought through? There are two big questions that the Government need to answer. First, is this a secret or an open process? Secondly, are they confident that there are sufficient safeguards to ensure that recall really will be in the hands of constituents and not at the whim of wealthy groups running expensive campaigns?
On the first of these, we must decide as a Parliament whether this is going to be a public petition for a recall or a secret ballot. The Constitution Committee has noted that,
“signing a recall petition is a public act”.
Indeed, anyone going into the signing room is automatically voting for a recall, as there is no “against” on the petition signature list. Furthermore, as a marked register showing who has voted will be published after the ballot, the list of those calling for a recall would be made public. That is the end of the traditional secret ballot. The Government appear to accept this, judging by their response to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, although in the Commons the Minister seemed to say that while,
“there will be a marked register”, he then said that the Government were considering whether it would be,
“in the public domain”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 3/11/14; col. 595.]
This is too big an issue for the Government still to be considering at this stage of the Bill. We must know the answer. Is the list of those who have signed to be made public, or not? If it is, every potential voter must know beforehand that their name and address will be made public, as the marked register comes into the public domain. It also means that care will be needed over intimidation—not just being watched or filmed going into the signing places but even if they vote by post, because that can only be a vote for a recall—if the marked register is then publicly available.
There is an alternative, which the Government have not chosen, which is for the petition to be secret and depart from the normal practice of making the marked register public, while taking steps to ensure that the scrutineers, the press and others abide by the rules of confidentiality. These are big questions and I look forward to hearing the response of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, to update us on the Government’s current view on making the list of those who have signed available. Furthermore, how will the Government ensure that anyone who does sign, if the list is to be open, is aware of that before they take that decision?
My second major concern is whether there are sufficient safeguards to ensure that recall will be in the hands of constituents and not run by wealthy groups and their expensive campaigns. Will the defeated party run the pro-recall campaign? Perhaps, where MPs have been sentenced for so-called political crimes—refusal to pay the poll tax, trying to prevent fracking, defending an abortion clinic, or any “acts of protest without any element of violence or dishonesty” in the words of Democratic Audit—will the supporters or opponents of that cause pile into the constituency to resist or encourage the recall, potentially with large sums of money? The trigger may have been a sentence of imprisonment, but the possibility is that the campaign becomes on the issue of policy for which the MP is well known.
We have in this country MPs with a proud record of fighting for gay rights, the end of capital punishment, for abortion and assisted suicide. These causes are rightly fought on political or ideological grounds. We do not want them fought by the moneyed against the non-moneyed. We know that the public support us on this. A YouGov survey showed that half of those questioned thought that recall was appropriate where an MP broke a promise made in their election leaflets—sorry, Lib Dems, I did not say tuition fees. Rather surprisingly, only half of those questioned thought that crossing the Floor merited recall, despite in our country MPs being largely elected by their party label. However, most notably, the very last reason that people thought a recall should be triggered was that the MP supported a policy with which the voter disagreed. I believe that that chimes with our concerns on policy-driven campaigns.
The problem is that the Bill allows for any number of pro-recall accredited campaign groups each to spend up to £10,000, but with the MP capped at £10,000 for his or her own “Please don’t sign for recall” campaign. There could be £10,000 for the campaign of the MP who is up for recall against £50,000 or £100,000 with any number of groups, each of which could spend up to £10,000. Who knows how many well-funded vested interests could come in, particularly in a marginal seat or where the Government have a tiny majority?
We need rules on the financing of a recall campaign which ensure that it is not hijacked by politically motivated groups out to deselect sitting MPs, not because of their misdeeds but because of their voting record. Whether this is by limiting each side to be able to spend £10,000 or by monitoring campaign literature, those are options which I hope we will explore more in Committee. Furthermore, while accredited campaigners’ spending would be covered by PPERA, non-accredited campaigners spending under £500 would be subject to no other regulation—presumably not even an imprint on their leaflets or checks on whether their donors were legitimate. So an overseas resident could, perhaps, give £400 to each of 20 local campaigns.
When we were taking the lobbying Bill through this House, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, who is not in her place, warned us at the time about the PACs from America. Surely this is exactly what this Bill could allow. We can all think of newspapers, lobbyists, companies or anyone else who could easily pour money into a single seat. I therefore ask the Minister whether he is content with this absence of regulation for potentially many local campaigns. Are the Government willing to reconsider whether anyone involved should be covered by PPERA, despite their current view that that should not be the case?
I turn to some practical issues that we will explore in Committee. We welcome the increase in signing locations from just one in the original draft Bill to four, but why only four? In large rural areas this could mean very long journeys to sign in person. In Brecon and Radnorshire, which I think normally has about 90 polling stations, some electors will have a 30-minute drive each way to sign—an hour’s round trip by car. That is nigh impossible for those without a car. Why have the Government not thought to leave it to the local petition officer to assess what is best for an area in terms of accessibility as well as costs, as suggested by the Electoral Commission?
That brings me to the issue of costs. A recall will cost £55,000, according to the impact assessment. When I phoned a number of petition officers—returning officers, as they are called at the moment—I heard an enormous burst of laughter when I mentioned a sum of £55,000. I could not tape the laughter to bring it to the House today. Postage alone will cost £17,000 and printing £21,000, and that is before prepayment postage for the returning of postal votes, which will obviously go up from the normal number and could add another £3,000. There will also be substantial staffing costs. Even with just four places, there will have to be two people sitting in those four places for eight weeks, possibly from nine to five. At one point, it was suggested in the Commons that the hours would be from 7 am until 10 pm. However, I think they have rowed back since then and think that the hours will be nine to five, but, even so, the eight-week period and four locations, with two staff at each, constitutes a very high cost for any local authority. Moreover, local authorities do not at present have the computer software to be able to check electronically who has signed. Normally, this happens on one day at a general election, but over eight weeks one could sign in person in the first two weeks and then apply for a postal vote and sign again. We will have a good time discussing these issues in Committee.
The Select Committee in the other place asked the Government to reconsider whether returning officers were qualified to oversee petition expenditure and donations, or whether the Electoral Commission was better placed to undertake this. Indeed, at present, no one will scrutinise the returns, as the returning officer’s job is only to preserve them. The Government have declined to give the Electoral Commission any role, yet there are challenging decisions to be made, such as which individuals are entitled to be permitted participants under PPERA and may therefore become accredited campaigners. Who will advise those sending in the notice to the returning officer whether they are permitted participants? Who will check up on it? Likewise with permissible donors, who will advise or check up on such matters? These will be absolutely new matters for returning officers but, given the amount of detail that will have to be covered in regulation, will the Government commit to publish early drafts, because a lot of the implementation of this Bill will be through secondary legislation? The Select Committee also emphasised that recall should not be a substitute for elections. I do not believe that the Bill is about that. It is about constituents being able to decide whether their Member of Parliament, having been imprisoned or found guilty of fiddling their expenses, should continue to serve as an MP as a right or face the judgment of their electorate.
We have no argument with the purpose of the Bill but regret the failure to use the delay to clear up some of these big policy decisions and a lot of practical decisions. For the future of our parliamentary democracy, it is right that someone who has transgressed should seek a vote of confidence from the electors, but we must make sure that this Bill is fit for purpose—a role that I know your Lordships’ House is willing and able to play.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness knows, I share a large number of her concerns, not least on some of the detail to which she has given attention. We will, of course, come back to that in Committee. However, I do not share her view in one respect: the fact that the Bill has been a long time a-coming is indicative of the considerable interest that there has been at the other end of the building—for obvious reasons. I note that I am the first of some 10 former Members of Parliament contributing to this debate, and I suspect that we will hear some interesting observations in that respect.
In this House, I first proposed a recall power for MPs back in June 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the expenses scandal, to enable constituents rather than party leaders to instigate an appropriate review of the behaviour of their representatives. The proposal was defeated then but by the general election, just a few months later, all three parties committed to a recall power of the kind that I had proposed—one that covers “misconduct” and “serious wrongdoing”. At the last general election, that was how the proposals were expressed in a number of manifestos and it was, as the noble Baroness said, repeated in the coalition agreement. Now the Bill gives us the opportunity to make good on those promises. However, as the noble
Baroness said, in its present form it is by no means perfect, and that is acknowledged by the work that has been done in the other place and the reference to our work on it there. There is important job of work for us to do.
There are technical issues to address in respect of ensuring that donors to recall campaigns are permissible and eligible, and to ensure that campaigns for and against recall are placed on an equal footing. On these Benches, we also note the reports of the Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers Committee in respect of the order-making powers of the Bill. It will be for the Minister to demonstrate why these are the right powers.
However, there is one big issue of principle at stake that we must all in this House address. When and in what circumstances recalls should occur is, I think, agreed between the parties—that is, in cases of serious misconduct or wrongdoing. But where the collective forces of the two government parties and the Opposition have not yet secured a good solution is the key question of who should be involved in that process of determining whether misconduct has indeed taken place.
The Bill sets out only two bodies that may decide. One is straightforward: if the courts sentence an MP to a prison sentence, that immediately triggers a recall petition. The second is less straightforward. If the Commons Standards Committee suspends a Member for 14 calendar days or 10 sitting days, a recall petition is automatically triggered. The problem is that the voting membership of the Standards Committee is composed entirely of MPs. Even taking into account the lay members, that is plainly an internal parliamentary body. To the public outside, this—quite reasonably—smacks of being a group of people who seek to retain what we might call “exclusive cognisance” over their own affairs. I am sure that noble Lords have already seen that the public have been responding to that problem as if it were equivalent to MPs marking their own homework. That is a fundamental problem.
I totally understand the point made by the noble Lord but that does not mean, of course, that there could not be circumstances when the non-voting, lay members of that committee—one suggestion is that their number should increase, but that is a matter for the other place—should be the ones who take the decision and recommend it to the voting members. That is complicated and still raises important questions, to which I will return.
The Bill is intended to increase the public’s confidence in their ability to hold parliamentarians to account when they fall below the standard expected of us. Without some means being built in for some independent adjudication on those standards completely outside Parliament, the Bill will fail in that objective and will be criticised as such. My colleagues in the Commons, Julian Huppert and David Heath, attempted to deal with this problem during the Commons stages. It was acknowledged that their proposals were not technically perfect—what early attempt at amendment ever is, in either House?—but that the principle behind their ideas had considerable merit, namely, that an election court with appropriate safeguards, or something like it, ought to be able to consider petitions directly from the public alleging misconduct or wrongdoing, and to hear evidence to the contrary from the MP concerned. Where real misconduct had taken place, the process would trigger a full recall petition. A by-election would follow if 10% of the MPs’ constituents signed up within the eight weeks, under the terms elsewhere of the Bill.
The principle behind this process will ensure both that no MP could be ejected simply for doing his or her job, or for exercising his or her judgment in the terms that the noble Baroness just said, but also that the Commons, through its internal committees, cannot be thought to be closing ranks to protect one of its own where serious wrongdoing really has taken place. I believe that there will be a serious case for carefully phrased amendments in that vein in Committee. We will seek support from all sides of the House in improving drafting to present a workable proposal to this House.
If anyone is in any doubt that we have a duty in your Lordships’ House to attempt this, they need only consider the words of those who took leading parts in the debates on the Bill in the other place. On the day of the Commons Report and Third Reading, the Minister in charge of the Bill, Greg Clark, said that,
“the Government were clear on Second Reading that we are open to ways to improve the Bill and we stand by that commitment”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 24/11/14; col. 681.]
That was on Report. Similarly, Stephen Twigg, Labour’s senior spokesman on these issues, said in Committee in the Commons:
“In principle, giving the power to the people to bring a case against their MP before the election court is a good idea. It treads the fine line between undermining an MP’s constitutional role and giving power to the people to hold their Member of Parliament to account for his or her conduct”.—[Hansard, Commons, 27/10/14; col. 134.]
“support the principles behind the idea. We agree … on the idea of an independent mechanism when it can be demonstrated that wrongdoing has occurred”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 24/11/14; col. 672.]
I know that Mr Docherty would have preferred MPs not to vote on the proposals, leaving it entirely to your Lordships’ House. Nevertheless, he did presage the possibility that Labour Peers could,
“and we urge him to take the same approach”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 24/11/14; col. 675.]
We are very open to that offer. We have all been asked in this House to do this work. We should therefore, at the very least, give it our very best efforts. If we can secure good, robust amendments in this place, it will then be for the Commons to take them or leave them. As the Minister put it at the end, the more fundamental point,
“is a matter for this House”— that is, the Commons—
“and the other place, and any amendments”, from us,
“would return to this House to be determined”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 24/11/14; col. 680.]
This is, of course, the Second Reading debate, so I do not intend to expand further on the details of the amendments that we will bring forward. The principle behind recall in the case of serious wrongdoing is relatively simple and clear, yet the practice of implementing that principle is neither simple nor clear. As ever in your Lordships’ House, we have work to do to bring the two together. I look forward to working with colleagues on all sides of the House to do just that.
My Lords, I would like to welcome the Bill, but I cannot. While I support much of what is in trigger 1 and trigger 3, subject to the caveats expressed by my noble friend on the Front Bench in his very interesting speech, I want to concentrate on the very narrow issue of trigger 2, in particular the impact of the Bill, now that it has been amended in the Commons, on the operation of the House of Commons Standards Committee. I do so having served as a member of the Select Committee on Members’ Interests in the Commons, which dealt with these matters between 1983 and 1991, and also as a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee from 1995 to 2001. I have had on aggregate 14 years’ experience on this particular committee and its predecessor in the Commons. I gave evidence to the Nolan commission inquiry and saw some of my recommendations accepted, and I have sat through innumerable inquiries in the House of Commons dealing with these matters. It is in that light that I express my reservations today, which I would ask, in particular, former Members of the House of Commons to consider very seriously, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, whom I wish to consult.
I support recall. I have supported it right through from the late 1980s, after the John Browne, Member for Winchester, inquiry, to which David Leigh, the Observer journalist, gave evidence. It was following that inquiry that I began to realise that there was a case for constituents to have the right to remove Members in certain conditions. But this Bill is fatally flawed.
In the original Bill, the trigger 2 recall condition was based on the House ordering suspension for 21 sitting days. On
“where the period is expressed as a number of sitting days, the period specified is a period of at least 10 sitting days”.
In doing that, in my view, they destroyed much of the Bill. What they did was to turn a quasi-judicial committee—which is what it always was when I sat on it—into a political committee.
I shall explain why; it is very simple. Let us say that I am a member of the committee and am sitting there when we are dealing with penalty and discussing a particular case. If I find nine days’ penalty, there is no problem. If I find 10 days’ penalty, I could effectively trigger a national by-election, with huge expenditure—hundreds of thousands of pounds; tens of thousands of pounds by the local authority—simply because I have decided on that additional day. The critical point is the difference between nine and 10 days.
What will happen in that committee is that instead of acting in a quasi-judicial way, it will become a political process; it will make political judgments. I have to confess that if I had been a member of the committee in those circumstances I would have had colleagues in the Tea Room saying to me, “Dale, hang on a minute. Before you decide on 10 days, just remember what is going to happen. It might be that we’re going to have to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds”—or whatever it is—“on a by-election”. You cannot proceed on that basis. You cannot turn a quasi-judicial committee of the House of Commons into a politicised committee where it makes political judgments. That is what Labour’s amendment in the House of Commons did, and that is why it has got to be stopped. I will be moving an amendment on Report to turn that amendment over and reverse this very grave error of judgment.
Why did it happen? It happened, in my view, because the people behind the amendment lacked experience. What I call the boys in short trousers simply did not know what they were doing. There was not a proper consultation. Indeed, there was not a consultation of the Privileges Committee. If there had been, it might have produced some very interesting results.
When it came to the Division on
(Maiden Speech) My Lords, the history of this place and the solemn, central role that it fulfils bring a profound feeling of responsibility to a new Peer joining your Lordships’ House. The wisdom, experience and expertise concentrated here are extraordinary and also humbling, as is the warmth of the welcome to new Members from all sides of the House. Being here is an honour far beyond anything that I ever expected.
I thank my mentor, my noble friend Lady Morris of Bolton, and those who supported me at my Introduction a few weeks ago: my noble friends Lord Mawhinney and Lord Finkelstein. They have all given me wise and patient advice as I acclimatise to your Lordships’ House.
My noble friend Lord Mawhinney is a man of great wisdom; nevertheless, 20 years ago he took a reckless decision, which was to hire me to run the Conservative Party’s private opinion research, inadvertently setting me on a path that my career has followed ever since. My immediate boss in that job was my noble friend Lord Finkelstein, who has been a close friend since we met at the LSE 30 years ago and he introduced me to the joys of wonton soup, Karl Popper and Diet Coke.
I have spent most of the last two decades studying public opinion and what shapes it. I earn my living by helping political organisations and businesses understand what the people who matter to them really think—and why. I know that there is a common view that polling and focus groups have had a pernicious effect on politics. However, I have never understood the idea that it is better not to know what voters are thinking. As my friend Lord Gould of Brookwood put it in his maiden speech here 10 years ago, there is nothing to fear in:
“Discovering the voice of the people”.—[Hansard, 29/11/04; col. 308.]
I think that every serious politician ought to want to understand what the voters think, just as every successful business makes sure that it knows what its customers think.
I meet many whose objection to the use of polling is a dislike of leaders who just follow whatever focus groups tell them. However, in my experience, such politicians are a myth, whereas there is a very long list of politicians who were ejected from office because they did not understand or respond to the concerns of the electorate.
I spent half of this Parliament working in 10 Downing Street. It provided a fascinating insight into how government works but it also brought the disagreeable consequence of occasionally being the subject of press interest. The Mail on Sunday accorded me the cartoonishly tabloid description of the “gay marriage guru”—a title that I am honoured to have but do not deserve—while the Daily Mail told its readers that I do not blow my nose without first consulting a focus group. I can assure the House that in all the focus groups I have ever conducted, my nose is one subject that has never come up.
One of my favourite focus group moments came when, in about the middle of the last Parliament, I asked a group of floating voters which Conservative politician, apart from the then leader of the Opposition,
David Cameron, they had noticed making an impact. There was a very long pause and then a woman said confidently, “Ed Miliband”—to which someone else instantly added, “Yes, and his brother, Ed Balls”. In that anecdote lies an important truth, which is that most voters have little interest in politics, and still less in the minutiae that many people in Westminster obsess over.
In an era of cynicism, most people discount what politicians say, judging them on how they behave and what they do. It was, of course, the behaviour of politicians in the last Parliament that led to the Bill that we are debating today. Voters were shocked by the expenses scandal, but most were not surprised by it. However unfair, the feeling that our politicians were only in it for themselves was already widespread. Confidence in parliamentary politics collapsed in the aftermath. The idea of recall of MPs was a direct reaction to that. The principle is backed by a large majority of the public. As other noble Lords have pointed out, it was also included in all the main party manifestos—so not to introduce a system of recall would deepen even further the widespread view that politicians can never be believed.
The detail is crucial, of course, and there is undoubtedly a fine balance between empowering voters and protecting the principles of a representative democracy. As the Bill progresses, every aspect of the detail must be scrutinised, and this House is expert at that. In my maiden speech I will suggest only that the in-principle case for recall of MPs is clear. If it is true, as voters want and would like to believe, that “They work for you”, it follows that voters should have the power to fire MPs found guilty of serious wrongdoing, just as members of the public who are guilty of wrongdoing in their workplaces would expect to be fired and not remain in their jobs until the end of their employment contract.
The Bill before us will not, on its own, renew the faith of voters in the integrity of our politics. The problem is deeper and it demands more fundamental change. This House has a vital role to play in debating that because it is less tribal, confrontational and partisan, and because political differences can be transcended here and the bigger view taken. I hope that I will be able to contribute to that debate in your Lordships’ House in the years ahead.
My Lords, I welcome the maiden speech by the noble Lord, Lord Cooper of Windrush, who has a considerable political background. It is different from mine, but it is certainly considerable. I think we may want to hear much more from him about that. He has been a political adviser to the noble Lord, Lord Owen, who was leader of the SDP. As he said, he spent 10 years in No. 10 advising the Prime Minister. How far that influence is of real value is a matter of debate. He himself said that political pollsters are sometimes described as pernicious. I would never use such a word in your Lordships’ House. The noble Lord made an interesting speech, and I hope that his years spent in the corridors of power might be explained even further. Perhaps on a future occasion he will shed some light on how the system works. I am sometimes asked, “How does Parliament work? How does the system work?”. I have been around both ends of the corridor for 40 years, and I say to them, “If you ever find out, let me know”. I hope that we will hear from the noble Lord in the future. We look forward to his contributions. He obviously finds the aspect of a maiden speech not too demanding and not too stressful.
I generally support the principle of the Bill that those who commit an offence or transgress, as defined, should be subject to recall. Despite the protestations from the Government Front Bench that this Bill sets aside the possibility of recall on political issues, it does no such thing. In fact it is the thin end of the wedge. The demand to have the right to recall MPs on policy grounds will grow; there is no stopping that.
I was elected to be the MP for Aberdeen, North in 1970, and served for 27 years. Short of imprisonment, bankruptcy or death, the only way to lose the seat was if I lost the parliamentary Whip and did not have it restored by the time of the election or if there was a vote of no confidence passed in my constituency party. In those 27 years my largest majority was 19,114, and the lowest was 9,112. I put the vagaries of that down to several boundary changes, and I hope not to my own performance.
Much has changed in the past 40 years. When I was first elected, the heavies, as we might call them, the Telegraph, the Times and the Guardian, all produced full-page reports on a daily basis of the goings on in Parliament. Even my own local newspapers, the Aberdeen Press and Journal and the Aberdeen Evening Express, each had a Lobby correspondent and a parliamentary correspondent. Now, one person does that in its entirety, if there is even a dedicated member of staff. All we are left with now in the heavies is the comedy sketches—the funnies. Every event, however serious or important is reduced to a political pantomime. It cannot be good for democracy when people see that sort of thing.
I have always agreed about and argued for accountability. There is a distinct and continuing trend these days to downgrade party politics and political parties. I concede immediately that the activities of a few MPs and some Peers brought both Houses into disrepute, but there are plenty of organisations out there on the internet who are determined to impose their particular version of democracy There is a campaign headed “Party People: How should the Political Parties select their Parliamentary Candidates?”. The intention is to have parliamentary candidates chosen by open primaries. There may well be a case for that. It happens in other parts of the world. But the proponents of that give the game away; they use as a sub-heading a quote from the political satire programme, “Yes Minister”:
“MPs are not chosen by ‘the people’—they are chosen by their local constituency parties: thirty-five men in grubby raincoats or thirty-five women in silly hats”.
That is actually quite a funny quote. But you then realise that it is intended to denigrate the hundreds of thousands of people who daily serve political parties by canvassing, raising funds and supporting their MPs and candidates. These people have raised a great deal of money, often in the cold, canvassing and doing all sorts of things, and it is the worst kind of activity to make fun of them because they do a job without personal reward.
Similar articles have surfaced on the internet—campaigns for the recall of MPs on whatever political grounds of opinion. This unwittingly reveals the agenda. The intention to destroy political parties, coupled with these sinister campaigns for recall, show a desire to have MPs who will hang and twist in the wind and follow slavishly what may be seen as the popular will of the people.
I was extremely fortunate during my 27 years in the Commons to chair the Anti-Apartheid Movement for 20 years. It is worth recalling that that cause did not have the same universal approval that it now enjoys. Indeed, I remember on one occasion a very hostile interview with BBC Scotland in which research was produced that purported to show that the majority of Scottish people believed that apartheid was the right policy for South Africa. I was later taken aside by a very senior member of the Labour Party in Scotland and gently advised that I should stick to Scottish affairs. The members of my constituency party stood by me and defended me when the local press and others demanded that I concentrate on only Aberdeen and Scottish affairs, and that it was unseemly for a Member of Parliament for Scotland to do otherwise.
As some of your Lordships may know, I held robust anti-Scottish devolution views, so much so that one branch of my party tabled a motion of no confidence. I went in fear and trembling to see the pairing Whip, the formidable and redoubtable George Lawson, MP for Motherwell, who many of my colleagues will remember was a strict disciplinarian. I thought that he would be difficult. I thought that he would say, “You made your bed, you can lie in it”. In fact it was quite the opposite. In those days, it should be recalled, one had to get permission to leave the House even on a two-line whip, never mind a three-line whip. He was very reassuring, saying, “Of course you must go to defend yourself. Leave it with me and I will cover you”.
The meeting took place and we meandered through the agenda of mundane business and finally the motion was called for debate. No one was present from the branch to move it. Therefore it fell. I was relieved and delighted. However, my chairman went on to say, “We can’t leave it there”. I had a moment or two of panic and I thought, “What the devil is he up to now?”. He got up and moved that “The constituency has full confidence in its MP” and demanded a show of hands. It was carried unanimously. The effect was to put the whole issue to bed and I was free to pursue my activities.
If there had been a recall on policy issues, I do not believe that I would have lasted 27 years in Parliament, and certainly many of my contemporaries—I had good company in those days—such as Norman Buchan, Robin Cook, Tam Dalyell and others would not have lasted either. I do not claim now, nor did I claim then, that what we did was anything special and that there was any special virtue in arguing and debating fiercely the matters of the day. We simply did what we did. It is what we were expected to do. It was natural to engage with the electorate and seek to engage them. It was natural to engage in fierce debate with members of our own party. There was none of this instant policy-making when you wake up in the morning and discover what has been said.
Of course, an MP must take account of and consider what his constituents’ views are. We all know that there are views which one holds strongly and lines that we should not cross—on capital punishment or abortion, for example. There are many other issues that engender strong feelings and emotions. What is undeniably the case is that we have not come to terms with the computer revolution. I do not know how we can deal with Facebook, Twitter and blogging. There may be other social media of which I know nothing. What is happening is a kind of pyramid selling. You get an e-mail petition that says, “Click here to show your support, and click here to send to your contacts”. An illusion is presented that somehow there is massive political support.
I fear that what is now intended, despite the best intentions of the Government and of my own Front Bench, and what we are facing is the destruction of party politics and the destruction of the trade union movement as a political force, and in their place to have MPs who will hang and twist in the wind. They will face any direction in order to get elected. It is a grim prospect and we seem unable to recognise that. Far from enhancing democracy, recall will lead to the destruction of democracy and certainly representative democracy as we know it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend of many years. He reminded us of the mission creep that might be involved in a Bill such as this, which I will come to in a moment. It is also a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cooper. It is always a daunting experience to kick off here, but I am sure that he will have no difficulty with the interests that his speech evoked.
Those are the nice things that I am able to say, but I now turn with considerable weariness—I think that is the best way describing it—to yet another attempt by this coalition Government at constitutional reform. Following the old Nye Bevan maxim of not looking in a crystal ball when you can read a history book, I will have two minutes’ history lesson on this Government’s record so far on constitutional reform. Let us not forget that this is a significant constitutional reform measure. No less a body than the House’s own Constitutional Committee made that clear in its report just published.
I have two or three examples so far. The first is the proposal for a referendum on changing the voting system. Some of us said, “Please don’t do this”. It was supported by the leadership of all three parties, which is always a danger sign. Incidentally, that is a characteristic of the Bill that I shall talk about in a moment. Happily, it was rejected by the electorate, but at great cost—some £75 million. Then we had the proposal for a directly elected second Chamber, but without any attempt to define its powers or the relationship between the two Chambers. Happily, that again was rejected, in that case by the House of Commons, and not without an expenditure of well over £500,000.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. I am sure that he would not wish to mislead the House. The Second Reading of the Bill brought forward by the coalition was passed by 338 votes at Second Reading in the House of Commons, with large majorities particularly in his own party as well as in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.
I think that, not for the first time, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is rewriting the procedures of the House of Commons. He knows perfectly well that that Bill would not have got through the House of Commons without a timetable Motion—a kind of Motion that his party vehemently opposed when in opposition. I am happy to go through the history lesson of Liberal Democrat policies but, entertaining though that would be, I shall resist the temptation.
Briefly, we also had debates about the great constitutional merits of having directly elected police and crime commissioners. Again, I think that they were supported by pretty much everyone at one stage, but again it cost £75 million to hold the elections. Not so many people now think that it was a great idea because the turnout at the vote was 15%. Then, of course, we had the constitutional innovation supported by all three parties of referenda for directly elected mayors in 10 cities where the good citizens of nine of them said what some of us hoped they would say, which was, “No, thank you very much. We don’t want this at all”. I should say that were I ever to write a book—the House will be relieved to know that I will not—on this Government’s record on constitutional reform, the title I would give it would be I Told You So.
We now come to the Recall of MPs Bill. It is a measure of constitutional significance that will, as the Constitution Committee has said, affect the United Kingdom’s representative democracy. If you are doing that, the very least you would expect from the Government is a clear case for why this important constitutional change is required and what its effects would be. It seems to me that the case simply has not been made. We all know that, in practice, if Members of Parliament have been the subject of severely inappropriate behaviour, the mechanisms of the parties come into operation. Very often, such MPs resign and by-elections follow in any case. The House of Commons research paper on the Bill asks: how many people would have been caught by this Bill had it been an Act of Parliament 25 years ago? The answer is two. It is a Bill of 60 pages with numerous clauses and addendums. Do we really need a Bill of this length and complexity to deal with just two cases? Admittedly, the numbers of who would be affected might go up because of the amendment referred to by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. He demolished the Bill quite eloquently, so there is certainly no need for me to add anything to that.
Let us be under no illusions. The Bill would inevitably affect the behaviour of the Commons, knowing the difference between a nine-day suspension and a 10-day suspension. It is not the difference between a yellow card and a red card; it is the difference between a yellow card and a ban for life. I do not believe that anyone seriously thinks that if the Commons effectively said that there should be a recall, or a recall petition, and if having a recall was advertised all around the
constituency, it is pretty much inconceivable that the MP concerned would be re-elected at that or any subsequent election. That may be a good thing, but do we really need this whole recall mechanism and this Bill to deliver that objective?
We all agree that certain behaviour is unacceptable, so let us have no bricks thrown around the debate on that. The House can expel people if it wants to, it can suspend them for as long as it likes, and in practice the parties exercise their own discipline. However, as my noble friend Lord Hughes has just said, it is a short step from unacceptable behaviour to unacceptable policies. My noble friend made that case very strongly indeed. Perhaps I may add a personal additional point. Representing, as I did the first time I came here, a constituency with an electorate of 90,000, in which I had a majority of around 360, and in which the opponent I defeated polled 32,000 votes, I think it would have taken him and his supporters about 10 minutes to get a petition together to chuck me out, had he wanted to do so and had the mechanism been in place. That is particularly the case today with electronic petitions. We simply do not need this Bill and there is a real danger of mission creep.
I have to say that the Bill has a lot of the characteristics of a fag-end Bill of a fag-end Parliament. We all know that the reason for the delay is that when the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee considered the Bill in draft, it said:
“We recommend that the Government abandon its plans to introduce a power of recall and use the Parliamentary time this would free up to better effect”.
That is terrific advice and is well worth considering now.
I would like to suggest a way of doing this, because of course we do have a system for recalling MPs—it is called a general election. I am something of an expert on the recall of MPs, having lost an awful lot of general elections. That is something which concentrates the mind. Oddly enough, this coalition Government, which want to introduce recall, have legislated to ensure that we have fewer general elections. It was an astonishing thing to do and it went through on the nod. Five-year fixed terms mean that, whereas since the war elections have taken place on average every three years and 10 months, they will now take place by law every five years. That inevitably raises the need for recall. If that pernicious Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 had been in operation since the war, there would have been 13 general elections instead of 18. This coalition Government therefore think that we have had too many general elections since the war, so no wonder they think we need recall. Why not extend the period between elections so that it is even longer?
I have a simple suggestion to make in line with the recommendations made in the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which basically says: drop this Bill and bring forward another one. Why do the House and the party leaders not get together and support a Bill to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011? Modesty prevents me mentioning the Bill’s sponsor, but at a stroke it would move us substantially towards more accountability for MPs and would be far better than this Recall of MPs Bill.
My Lords, like everyone else who has spoken in the debate, I support the principle of recall of Members of Parliament. Any Member of Parliament whose behaviour falls short of the standards anyone would expect, as judged by either a court of law or a committee of the Member’s peers, should face the electorate. But like everyone else, with the exception of the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Cooper of Windrush, I do not think that this Bill does the job.
One of the reasons for that was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Grocott: when the Front Benches agree, they are usually wrong. When I was first elected to the House of Commons in 1992, we had the Bill to set up the Child Support Agency. I remember going to Michael Meacher, who was then our Front-Bencher, to say, “This Bill is appalling. We should not support it”. I was told, “Oh Jean, you cannot possibly oppose a Bill where the principle is that parents should be financially responsible for their children”. I responded by saying, “No one would disagree with the principle. The problem is that this Bill does not examine the detail”. What followed were five years of heartache. I think that that has happened here. No matter what is said about scrutiny in the House of Commons, the Members of that House are in a very difficult position with regard to this Bill, given the low esteem in which many of them are now held—in my view quite wrongly.
I am appalled by the apparent attitude towards the Standards Committee. I will not rehearse much of this because it has been dealt with in forensic detail by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, but I was horrified to hear, in meetings I have held preliminary to today—and from the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, on the Government Front Bench today—that we cannot have MPs marking their own homework. I cannot think of a more pejorative description of the work of Members of Parliament. The committee does not mark the homework of the House of Commons. In the 13 years—only 13 years, compared with Members who have already spoken—that I was in the House of Commons, that committee always behaved in a quasi-judicial and absolutely impartial manner and I cannot remember anyone ever criticising its decisions, no matter how hard it was on some colleagues.
I think that the reduction in the suspension period that would trigger the possibility of a by-election from 21 days to 10 days is also wrong-headed, despite it having been introduced in the House of Commons by my party.
I am also very concerned about the effect on local authorities. This was dealt with magnificently by my noble friend Lady Hayter on the Front Bench. She rightly pointed out that the Government have now accepted that there should not be just one place where electors can go to signify that they wish for there to be a by-election in a constituency, and she cited Brecon and Radnorshire, a constituency that was familiar to me when I helped run the by-election in 1985. But even in my inner-city constituency of Bristol East, four polling places would involve most of my constituents having to take at least two bus rides, and I do not think they would do it. Of course, the effect on postal voting has only to be imagined.
Underlying a lot of this is an attitude towards Members of Parliament that I think we should deal with. They are not all scoundrels. They are not in it for the money. Most of them earn less as a Member of Parliament than they would outside—I certainly did, having worked as a barrister. I have been told that Members are having to respond to the coverage they get in certain sections of the popular press and from 38 Degrees. You cannot please these people. They are a bit like the Militant Tendency: whatever you give them, they want more. There has to be a line in the sand. We are now in a situation where Members of Parliament are having to testify that they will not accept a pay rise to which they are manifestly entitled, given that they now earn far less than the average secondary school head teacher.
We have to say that we accept that being a Member of Parliament is evidence of a desire to be in public service, not to be in it for themselves, because it means long hours and is a great responsibility. All I would say to both Front Benches is: of course the recall of MPs is desirable and necessary, but this Bill will not achieve it.
My Lords, a provision for a recall of elected representatives is used by a number of nations but it is an exceptional procedure. It is exceptional in that the nations employing it are in a minority and within those nations the use of the procedure is rare.
The Bill seeks to put the United Kingdom in that exceptional category. It does not replicate recall as understood in some systems; that is, by removing a person from office through a local referendum, asking should the person be recalled or not, and followed, in the event of a yes vote, by a new election. We have no experience of recall, although we do have experience of a mechanism for triggering by-elections: when MPs were appointed Ministers, they were subject to re-election in a by-election. That remained the case until 1926.
There is clearly a debate to be had as to whether such an exceptional procedure as recall should be introduced in the United Kingdom. That debate, though, has already been had in the other place. I do not believe we should be challenging the ends of the measure, as decided already by the Commons. Our task is to focus on the means. Given that it is clearly a measure of constitutional significance, it merits enhanced scrutiny.
My starting point, therefore, is the question: what is the Bill designed to achieve? Once we know that, we can see whether the provisions are adequate to the task. As we have heard, the Bill is essentially the product of the expenses scandal of 2009. In the wake of that, the three main parties brought forward proposals for recall. The intention is to restore trust in politics through allowing electors to remove an MP other than at a general election when the Member falls below expected standards. According to the Deputy Prime Minister in the other place:
“It strikes a fair balance between holding to account those who do not maintain certain standards of conduct, while giving MPs the freedom to do their job and make difficult decisions where necessary”.—[Hansard, Commons, 11/9/14; col. 41WS.]
My concern is more with the first part of that balance than the second. If one wanted to ring-fence the independence of MPs, one would not have the measure at all. Given that the other place has agreed the Bill, the focus must be on having some safeguards. There is a need to ensure that the provisions do not work against Members who express independent views, though I am not sure that electors do have a desire to move against MPs who are independent in approach—rather the reverse. MPs who challenge their own party and are working hard in the constituency generally have no reason to worry. When Enoch Powell regularly voted against his own party in the 1970-74 Parliament—which he did 115 times—consideration was given to withdrawing the whip. It was decided not to pursue that because the Whips recognised that he was too well entrenched in his constituency.
In any event, provision for a form of advance recall already exists through local parties. They can deselect sitting Members. They are not removed immediately, but in effect are sacked, the sacking taking effect at the next election. That is likely to continue to be a more potent constraint on the actions of MPs than the provisions of the Bill.
My principal concern, therefore, is whether the Bill will do much to restore trust in politics. As it stands, I am not sure that it will. It is designed to hold to account those who, in the words of the Deputy Prime Minister,
“do not maintain certain standards of conduct”.
The problem, as we have already heard, is that these standards are determined by Parliament and not by electors. By-elections can be triggered only if an MP breaks the law and is sentenced to a custodial sentence, is convicted under Section 10 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 or is suspended for at least 10 sitting days by the House of Commons. In other words, it is a matter either for the courts or for the House of Commons as to whether a recall petition can be started, and judges and MPs will be aware of the potential consequences in passing sentence or voting for suspension. Electors can engage in a recall petition only when given the green light by a body external to the constituency.
The provisions leave out electors and they omit conditions that electors may well believe fall below their expected standards. One is where an MP switches party without triggering a by-election. Douglas Carswell made the point in the Commons that:
“I feel so strongly about recall that I recalled myself”.—[Hansard, Commons, 21/10/14; col. 804.]
The conduct of Messrs Carswell and Reckless in triggering by-elections may have set a precedent, but what if future defectors ignore it? I am aware of the argument that they should not have to submit themselves for re-election. It is a powerful argument, but it has to be seen now in the context of the Bill and what it seeks to achieve. Will not electors in a constituency who have elected a Member on one political programme have cause to feel aggrieved if that Member then switches to another without them having a say in the matter? That Member will have fallen below the standards they expect. That grievance will be all the greater now given the combination of the precedent set and the provisions of the Bill.
The other condition would be where a Member neglected a constituency, failing to perform constituency duties but not in a way that fell foul of the Code of Conduct and triggered action by the House resulting in suspension. The neglect may be such as to result in deselection, but what if electors wish to take action to ensure that the neglect does not persist for the rest of the Parliament? My argument is that the Bill as drafted is in danger of raising expectations that cannot be met. Electors are led to believe that they can recall errant MPs, but they have no direct say in whether a recall petition can be triggered, and the triggering provisions in the Bill exclude conditions that to electors may constitute especially egregious failures to meet the standards they expect of their Member of Parliament.
What can be done to address these problems? The obvious answer is to provide for electors to have the capacity to trigger a recall petition. This need not be in place of the existing three triggers in the Bill, but rather in addition to them. In the Commons, Zac Goldsmith moved an amendment to provide that if 5% of voters in a constituency signed a “notice of intent to recall”, and 20% then signed a recall petition, a recall ballot would take place. That was rejected, and there may be little merit in pursuing it in that precise form. However, it may point us in a direction that is worth pursuing.
There is a case for pursuing a true recall provision, as utilised elsewhere. This would also have the advantage of building in a powerful protective element against misuse by political opponents or a minority of aggrieved constituents. One could have a recall petition which, if signed by 15% or 20% of registered electors, would trigger a true recall election—that is, a clear binary election in which voters say yes or no to the Member remaining in office. If a majority in the ballot vote against them, the Member is out. There is then a by-election to elect a successor.
I appreciate that such a mechanism would incur costs—elections are not cheap—but the likelihood of its frequent use is remote. The cost would be offset by the achievement of direct involvement by electors, and by the need to achieve a significant number of signatures for a recall petition and a majority in the recall election. I see no problem with setting a fairly high bar for the percentage of signatures necessary for a recall petition. For a recall election to be held, there needs to be both breadth and depth of feeling among electors that an MP has transgressed standards.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 provides for five-year fixed—or, rather, semi-fixed—terms. As we have heard, that is relevant in the context of this Bill. As a result of that Act, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has said, electors are likely to have the opportunity to elect their MPs at less frequent intervals than was previously the case. That has the potential to undermine, rather than enhance, trust in politics—and this Bill will do little or nothing to counter that effect. My view is that if we are to restore trust in politics, we need something more imaginative than this Bill. However, given that we have the Bill, we must do our best to ensure that it at least goes some way to achieving its intended purpose.
My Lords, before I come to the substance of what I want to say, I will comment briefly on what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, just said. I found myself agreeing with quite a lot of it, until he came to his idea of recall petitions. I cannot think of anything that would undermine democracy more than to have an open door for any group of people in a constituency, particularly those who are well financed, to have a go at an MP. How can an MP vote according to their conscience, how can an MP do their job, if they are always watching their back to see whether there is a group of people trying to undermine them? It would destabilise the position of MPs, and I do not think it would be a good idea.
My whole point is that such a provision would raise the bar that would have to be overcome before there could be a recall petition. It would actually protect the Member far more than if there were a lower threshold. The chances of its being used are extremely slim, to put it mildly—but the fact that it was there would be a protection for constituents, a majority of whom in a ballot would have to vote for a recall.
I am afraid that if it is simply a matter of collecting signatures, I am not sure whether that provides the protection that the noble Lord claims. All I know is that I would have been miserably unhappy in my time as an MP if I had had always to watch my back—not on issues of principle, not where there were clear arguments at stake, but because some group of people who did not agree with my views on abortion, or whatever, might seek to undermine me. And they would have done—of course they would have done. I just do not think that representative democracy can work on that basis. I have to differ from the noble Lord; I think that if he talked to most people who have been elected to the House of Commons, they would agree with me and not with him.
I watch “Question Time” quite often, and I watched it last Thursday night. One of the things that happened also happens at other times on that programme. Whenever an adverse comment about the integrity of MPs is made, either by somebody on the platform or by somebody in the audience, there are enormous cheers from the audience. I find it rather depressing and sad that so many of our fellow countrymen and countrywomen—or at least, those who get selected as a “Question Time” audience—think that jeering and shouting abuse at the people who are elected is somehow helpful to democracy. I think that we have gone far too far in denigrating those whom we elect; I shall say more about that in a minute.
I support the principle of recall, as does everybody else who has spoken—but we must be careful that, in putting this Bill forward, we do not seem to overpromise to the voters about what will happen. I suspect that some of them will believe what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has just said—that that is what they are in for. We must be careful, because the Bill is, in some ways, rather limited.
Comments have been made about whether, when an MP switches parties, there should be a by-election. To the best of my knowledge of this—I have not done a survey—MPs who switch parties have a by-election only if they think they are going to win. If they do not think that they are going to win, they jolly well hang on in there until the next general election. Looking back at this over the years, it seems to be the case. I am not arguing that this is not a matter of integrity, and that if an MP switches party they should not call a by-election. It may be a good thing—but I am talking about what happens in practice.
All parties, in their last election manifestos, made some reference to the desirability of recall. I am conscious that when the House of Commons passes a measure that affects that House rather than what we do here, we must be very careful before we take issue with what its Members have decided to do—because it is very much their responsibility. Nevertheless, I think we are right to be critical: there is no point in having a second Chamber unless we can be critical of anything that the other House does.
I particularly want to comment favourably on the speech made by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. He put his finger on something absolutely crucial. He speaks with a great deal of experience, and he has driven a coach and horses through that provision in the Bill—because it is obvious that behaviour on the Standards Committee will be precisely as he said it would be. We must look hard at that provision.
Of course it is right—this is where I differ from the suggestion of open recall—that elected politicians should not be subject, between elections, to recall for their views, even if some of their views might not be too popular among their constituents. The time to deal with that is at the following general election. Otherwise we would belittle the principle that matters of conscience are important, and belittle the ability of Members of Parliament to exercise their conscience without being under pressure from one moment to the next.
I looked up what the excellent Library Note says about other recall measures in different countries. In the United States they seem to have a variety of models of recall. Some of them are open, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, suggested; some are more limited. I am not sure that there is anything very useful we can learn from them. In Switzerland, although there is no right of recall for federal elections, six of the 26 cantons do have the right of recall—but that right applies to the whole of the canton, not just to individual elected politicians. I am not suggesting that we should do that, although I suspect that if we had that sort of right of recall, the coalition would have been thrown out several years ago—I just mention that in passing.
One matter that bothers me is not included in the Bill. That is the question of the election court. I think it was in 2010 that Phil Woolas, a Labour MP, appeared before the election court, lost his seat and was not allowed to stand again in the following by-election. Whatever he did, some other potential wrongdoings by Members of Parliament may appear more significant. I am not saying that he did nothing wrong, but if we are to have a system of recall as envisaged in the Bill, we should include what the election court does, because I see no reason why Phil Woolas should not have been allowed to stand in the following by-election, his voters having heard what the election court said. The penalty on him was out of all proportion to what he did.
Perhaps I may say a little about respect for elected politicians, which I mentioned at the beginning. We now have a culture in which it is standard to abuse elected politicians. They would do it to us if we were elected. That does not mean that I do not support elections here, but that is a different argument. The way in which MPs are denigrated, abused and vilified, as my noble friend Lady Corston described, devalues democracy. One cannot run a democracy effectively unless there is some respect for the people who are elected through that system. We are weakening our democracy by allowing that to continue, and it is important that we speak up.
It may be that the Bill is intended to be a small step along that path—if so, fine, although we have reservations about the detail. It is time that we as a country stood up and said, “We elect these people. They face the electorate every few years. They can be thrown out, but in the mean time, we should not denigrate and abuse them and imply that they have the basest of motives”. From my knowledge of MPs—I have known quite a few over the years—whatever party they are from, they are all there to perform an act of public service. They are not doing it for the money—or if they are, they are jolly mistaken if they think that that is the way to get money—but for principles. I may not agree with some of their principles—that is why we have a party political system—but they are there because they want to serve their fellow citizens, and it is time that we all stood up and said that.
My Lords, the Bill is what might be called a delayed knee-jerk reaction. Shocked to their respective cores by the expenses scandal, the leaderships of the three main parties all pledged in their manifestos in 2010 to legislate to provide for the recall of Members of Parliament found guilty of serious wrongdoing. Here, at last, in 2014, is the legislation. At least it is an extensively premeditated knee-jerk. The coalition published a White Paper and a draft Bill in 2011, and the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee of the House of Commons then subjected it to pre-legislative scrutiny. As my noble friend Lord Grocott noted, but as the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, omitted to mention in his advocacy of the Bill from the Front Bench, the Select Committee recommended that the coalition drop the Bill. That was a good recommendation, but of course it was not accepted.
Nothing I am going to say should be construed as condoning the abuses that led to the expenses scandal, but the party leaders made some hasty and ill judged responses to those events. At the behest of the party leaders, the House of Commons effectively abandoned self-regulation. It established IPSA, which it now regrets. It is legislating for recall, which it may well regret. Moreover, gross injustices were perpetrated on a number of individual MPs. Members of Parliament who transgressed were treated quite inconsistently by their party leaders, depending on the view that their party leaders took of them. Those panicky, partial and erratic judgments did the House of Commons further harm.
Moreover, it is remarkable that the three party leaders were all so keen to legislate to provide for fixed-term Parliaments, because, as my noble friend Lord Grocott expansively and eloquently told us, fixed-term Parliaments diminish rather than enhance the accountability both of Government to MPs and of MPs to their constituents. Now, in this zombie fifth year of the Parliament, Members of Parliament are regretting that too.
Be all that as it may, we are now presented with a fait accompli. Here is the Bill about the conduct of Members of the elected House approved by the elected House without even a Division at Second Reading. We are invited merely to consider certain details which the House of Commons did not have time to finish sorting out—important details, as my noble friend Lady Hayter said. But some of us may take this opportunity to lament that the Bill is a measure of parliamentary self-immolation.
I would say, however, that the debates in the other place in four sittings on the Floor of the House were of high quality. They were passionate, thoughtful and, in the main, courteous and good-natured, although Mr Zac Goldsmith expostulated at Report that the Bill was,
“a sham, a shambles, a farce, an insult and a disgrace”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 24/11/14; col. 668.]
The divisions were not between the parties but between those who want to protect representative democracy and those who take the view that Parliament now finds itself in a new era in which it must accommodate itself to direct democracy. Not surprisingly, there was something of a generational division. A notable speech rejecting the principle of recall was made by my right honourable friend Mr Frank Dobson, but of course he will be retiring at the end of this Parliament.
Whichever side of the various arguments MPs were on, they all expressed deep concern about the poor standing of the House of Commons in the eyes of the public. There was indeed, as some Members noted, much self-flagellation. I am pleased that some Members of Parliament also expressed pride in the greatness of the House of Commons as an institution.
What do the proponents of recall seek to achieve? The impact assessment tells us that:
“The Government believes this mechanism will contribute to restoring public confidence in MPs and Parliament as a whole”.
Mr Greg Clark, the Minister introducing the Bill, explained that it would fill some gaps in the disciplinary process, as the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, also said. Its supporters think, or at least hope, that it will go some way towards rehabilitating the House of Commons by demonstrating humility and extending accountability. My honourable friend Mr Thomas Docherty spoke of the Bill signalling to the public that,
“Parliament is listening and changing”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 24/11/14; col. 669.]
It may be so, but events may not work out quite so comfortingly. It may be that both the courts and the Standards Committee will modify their behaviour in response to the legislation. The courts, warned off by the Bill of Rights, have traditionally been concerned to keep out of politics, and, as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours explained to us, they will be acutely aware that a custodial sentence will condemn a Member of Parliament to the trial by ordeal of recall, intense, highly political, vulture-like media coverage and, most likely, a by-election. The Standards Committee, members of which have always taken it as their duty to refrain from party politics in that capacity, will be acutely aware that a 10-day suspension will condemn a Member of Parliament to the process of recall and, probably, a by-election, with all the political consequences for the parties that go with that. The amendment introduced by Labour to reduce the period of suspension which would trigger a by-election from 21 to 10 sitting days has greatly reduced the scope of the Standards Committee to temper its judgments to the particularities of the cases before it.
Like my noble friend Lady Corston, I was saddened, reading the debates, to learn of the decline of the esteem in which the Standards Committee is held. Were I still a Member of the House of Commons, I would not have favoured the addition of lay members to the committee, and I utterly deprecate suggestions that the lay members should have a formal veto over the committee’s recommendations or even that a lay member should chair it. Surely the correct response to the public’s anger at the failure of the Commons to regulate itself properly was not to hand over the responsibility of regulation to outsiders but to improve self-regulation, thereby showing that the House of Commons could be trusted to deal with malpractice. Why is it the case, as I think it is, that the Standards Committee is still not elected by the whole House of Commons? The Commons has long had the power to expel a Member but it has not used that power since 1954.
Public dissatisfaction with Parliament is not new. As the noble Lord, Lord Cooper of Windrush, said in his excellent maiden speech, there are multiple causes of it that this legislation will not touch. Among them are the decline of Britain’s power and prestige in the world; the perception of Parliament’s impotence in the face of the new jurisdiction of the European Union and of global corporate power; a more interventionist judiciary; a trivial, cynical, power-hungry and frantic media; the decline of deference; and a culture that encourages everyone to believe that their individual judgment is as good as anyone else’s.
In addition to all these factors that may cause members of the public to doubt the efficacy and worth of the House of Commons are the new means of communication that enable citizens instantly to bring pressure to bear on Members of Parliament. Active, concerned citizens advising MPs of their views are a good thing, but an online mob is not. It is of course very properly the right of citizens in our democracy to demonstrate and to lobby, but Edmund Burke, in his famous formulation, said that the Member of Parliament owes those citizens his judgment and he betrays instead of serving them if he sacrifices it to their opinion. MPs should listen very attentively to their constituents who may demonstrate, say, in support of the Countryside Alliance or against the poll tax, the Iraq war or tuition fees, and they should note with care what 38 Degrees and the Taxpayers’ Alliance say to them, but they should not allow themselves to be browbeaten. It was shocking to hear stories of MPs waiting to be sure that the Goldsmith amendment would be defeated before going to vote in the Lobby in support of it in order to keep on the right side of 38 Degrees.
Mr Goldsmith is zealous for what he calls “voter-led” recall, as an instalment of direct democracy. No doubt if he is returned to the House of Commons in the next Parliament, he will once again table his Private Member’s Bill. However, parliamentary government is representative government, not direct democracy. Government is difficult and the responsibilities of Members of Parliament are complex. To make Members of Parliament constantly and instantly answerable to those who press most insistently in their constituencies is the wrong direction for reform. Voter-led recall would be open to abuse by organised, well funded and powerful interest groups, and would seriously destabilise our politics. The general election should be the day of judgment.
As it is, we are not being asked to approve a Bill on the model that Mr Goldsmith would wish; we are being asked to examine and approve a limited measure that provides for recall in specific circumstances where serious wrongdoing has been established, and not on the initiative of citizens. I understand the good motives of the supporters of the Bill. It is an act of penance. It expresses a recognition that the House of Commons should not be judge and jury in the cause of its own Members. It extends accountability and can be seen as a response to changes in our political culture. However, I fear that it represents a weakening of representative democracy. I fear that it is a vote of no confidence by the House of Commons in itself.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend, who has accurately put his finger on the weakness inherent in the Bill. I join him in the plea for the House of Commons to stand up for itself, for a change, rather than go on accepting what I can only call the backwash of the expenses scandal by, first, setting up IPSA, as he mentioned, and now this Bill. Perhaps I am a lone voice in this debate but I am against the Bill; I think it is a bad Bill and I do not see its purpose. The amendments from our Front Bench, no matter how gracefully moved by my noble friend, worsen an already bad Bill, and personally I am not prepared to have any of it.
First, though, I observe the courtesies of the House by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Cooper of Windrush, on his eminently fluent maiden speech. I am not one of those people who is against opinion polls; indeed, back in 1983 an opinion poll that said that I was about to lose in my own constituency galvanised enough Labour supporters to save my neck by 296 votes, so if that was anything to do with the noble Lord’s company I am more than grateful after all these years.
When we refer to the Bill, as noble Lords on both sides of the House have, as helping to restore public confidence in their Members of Parliament, I am afraid that I do not believe a word of it. I was interested to hear the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who is a constitutional expert. He took us through what he saw as a stronger Bill that might—he was careful to emphasise the word “might”—help to restore public confidence in MPs. I appreciate that he said what he said as a constitutional expert; I might put to him at another time, perhaps during the passage of the Bill, whether he would be happy to stand for the House of Commons knowing that such a Bill had become law. I do not think that those of us who spent a few years down there would be entirely happy with the principle of recall. Again, I think that the House of Commons should police itself and have the courage to suspend or reject those MPs considered or proved to have misbehaved.
I am also very much against the principle of rule by the mob, whether an electronic mob or any other sort. Deplorably, in my view, a couple of weeks ago an American, whose name I have forgotten, was barred from this country because of the crazy and laughable views that he held about the relationship between men and women. Instead of his being treated with the contempt and derision he deserved, the full panoply of the state was brought upon him to bar him from the United Kingdom—I was surprised that the Home Secretary fell for it—as a result, I put to your Lordships, of an electronic petition against him being allowed into the country. A fairly mature democracy such as ours ought to be able to allow a barmy American with even sillier ideas into our country without democracy being endangered, but therein lies the problem as far as electronic democracy is concerned.
Since the e-petitions service was set up, more than 60,000 of them have been tabled, with an average of 6.4 million signatures per year. In the first year there were 36,000 petitions and 17 million visits to the site. I listened with interest to the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about local democracy and the views of the local electorate. He was a popular fellow in his constituency; I am sure that if he had walked down the high street there and asked a dozen of his constituents if they would sign a petition, four of them would say yes because they liked him, two might say no because unaccountably they did not, and the other half dozen would have something better to do with their time. In my view, that is what is wrong with the whole idea that somehow if you collect 100,000 signatures, that is the real force of public opinion and whatever policy they advocate should be adopted.
Not all electronic petitions have been frivolous; the ones on Hillsborough, Millie’s Trust and Sergeant Blackman—the Royal Marine who, unaccountably, was sentenced to prison—were sensible and, in my view, understandable petitions, but they were no basis on which to change the law. They were a fragment of public opinion at a particular time, signed, in my view, largely—this is easily done online these days—by people saying, “Oh, that looks all right, I’ll sign that”. That is how many of those signatures are collected. There is no issue of principle behind the signing of those petitions.
As has been mentioned by other noble Lords, not least my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport, Mr Zac Goldsmith was determined to denounce this legislation and in effect to allow recall by petition by his or anybody else’s constituents. Make no mistake about it that that is the road on which we are now travelling with this legislation. But it will not stop with Members of Parliament being charged with various offences. There will be greater pressure from those great organs of democracy, the British media and press, for this to be widened so that, if people who are unpopular for any reason transgress in any way—let us say somebody on the left of my party in the House of Commons, some of whom regularly attract the scorn of our daily papers—they will be the ones towards which the electronic mob’s ire will be directed by the press. That is no way for a sensible democracy to be run.
On the question of Mr Goldsmith and his views, he is—as the Independent tells us—the richest man in the House of Commons. I have nothing against him for that. I have seen his picture: he is handsome, in his 30s, terribly rich. I would sign a recall petition for somebody like that straight away—those are three good reasons for anyone to sign it. However, I would not necessarily want to throw him out because of those three virtues. Shortly after his own election in Richmond Park, “Channel 4 News” and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism looked at his expenses. They said that he had erected 400 posters in his constituency at an estimated cost of £8,000—his overall expenses were just over £10,000 anyway; he issued over 200 blue coats with “I back Zac” on the back to many of his helpers; and, incredibly, he published 262,000 leaflets, which presumably gave the same message. The bill for those leaflets alone was estimated at £14,000, which was considerably more than his own expenses. He said that he threw most of them away; if he is the richest man in the House of Commons, I do not suppose that that makes much difference to him. I do not think that I issued 262,000 leaflets in my constituency of West Bromwich East in seven general elections, let alone in one. He described that as “sleazy journalism” when the matter was raised by “Channel 4 News”. I raise it here just to say that, if by any chance Mr Goldsmith’s views were brought into law and there was a recall of the Member of Parliament, imagine the resources he would bring to bear in those circumstances. The whole of the constituency would be walking around in new blue coats that said “I back Zac”, would they not? That is not the right way forward as far as democracy is concerned.
I will finish as I started. If the House of Commons feels that its Members have transgressed in an improper way, they should take proper action. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, who moved the Bill with his customary courtesy, that given the number of years he spent advising Ministers, I am always surprised that his admiration for them and for politicians remains undimmed. He will have to toughen the Bill and change it considerably during its remaining stages, but I am afraid I shall remain convinced that the duty of removing errant Members of Parliament should lie with their colleagues in the other place.
My Lords, I have the greatest possible reservations about the Bill. In his opening remarks my noble friend Lord Gardiner mentioned that the first trigger point was the question of whether a Member of Parliament was serving a prison sentence of less than 12 months, and said that that should therefore trigger this referendum option. People would be absolutely amazed to hear that it is possible for a Member of Parliament to languish in prison for six months and still remain a Member of Parliament. I cannot quite understand why the Bill has not grasped that particular nettle, saving everybody an awful lot of time, and said that any prison sentence should result in a Member of Parliament being expelled from the House of Commons. That is my first reservation.
When we come to the second trigger, which is the whole business of this suspension that will then trigger the option for a petition, I have very great sympathy with the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. He served on the Standards and Privileges Committee for much longer than I did; mercifully, I was on that committee for a very short time. I am afraid that I have to put the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, right on this. The whole idea that this was totally objective justice is not quite as I saw it, sitting on the committee. Party politics played a very big role on that committee. Obviously there was the necessity to produce a judgment that would reasonably wash with the public outside, but one should never underestimate the degree to which party politics played a role.
The problem with the period of suspension is that if nine days does not trigger a petition and 10 days does, that critical difference between nine and 10 days will be a very party-political issue indeed. Even if you extend that period up to 20 or 30 days, or any other period you like to mention, there is still the question of whether you are under the threshold or over it. We should have very great reservations about all this, because party politics plays an enormous role.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, on the Opposition Front Bench, mentioned the question of how you organise these petitions. It is a question of organisation rather than the indignation of constituents. As my noble friend Lord Cooper of Windrush—who has done an awful lot of polling—mentioned in his excellent maiden speech, the bottom line is that most people’s constituents do not even know who their Member of Parliament is, so do not let us fancy that we were all wildly well known throughout our constituencies when we were Members of Parliament; most people do not get involved in politics at all. However, a very much larger number of people will sign a petition. Therefore the question of a petition is not about the indignation of the constituents—“By God, we must get rid of this Member of Parliament”—but a question of organisation and of getting people on the ground. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said, “Well, money could be involved in this”, and it could. I rather like her view that if you are pro-abortion, a massive amount of finance will be used against you by people who are anti-abortion. It could be the other way round. The abortion clinics could decide to finance somebody who is pro-abortion from the profits they make, so it could cut either way. However, money is only half the question.
If somebody is over the threshold, whatever that is, and is given this suspension, and it is possible with a petition to have a by-election, the political parties at that stage will say, “If there’s a by-election now, is there something in it for us?”. We do not have to cast our minds back very far to remember a time when virtually every by-election was won by the Liberal Democrats. We should pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who used to organise Liberal Democrats from all over the country to flock into the constituency where the by-election was being held. Of course, in future, perhaps not the Liberal Democrats but UKIP will win all the by-elections. UKIP is learning a lot of lessons on campaigning from the Liberal Democrats, so it may gather up masses of UKIP supporters from all over the country, herd them into the constituency and say, “Right—your job is to get signatures on this petition. We want to have this by-election because we think we’re going to win it”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, mentioned the problem of travel and whether people could come to a big rural constituency to put down their signatures. One of the things I would insist on if I were organising that is that all my volunteers should have cars. They would say to people—a lot of them old people, I suspect, who have not got an awful lot else to do—“Why don’t I give you a lift down and you can sign your name on this petition? Then we can have a by-election, which will be very interesting”, and so forth. They would not really have to establish what politics people have and which way they are going to vote; they would just say, “This is an opportunity for a vote; you can vote any way you like when the by-election comes along”. Getting the petition is going to be a matter of organisation. It may be a matter of money; it may be a matter of political parties seeing some advantage to them. Obviously, the more marginal the seat, the more likely they are to go for it and to organise themselves to do this.
I take the view of the noble Lord opposite that this is a slippery slope. There is no doubt that Zac Goldsmith’s ambitions went way beyond just having recall on some trigger imposed by the House of Commons. What he wants is for constituents, whenever they feel strongly about something, to be able to petition against their Member of Parliament. It will not be a question of that; it will be a question of outside influences, using a moment of vulnerability and organisation to get a petition going. If we end up with that, we will have a House of Commons that has completely lost its independence. It will be made up of a lot of people constantly looking over their shoulders and our democracy will suffer desperately for that.
My Lords, I begin by offering my congratulations, too, as one relatively new Member of the House to another, to the noble Lord, Lord Cooper, on his insightful and persuasive speech. He revealed some personal insights, one of which was that the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, who was sitting next to him, had introduced him to the delights of Diet Coke during his time at the LSE. If he wants to further his interest in Diet Coke, he may have heard in my maiden speech that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, an expert in this area, is producing a book, now retitled
. Signed copies are available at a very reasonable cost and Christmas is coming, so see me afterwards and I will do what I can for you.
I support the Bill. There has been some extraordinarily persuasive and experienced commentary on the Bill in this debate, and I am not going to amplify or repeat what has been said. Rather, I shall concentrate my remarks on an area that I have some experience of in past life, which is organisation, campaigning and so on, in political arenas. The three areas that need attention are to do with money, as noble Lords have mentioned, with scrutiny of what goes on and with the preparation that is under way—or perhaps not under way—in the Bill that is likely to be upon us soon.
In preparation for this debate I had some discussions and correspondence with the Electoral Commission, among others, to seek its view, as the country’s guardian of electoral behaviour, on what it thinks its role should be and what the role should be of returning officers, or petition officers as they will become when the Bill is upon us. It takes the overall view that the Bill will lead to little, local matters. That is slightly worrying, because of course these will be local affairs. They will be locally organised petitions, subject to whether local constituents decide to sign them, but they will not be little, local difficulties; they are going to be hugely intense, under the scrutiny of all, and the media of the country will play a major part in determining the direction of travel for a decision on whether to recall.
To think that this is just a local matter and therefore that much of the responsibility for the organisation and delivery of these recall petitions can simply be left in the hands of an unsuspecting, unprepared local petition officer, is wrong. It would be unfair for the Bill to place public servants of that sort in that position without giving them the right level of support, guidance and training. Indeed, we should perhaps take the responsibility from them—I do not mean this to offend any current returning officers or future petition officers—because they really will not know what has hit them when one of these petitions is upon them.
I also take the view that these petitions will be very infrequent. I did a little research and the best that I can establish is that in 100 years or so of recall facility in the United States, only two national recall enactments have taken place. There have been lots of others at local and under-federal level, but not many at national level. So we are not going to have a whole body of experience to draw upon in refining this law as time goes on as we do at other elections—local, European, national and so on. Petitions will be rare and intense and it will therefore be even more important that we get the terms of the Bill and the rules of the game right, in detail and known before we hit the petition trail.
Money matters in campaigns—perhaps not as much, but almost as much, as people on the ground matter, in terms of organisation. It is hugely influential and important. If we did not understand that before, the Government have just passed, through statutory instrument, a significant increase in candidates’ expenditures. They slipped it through in preparation for the forthcoming general election—without, so far as I can see, any discussion at all.
I spent quite a lot of my working life, a couple of years or more, with others, including my noble friend Lord Kennedy, who is on the Front Bench, trying to find to find a way, between the parties, to restrict money as a factor in the way that campaigns are run, and trying to limit campaign spending way down to a level that means money is not seen as the evil that it can become in the process of campaigning. Discussions went on between all the major parties over a number of years. Everyone was in favour of it, but in the end every party found a reason why the particular proposal at that particular point did not suit their circumstances or need, or the time in the electoral cycle, or whatever other position they may have taken, and it all came to naught.
The Bill concerns me. I raised with the Electoral Commission the issue of spending limits and how they may be applied on the for and anti sides of petition campaigns. It is quite right, as my noble friend Lord Grocott said, that the MP who is the subject of such a recall is going to be an unloved, lonely and very vulnerable figure. His or her ability to raise significant sums of money to mount a defence against recall will be very limited indeed. The pro-recall campaign in any area will have far greater opportunity, capacity and resource to draw upon, and unless we find some way of limiting the total amount of money that each side can spend, it will not be an open, robust and fair process but will be extremely tilted against the MP. I suggest that we need to look, in Committee, at some means of setting an absolute cap on what can be spent by both sides. That implies that there will need to be a responsible person on each side—presumably the MP on one side and someone akin to an election agent, that sort of figure, on the other side—through whom, and only through whom, expenditure can be committed to the campaign.
The issue of scrutiny was raised, in part, in earlier contributions. This will be about the conduct—and should be about only the specific conduct—in response to which the petition has been drawn up in a constituency. How we can find a means to control other factors—and many noble Lords have indicated that that is a concern—should the Bill become law, is important. We raised this again with the Electoral Commission, which did not really have any advice to give. It referred to the recent Scottish referendum and so on, and how it was impossible to control the angles from which people came to that decision. But recall is a one-question issue and a specific matter about which nothing else should count except for the specific conduct, whatever it may have been, at that point in time. So if there is to be literature, or if there are to be websites or campaigning groups set up on other issues to do with MPs’ voting records, or other records, or other experiences during his or her time, we would need to find a way of ensuring that they cannot affect the outcome of the case.
Finally, it will involve a significant amount of skill and training to prepare people in the various roles established by the proposed legislation. My personal view is that the body that should be responsible for the preparation in detail of these matters—not just as an adviser offering guidance and a code of conduct but as one with an active, participative, hands-on role—must be the Electoral Commission. That is a further matter that we should explore in Committee.
My Lords, like others, I have severe reservations about the Bill. I say that as an ex-MP but also as someone who takes a great concern in the rights of the electorate in all circumstances to decide who should represent them in the House of Commons. I start by reading a quote from the Cabinet Office’s impact assessment, which says:
“The Government believes this mechanism will contribute to restoring public confidence in MPs and Parliament as a whole”.
My first response is to say that that is a triumph of hope over experience. The House of Commons and MPs have never been massively popular. Popularity goes up and down, and I have no doubt that it has been down in recent years because of the expenses scandal—and the same applies to this House. Those are issues that will eventually pass. To their credit, Members of both Houses have tried to take a grip of the situation and I do not think that that is likely to happen again. But let us not pretend that MPs or Parliament have ever been wildly popular.
I listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Cooper of Windrush, in his first speech, on which I congratulate him, because I remember at the time when I pursued my press Bill here I took a close interest in polls on the popularity of MPs. At that time, long before the expenses scandal, MPs were placed on a trust register along with certain other professions and jobs, and got a trust rating of only 15% to 20%. I am going by memory; I think that that was over a period of time. Before journalists reach for their scribes, I then looked at the trust level for journalists, which was somewhere between 18% and 22%. But the interesting thing—and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Cooper, with his experience would confirm this—is that if you then ask about individual journalists or MPs or ask people about their constituency MPs, even if the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, is right in saying that most people do not know who their local MP is, the trust level goes up. They say, “I didn’t mean you”, in fact.
One of the most important lessons that I learnt many years ago in politics—I will not say how I learnt it, but it was quite entertaining—was that when you become an MP you become a leader. The other side of being a leader is being a scapegoat. You have to accept a kicking in politics. That is a harsh reality of political activity. You will never be truly popular, although as the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, was implying you might be the least unpopular in your particular area. That is the basis on which we win elections. But I have been concerned for some time about the way in which we are eroding the rights of the electorate. My noble friend Lord Dubs cited the case of Phil Woolas, which is exactly right. I was deeply disturbed by the idea of a court preventing a person standing for Parliament who was an MP, because that put the court above the electorate, which has never been the position in the United Kingdom constitution. We need to get rid of that fairly rapidly, but we are now drifting down that rather slippery slope.
Other noble Lords have made the point that there is a problem that MPs feel bad about themselves at the moment because of the expenses scandal. But all the MPs in the House of Commons now have been re-elected since that crisis, and they are therefore there with trust. Therefore, they need to stop self-flagellation, which is a bad idea at the best of times—and it is certainly a bad idea if you have not been convicted of anything or not even been accused of something.
I go back to my two basic principles on this—first, to Edmund Burke’s comments in the late 18th century, when he said that people are elected as an MP as a representative, not as a delegate. My second point is that the electorate decides these issues. The case of Charles Bradlaugh in the 19th century, when he refused to accept that he had to sign the oath on the Bible, and forced elections to make that point, is a good case in point. He got the electorate to overrule the absurd ruling at the time that you had to sign the oath on the Bible.
Let us recognise the dangers in this: we tend to talk as though imprisonment should automatically debar an MP. I understand that—and there are incredibly difficult cases in which it is obvious that the MP ought to be thrown out, so it is very hard to argue against it. But we should sound a note of caution, which my noble friend Lord Hughes of Woodside touched on. If you look at his activities during the time of anti-apartheid, when there was talk of some of the organisations linked to the movement being regarded as criminal, you can see the dangers. Looking in back in history, you can see the number of Irish people who were sentenced to imprisonment—and the crisis that then came if they wanted to stand as MPs. You do not just have to think back to the past, however. If there was a situation in which the Government passed a law against going to Syria to fight for one of the opposition groups, or support them, what would we do if an MP—particularly a Muslim MP—went to Syria?
During the miners’ strike, the miners came down to Hammersmith—it is not a well known area for mining, but nevertheless they came down to pursue their case. I thought that their tactics were a bit disastrous, but they wanted to sell their paper, The Miner, in the streets of Hammersmith. I defended that right, and the police tried to stop them, using a bizarre and ancient law. I argued with the police for a week or two that they could not possibly stop them, but when the police insisted on stopping them and summonsed them, I started selling that newspaper too. The police then told me that they would summons me. My lawyer got all excited and said, “Great, we can go to Strasbourg on this”. I understood his enthusiasm but mine was slightly less. Nevertheless, the principle of allowing the miners to sell their magazine was important to me. Had the police pursued that summons—they did not; they dropped it—I would have gone to court. In those circumstances, I would have gone on selling that magazine, because the right to produce and sell a magazine in a situation such as the miners’ strike in my view overrode a bizarre 1916 law about disabled soldiers being able to sell magazines in the street, which was where the original law came from. If I had done that long enough, the court would have had no option but to send me to prison, even if it was for a short time—and, presumably, I would have lost my seat.
We should be very careful not to put courts in a position whereby they override the electorate. We must not create a situation—and this is the Edmund Burke case—whereby we put anybody else, an organisation or an institution, in a position in which they can overrule the electorate in that constituency. Remember, we have constituencies in this country; this is not a list system country. We have to bear in mind that constituents choose their representative and they should be able to do so.
My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours made the case very strongly, backed up, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, as to how this would politicise the poll standards procedure. Let me remind the House—I am quoting from the Cabinet papers because it is important to get this right:
“The House of Commons has in place a complaints procedure under which any member of the public may make a complaint about an MP’s conduct to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. The Commissioner will consider the complaint and, following investigation, may report the matter to the Committee for Standards”.
The rest follows, as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours indicated. I have no doubt, as he also indicated, that pressure will be put on individuals on the committee, if they do not want a by-election, to come down in favour of, in the case of this Bill, a punishment of less than 10 days. The reverse will also be true: people who want a by-election, because they see a great political opportunity, will go for it. Do not kid yourself that it will be only Members of the House of Commons who pursue that option. A lot of people outside—organisations, individuals and everything else—will pursue that with great vigour and, as indicated, with money.
By the way, I was fascinated that Zac Goldsmith, who has a constituency not far from where mine was, has made the commitment, which he may well come to regret, to leave the Conservative Party if we get the third runway at Heathrow. He knows that I am actively pursuing that option and I think that he may have to resign from the Conservative Party in due course. I do not think that he should have to be recalled for it, but if we are not careful, that is where this sort of thing will end up. If I was a member of the public, I would say, “Look, he promised to resign. He made a clear promise, put it out in leaflets and everything else. I want to make a complaint about him”. The Standards Committee would then have to look at that and there would be a debate as to whether he should stand down, if, for example, he chose not to. I suspect that he would stand down or stand aside from the Conservative Party. You can see the dangers in all this. That is why I have severe reservations about it.
There is another scenario in which the Committee decides on nine days, but a political majority in the House of Commons decides to overturn—that is what the provision requires—the decision and make it 10 days. In other words, the House of Commons itself can take a political decision and completely undermine the quasi-judicial nature of the decision.
My noble friend has more experience of this than I have, but he is absolutely right, of course. In any event, the public pressure in a case such as this might be very high, so you have to bear in mind that this will politicise it like mad.
This brings me to my final point: the House of Commons may come to regret this. At best it will be irrelevant; at worst, we will have one or two disastrous cases of the type that I have just described. So, I think we are right. I am always a bit cautious about telling my ex-colleagues in the House of Commons that they have got it severely wrong, but we have a duty to advise and warn. At the end of the day, it is up to the House of Commons to overturn this House. It is a mistake if people say that this House legislates. We only legislate inasmuch as the House of Commons allows us to legislate. If they do not like it, they can always chuck it out.
I end on this note: because I think there will be regrets about this Bill—it will not be the first time that either House has regretted certain Bills or legislation—it may be no bad idea if we put in a sunset clause to send back to the other House. I am willing to do that, but I would quite like to hear whether the Government would consider a sunset clause. We would allow the legislation to run, maybe for five years, and then the Act would cease if we found it to be either unnecessary or very damaging. I end very strongly with the words of Edmund Burke. He was very wise when he said that we give the electorate the absolute power to decide who represents them. Every time we slice away at that, as the case of Phil Woolas did, we do ourselves and the democratic process great damage.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the Second Reading debate today. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Temple-Morris could not speak in the debate as he was not here at the start. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cooper of Windrush, on his excellent maiden speech. Like other noble Lords, I look forward to future contributions from the noble Lord in your Lordships’ House. I saw in his list of achievements that he is a former official of his party. As a former official of my party, I am delighted to welcome him here.
We have heard a number of powerful speeches from Members of this noble House who, before serving in this House, were honourable and right honourable Members of the other place and gave equally distinguished service there. That is where I want to start my remarks today. I agree entirely with the comments of my noble friends Lady Corston and Lord Dubs. Members of Parliament are people who have put themselves forward for election and have been elected over the years since elections were first held. In all but the tiniest minority of cases, they are very honourable people who serve their constituents tirelessly. They work long hours, they represent their constituents and they speak up for people. They take up causes—sometimes unpopular causes—they campaign, they challenge conventional wisdoms, they win public support, they change the views of Governments, they change laws and they make our country better. Being a Member of Parliament is an honourable thing and we are very lucky in the United Kingdom that we have people of honour, calibre and ability who are prepared to put themselves forward from all parties and sometimes no party.
Those remarks apply equally to noble Lords in this House. Although not elected, they are people of honour and ability right across the House who seek to improve legislation, take up causes and say what needs to be said. My noble friend Lady Hayter was right when she pointed out the honourable campaigning role on a range of issues of Members of the other place, including gay rights, the end of capital punishment, a woman’s right to choose, and, more recently, opposition to fracking. If Members were sentenced to a period of imprisonment for a peaceful protest, they would run the risk of being subject to recall.
At the general election, my party backed the principle of recall and we back legislation that enables the public to have a right of recall over their Member of Parliament. We have to be careful to respect the decisions that the other place has taken. However, at the same time, we must seek to improve the Bill. It concerns how we deal with people who are Members of the other place and have been convicted of an offence and imprisoned and, with the appeal process exhausted, suspended from the service of the House for a period of at least 10 days.
When this Bill becomes an Act, I hope that it never needs to be used. A look back at history suggests that it would have been used fairly infrequently, as my noble friend Lord Grocott pointed out, and I am pleased about that. I am also aware that the Standards Committee in the other place is presently undertaking a review of its procedures and the Bill is drafted to take account of that, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said. I think it is right that how the committee operates is a matter for the House of Commons and not the Government or your Lordships’ House to decide.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, referred to the amendment moved by his honourable friend in the other place, Dr Julian Huppert. The other place decided on that issue when the amendment was pressed to a vote and defeated. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that as the other place has decided on that issue these Benches will not support that amendment if it comes before this House.
As other noble Lords have said, far too much of this is left to regulation rather than being specific and clear in the Bill. I do not think that is right. It is worth noting that there in nothing in the Bill that stops the other place expelling a Member if they have done wrong. The other place has had that power for a considerable time but has used it very infrequently, as my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport pointed out. I also agree with my noble friend’s comments about the amendment moved by Zac Goldsmith in the other place. We cannot have MPs hounded by blogs and other electronic forms of communication referred to by my noble friend Lord Snape.
When we consider the Bill in Committee and on Report, we will look very carefully at a number of specific provisions in the Bill. We will look at how they will operate and say what we think needs to be amended to improve on what is proposed. Those issues include what would happen if the MP who was the subject of the recall also happened to be the Speaker. The Bill is fairly silent on that and Clause 19, as it stands, does not satisfy legitimate concerns in this respect.
My noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town explained to the House the concerns we have in respect of where the balance is drawn between what is public and what is private, and of the appropriate protections both for the Member of Parliament who is the subject of the petition, who has the right to be treated fairly, and the constituents who are registered to vote in the constituency, who have to understand clearly their rights and responsibilities and what is public and what is not. My noble friend made a very important point about the marked register being made public. That is the end of the secret ballot in the UK because, if you go to sign the petition, you are voting only one way. The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton of Epsom, made an important point about the organisation of the petition.
My noble friend Lord Lennie made a number of important points with which I am in total agreement. We have to be much clearer than we are at present about the role of petitions officers and how they discharge their functions. In my opinion, there is a lack of clarity about the status of the petition. Is it public or private? What are the arrangements for inspection and challenge of any of the names on the petition? How can we ensure that people are treated properly?
My noble friend Lady Corston was right to refer to the number of offices where electors can go to sign a petition. I have lived in various constituencies in either cities or boroughs as my work took me around the country. There was the old Southwark-Peckham constituency, the Coventry north-east constituency and Nottingham north. I currently live in the Lewisham-Deptford constituency. Four places for residents to sign in each of those constituencies would not be enough, let alone in a large rural constituency.
It is very disappointing that the Electoral Commission does not have a formal role in ensuring compliance or monitoring of campaign spending and donation rules in respect of recall petitions. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, can tell us why that is the case. I believe that the Electoral Commission should take a leading role here and it is not good enough to leave this to local petitions officers. As my noble friend Lord Lennie said, any suggestion that these events would have a local feel is nonsense. Let us be clear: if a Member of Parliament is the subject of a recall petition, that is not a local event with a local feel. It will be a national news story and a national event that will get intense media scrutiny. What we need is consistency, clarity, definition and certainty. Leaving these matters in the hands of local petitions officers will not give us that, nor will advice and guidance from the Electoral Commission alone.
Along with the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, who is not in her place today, I was one of the first electoral commissioners appointed by a political party and saw first hand the skills and expertise that the Electoral Commission has. When political parties submit their donation reports, they are checked by commission officials. Feedback is given and, if there are problems, they are taken up with the parties concerned. Commission officials also work with parties at times other than when returns are being submitted. To leave it to campaigners and petitions officers to make sure they have got this right is just not good enough.
What testing of the question, as detailed in Clause 9, has taken place? We need to be reassured that the question is fair, balanced and objective. The Electoral Commission has the people with the expertise to do that. It has tested questions before and did excellent work on the question for the recent Scottish referendum. Its report was accepted in its entirety by the Scottish Government and the question was changed to a much more neutral one. Can the noble Lord tell the House whether the Electoral Commission has tested the question, or been asked to test it? If the answer is no, can he please tell the House why not? When will the Government ask the Electoral Commission to carry out this important work?
I am also not happy with where we are in respect of numerous local campaigns working to unseat the sitting Member all apparently being set up with a limit of £10,000. Surely, we should seek to get a more level playing field here, with campaigns to unseat or keep the Member in their seat having similar expenditure limits. Not to seek to do this is clearly unfair. As I and other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Hughes of Woodside, have said, if the MP has a record of championing unpopular but honourable causes, certain people and organisations may not like that. The MP may take part in a peaceful protest, be arrested and spend a day or two inside. All of a sudden they are at risk of being recalled, following dozens of well funded campaigns, all spending £10,000 to get 10% of the electorate on to a petition. That cannot be right. Such MPs could find that all sorts of people and campaigns are working to unseat them. As I say, that cannot be right. Can the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, give some indication that he is willing to work with the Opposition to try to put in place some sort of protection or scheme to stop that situation arising?
I agree very much with the comments of my noble friend Lord Grocott when he called for the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It is shocking to realise that, had that Act been in force, there would have been only 13—not 18—general elections since the Second World War.
In conclusion, today’s debate has highlighted a number of issues that will need detailed consideration by your Lordships’ House when we return after the Christmas and new year break. I look forward to taking part in that.
My Lords, this has been a very impassioned debate in many ways. On the question of how many elections we should have had since the Second World War, I can remember very well the two indecisive elections of 1974, and the weakness of government which resulted from that, which led to a Labour Government first having to run to the IMF and then losing their majority and having to come to the Liberals, as we then were, for outside support. I do not in any sense go back on my support for the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. I think of the two elections in 1964 and 1966, when Labour was successful in getting a second majority, and the two attempts in 1974, when Labour was unsuccessful in getting a second majority. If there were to be a second election in 2015 if no party obtained a majority, I have no doubt that that would happen again because such a procedure is promoted to the public, so I do not resile from my support for fixed-term Parliaments.
My Lords, I was not involved in that election; perhaps the noble Lord was. However, I have to admit to the House that early one morning, when I was half awake, my mind turned to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. I had an image of a debate in this Chamber in about 1831, in which an Earl Grocott denounced the proposals for major constitutional change as being unnecessary and disturbing the established traditions of party patronage. Perhaps the noble Lord and I might discuss off the Floor which proposals for constitutional reform over the past 150 years he might have supported at the time.
All three parties committed to a recall system in their manifestos, and this was included in the coalition’s programme for government. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, had some fun talking about parties that do not carry out all the pledges in their manifestos. All three parties were committed to this in principle in their last manifestos, which provides a certain basis for it. I remind her of something that I have said previously to other members of her party—namely, when one examines the 1997 Labour Party manifesto, the clearest pledge was to bring forward proposals for electoral reform. However, the Labour Party then entirely abandoned that pledge, as it did with a number of other things as well.
This Bill will introduce a system where MPs will be subject to a recall petition where they are found guilty of wrongdoing under a specific set of triggers, as set out in the Bill. Regulations have been mentioned. I assure noble Lords at the outset that before Committee we will put in the Libraries of both Houses an early draft of the regulations which will need to be made under the Bill, which will set out the areas that will need to be covered. The regulations will build upon the principles and precedents in electoral legislation. Noble Lords will have recognised already the extent to which the drafting of the Bill has followed as closely as possible the language in a number of previous Bills about electoral and political regulation.
Some large and detailed issues have been raised. Most of those who have spoken have said that they supported the principle of the Bill. I think I counted at least three, perhaps up to five, speakers who explicitly or implicitly opposed the principle of the Bill. Let me start with the detailed scrutiny issues that have been raised. I particularly welcome the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, who raised a number of specific questions that we must address in Committee and on Report. There is the question of whether this is a secret and open process, and how far the process is in the hands of the constituents themselves or outside, wealthy groups. There are also questions on how many signing points there may be within the constituency and who will check on permissible campaigners and permissible donors. Those are very much the sort of point on which we, as a revising House, would wish to focus in our further consideration.
Can I take it from that that the Government still have not decided whether they want an open or secret vote?
My Lords, unavoidably, as the noble Baroness has said, this has to be partly a public process. One goes to vote. Incidentally, the fact that this is a more public process does not mean the end of the secret ballot because the ballots when one is electing someone remain entirely secret. Access to the register of people who take part by post is a matter that we need to explore further. There are perhaps mechanisms to write into the regulations that will restrict access to the register for those who do not want their names to be entirely public. However, that is something that we need to explore because there are important principles here. Some noble Lords might wish to argue that signing a petition should be a public declaration because that is part of the transparency of objecting to one’s current representative. We will explore that further.
The question of the number of facilities in a constituency has also been raised—the Brecon and Radnor question, as we will have to refer to it. Again, we will come to that as we go through Committee and Report. The Government have consulted electoral administrators and returning officers, and their representative bodies—the Association of Electoral Administrators and SOLACE—throughout the Bill’s development, and we welcome their responses. They agree with the policy intention of the campaign regulation provisions in the Bill that petitions should be events with a local feel, without a need for a statutory register of campaigners. The question of how we deal with separate campaigns, and how, in particular, we interpret the existing rules on those who are acting in concert, is a matter that we will want to test and make sure that we get right in Committee and on Report. We appreciate that there are important questions at stake and we are all concerned to limit the influence of money in this process, as in others. Much of the debate so far has brought back the painful memory of the transparency of lobbying Bill, in which some of us took part this time last year.
The question of who is responsible for regulating the campaign has also been raised. We will, again, explore that further. Enforcement of the rules will be the responsibility of the police and the courts. Transparency is intended to be the basis of the campaign. Responsibility for the administration and conduct of the recall petition falls to the petition officer, whose role in the recall petition process will be analogous to that of a returning officer in an election in ensuring that relevant information is open to public scrutiny. The Electoral Commission will be responsible for oversight of the rules in the way in which it already takes that part.
The question that the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, raised about the numbers of groups spending £10,000 is a matter that, as I say, we will need to look at to make sure that the regulations cover that. The noble Baroness raised the question of whether those spending less than £500 would remain entirely unregulated. Non-accredited campaigners spending small sums will of course have to include their imprint in everything that they publish. That comes within the normal rules. Those who spend less than £500 will also be subject to the “acting in concert” provisions that cover existing elections.
On double signing, the intention is to ensure that the maximum number of people have the opportunity to sign, but the normal checks will be in place to ensure that each person signs only once and that the petition clerk at the signing place will mark the register to check whether the person is eligible to be issued with the signing sheet.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, also raised the question of whether the petition process places a heavy burden on local authorities. I stress that the Government see this process as a reserve power. This also partly responds to the suggestion that there should be a sunset clause; the noble Lord, Lord Soley, suggested a period of five years. We see this not as a mechanism that would need to be used often—five years is, therefore, far too short—but as a necessary reserve power for the public and Parliament to have, because it has become a necessary element in re-establishing a degree of confidence in our parliamentary democracy.
We all accept that the vast majority of people involved in politics are entirely honourable. Indeed, I think that many of us who have read about British politics in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s would accept that the degree of misconduct is much less now than took place then. I can think of several Prime Ministers who would not have survived current scrutiny of their personal or financial affairs but who nevertheless had good careers in the first half of the century. Nevertheless, we recognise that there are always some bad apples in every single basket and that some measures to make sure that where misconduct takes place there is a degree of comeback. That is what this Bill is about.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked about the wording of the petition signing sheet. It has been developed in consultation with the Electoral Commission to ensure that it is balanced and fits in with the commission’s guidance for referendum questions. We are confident that the wording we have devised through discussions with the commission gives petitioners the information they need, including making the important addition that if an MP loses their seat as a result of a petition there is nothing to stop them standing as a candidate in the subsequent by-election.
The noble Lord said that the petition wording had been developed in consultation with the Electoral Commission. Has the question actually been tested? That was the point I raised.
Officials are now arranging the use and testing of the wording of the petition and are in contact with the commission about the form that that testing will take. We can discuss that further—if necessary, off the Floor.
I would say simply that under this Bill, if a recall petition is successful, the sitting MP will be entitled to stand again in the by-election; so the Woolas incident could not happen under this Bill. I hope that that is entirely clear.
My point is that we now have two different systems—the system in the Bill and the system in the electoral court that caused Phil Woolas to lose his seat and not be allowed to stand again. That seems to be an anomaly. Surely we should encompass the electoral court within the ambit of the Bill, so that a future Phil Woolas could stand again or there could be a recall procedure.
I think I hear the noble Lord considering an amendment in Committee on that question. Again, we are open to consideration on all of this.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, tells us that he will reintroduce into our Chamber a revised form of the amendment introduced by my honourable friends David Heath and Julian Huppert. I look forward to that with interest. I have already discussed this with him, although I have to say that, at the moment, neither I nor the Bill team is persuaded that it is a workable additional trigger in its current form.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, asked about the technical amendments that the Government are introducing and whether that changes the 10-day trigger. The answer is no, they do not change the 10-day trigger. These are purely technical amendments to ensure that the amendments put in in the Commons fit with the language of the Bill. If he wishes to raise the 10-day question in Committee, that is a matter for him.
In the light of a number of contributions today referring to the difficulties that will arise in the Standards Committee, will Ministers now consult, both privately with members of the committee and with the leadership of other political parties in the Commons, to see whether there may be a need to rethink the position that has been taken on this?
My Lords, I will consider that but I am not going to give any commitment on the Floor. Indeed, the noble Lord spent a good deal of time talking about the operations of the Standards Committee. I recognise that that is a particular concern to him, although it is not in the middle of the consideration of the Bill.
The wider issue, which a number of noble Lords mentioned—I recognise that 10 of the 17 speakers in this debate are former Members of the other House—is public trust in the Commons and in democracy as such. As we consider the Bill, we have to be careful not to propose that we should engage in saving the Commons from itself, which was the echo I got from some of the contributions—to supply the courage, which MPs have failed to show, to resist the popular mood was the underlying argument of one or two contributions, I think. Yes, popular attitudes to politics at present are dangerously negative. Yes, it would be wonderful if they were different, but we cannot change the public. I am afraid that Parliament has to adapt to the public while we provide—and we all need to provide—the political persuasion and political leadership to begin to change the level of public disillusionment. However, we cannot entirely stand up against it and dismiss it.
I can assure the noble Lord—I think this applies to everyone—that it is not about doubting the courage of MPs, but about wondering whether they have thought through the consequences of exceptional cases, which will occur. Just as there was an outburst against expenses issues in this House and the other, when you get someone, whether they are imprisoned or something else, who is sentenced for something that the public feel positively about and want that person to remain an MP—as has happened on a number of occasions in history—you might get the exact reverse feeling. That process has not been thought through. It is not about courage.
My Lords, I take that point.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott—the Earl of Grocott, as I shall always think of him now—and the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, both said that we should leave this—
Perhaps I can nip this in the bud. If the noble Lord insists on referring to me as Earl Grocott, could he at least acknowledge that, contrary to his party and its supporters, when the views of Earl Grocott respecting the voting system were put to the Great British public, they supported the noble Earl by a majority of 2:1 rather than the Liberal Democrats.
I thank the noble Lord.
The noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Hughes, said that we should leave this to political parties. Part of our problem in current-day British politics is that the golden age, when political parties were mass parties and mass movements, has gone. When I first stood for Parliament the membership of my political party—the third political party, the Liberals—was larger than the membership of any of the three parties today.
The Conservative Party had more than 1 million members; the Labour Party was a mass movement, with large trade unions and very large constituency membership. We all know that that is, sadly, not the case now.
We fail to engage the public. That is partly because there has been social transformation, and communications transformation, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said. Globalisation has affected the way that the public look at politicians. We have lost that age. It is not only in Britain: we see it in the United States, Germany, France and elsewhere. In an age of instant communication—I think the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, referred to the “online mob”, by which I think he means 38 Degrees; I am sure that 38 Degrees will quote him on that tomorrow, as they are likely to do—we have a problem that the public are irreverent about all elites, not just politicians, and see a Westminster bubble as much as they see a Brussels bubble. We need to do a whole host of things together, across the parties, to begin to re-establish public trust in our institutions. I think, very strongly, that decentralisation, devolution and the revival of local democracy is a very important part of that. However, I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that political leadership and political persuasion is something we have failed to make towards a disillusioned electorate. Perhaps a little less partisan sniping as we go towards the general election and more common defence of reasoned debate is something that we all need to reflect on.
The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, talked about a slippery slope, but there are other slippery slopes. The slippery slope towards mass popular disengagement in politics is also one that we are on.
We have put forward the Bill believing not that it is the golden trigger that will somehow revive public trust alone, but that it is one element among many that we need to begin to re-establish public trust in democratic politics and in Westminster. I look forward to Committee, when we will discuss some of the detailed issues that have rightly been raised.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.